Nate Hagens has published a new book on the predicament that fossil energy consumption and depletion, and our denial of this reality, have created for life on this planet.
A skim suggests the book will be excellent and I hope to write a review after reading it.
I observe there is no mention of Varki’s Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory which is sad because MORT provides an evolutionary foundation for the denial that Nate discusses, and explains why only one species has emerged with the intelligence to exploit fossil energy.
Denial of our genetic tendency to deny reality is apparently the strongest form of denial, even among the few of us that are aware of the human predicament.
You can read Nate’s book for free and purchase a copy here:
Physicist Tom Murphy is one of the brightest and most articulate people in the overshoot awareness space.
A decade ago Murphy wrote frequently for a few years on his blog “Do the Math” where he explored the energy opportunities and constraints for powering our civilization. Then, having said what he wanted to say, he went silent.
Here is some of Murphy’s work that I’ve posted in the past which includes my all time favorite talk on limits to growth:
After a long hiatus from teaching the general education energy course at UCSD—due mostly to a heavy administrative role for five years—I picked it up again for Winter quarter 2020. I had always been discontented when it came to textbook choices: my sense was that they tended to play it safe to avoid the risk of being provocative. But provocative may be what our situation calls for! I had been inspired by David MacKay’s fabulous and quantitatively rich Sustainability: Without the Hot Air, but its focus on the UK and not-quite-textbook format kept me from adopting it for the classroom.
So I set out to capture key elements of Do the Math in a textbook for the Winter 2020 class, following a somewhat similar trajectory: growth limits; fossil fuels and climate change; alternative energy capabilities and pros/cons; concluding with a dose of human factors and personal adaptation strategies.
Where is humanity going? How realistic is a future of fusion and space colonies? What constraints are imposed by physics, by resource availability, and by human psychology? Are default expectations grounded in reality?
This textbook, written for a general-education audience, aims to address these questions without either the hype or the indifference typical of many books. The message throughout is that humanity faces a broad sweep of foundational problems as we inevitably transition away from fossil fuels and confront planetary limits in a host of unprecedented ways—a shift whose scale and probable rapidity offers little historical guidance.
Salvaging a decent future requires keen awareness, quantitative assessment, deliberate preventive action, and—above all—recognition that prevailing assumptions about human identity and destiny have been cruelly misshapen by the profoundly unsustainable trajectory of the last 150 years. The goal is to shake off unfounded and unexamined expectations, while elucidating the relevant physics and encouraging greater facility in quantitative reasoning.
After addressing limits to growth, population dynamics, uncooperative space environments, and the current fossil underpinnings of modern civilization, various sources of alternative energy are considered in detail— assessing how they stack up against each other, and which show the greatest potential. Following this is an exploration of systemic human impediments to effective and timely responses, capped by guidelines for individual adaptations resulting in reduced energy and material demands on the planet’s groaning capacity. Appendices provide refreshers on math and chemistry, as well as supplementary material of potential interest relating to cosmology, electric transportation, and an evolutionary perspective on humanity’s place in nature.
I skimmed the book to assess its tone. Murphy is trying to strike a balance between being honest about the difficulties we face, while not saying that civilization collapse is a certainty, and offers some constructive suggestions for how his young students might respond. It’s a similar (and understandable) strategy that Nate Hagens, another well known overshoot teacher has taken.
Here are a few excerpts filled with wise words from Murphy’s book:
19.1 No Master Plan
The “adults” of this world have not established a global plan for peace and prosperity. This has perhaps worked okay so far: a plan hasn’t been necessary. But as the world changes from an “empty” state in which humans were a small part of the planet with little influence to a new “full” regime where human impacts are many and global in scale, perhaps the “no plan” approach is the wrong framework going forward.
19.2 No Prospects for a Plan
Not only do we lack a plan for how to live within planetary limits, we may not even have the capacity to arrive at a consensus long-term plan. Even within a country, it can be hard to converge on a plan for alternative energy, a different economic model, a conservation plan for natural resources, and possibly even different political structures. These can represent extremely big changes. Political polarization leaves little room for united political action. The powerful and wealthy have little interest in substantial structural changes that may imperil their current status. And given peoples’ reluctance to embrace austerity and take personal responsibility for their actions, it is hard to understand why a politician in a democracy would feel much political pressure to make long-term decisions that may result in short-term hardship—real or perceived.
Globally, the prospects may be even worse: competition between countries stymies collective decision-making. The leaders of a country are charged with optimizing the prosperity of their own country—not that of the whole world, and even less Earth’s ecosystems. If a number of countries did act in the global interest, perhaps by voluntarily reducing their fossil fuel purchases in an effort to reduce global fossil fuel use, it stands to reason that other countries may take advantage of the resulting price drops to acquire more fossil fuels than they would have otherwise—defeating the original purpose. Then the participating countries will feel that they self-penalized for no good reason. Unless all relevant nations are on board and execute a plan, it will be hard to succeed at global initiatives. The great human experiment has never before faced this daunting a set of global, inter-related problems. The lack of a global authority to whom countries must answer may make global challenges almost impossible to mitigate. Right now, it is a free-for-all, sort-of like 200 kids lacking any adult supervision.
How many people do you know who are concerned about a legitimate threat of collapse of our civilization? It is an extreme outcome, and one without modern precedent. It seems like a fringe, alarmist position that is uncomfortable to even talk about in respectable company. Yet the evidence on the ground points to many real concerns:
1. The earth has never had to accommodate 8 billion people at this level of resource demand;
2. Humankind has never run out of a resource as vital as fossil fuels;
3. Humans have never until now altered the atmosphere to the point of changing the planet’s thermal equilibrium;
4. We have never before witnessed species extinction at this rate, or seen such dramatic changes to wild spaces and to the ocean.
20.3.1 Overall Framing
In the absence of a major shift in public attitudes toward energy and resource usage, motivated individuals can control their own footprints via personal decisions. This can be a fraught landscape, as some people may try to out-woke each other and others will resist any notion of giving up freedoms or comforts—only exacerbated by a sense of righteous alienation from the “do-gooders.”
Some basic guidelines on effective adaptation:
1. Choose actions based on some analysis of impact: don’t bother with superficial stuff, even if it’s trendy.
2. Don’t simply follow a list of actions or impart a list on others: choose a more personalized adventure based on quantitative assessment.
3. Avoid showing off. It is almost better to treat personal actions as secrets. Others may simply notice those choices and ask about them, rather than you bringing them up.
4. Resist the impulse to ask: “what should I buy to signal that I’m environmentally responsible?” Consumerism and conspicuous consumption are a large part of the problem. Buying new stuff is perhaps counterproductive and may not be the best path.
5. Be flexible. Allow deviations. Rigid adherence makes life more difficult and might inconvenience others, which can be an unwelcome imposition. Such behavior makes your choices less palatable to others, and therefore less likely to be adopted or replicated.
6. Somewhat related to the last point, chill out a bit. Every corner of your life does not have to be perfect. We live in a deeply imperfect world, so that exercising a 30% footprint compared to average is pretty darned good, and not that much different than a “more perfect” 25%. Doing a few big things means more than doing a lot of little things that may drive you (and others) crazy.
7. In the end, it has to matter to you what you’re doing and why. It’s not for the benefit of others.
20.4 Values Shifts
In the end, a bold reformulation of the human approach to living on this planet will only succeed if societal values change from where they are now. Imagine if the following activities were frowned upon—found distasteful and against social norms:
1. keeping a house warm enough in winter to wear shorts inside;
2. keeping a house so cool in summer that people’s feet get cold;
3. having 5 cars in an oversized garage;
4. accumulating enough air miles to be in a special “elite” club;
5. taking frequent, long, hot showers;
6. using a clothes dryer during a non-rainy period;
7. having a constant stream of delivery vehicles arrive at the door;
8. a full waste bin each week marking high consumption;
9. having a high-energy-demand diet (frequent meat consumption);
10. upgrading a serviceable appliance, disposing of the old;
11. wasteful lighting.
At present, many of these activities connote success and are part of a culture of “conspicuous consumption.” If such things ran counter to the sensibilities of the community, the behaviors would no longer carry social value and would be abandoned. The social norms in some Scandinavian countries praise egalitarianism and find public displays of being “better” or of having more money/stuff to be in poor taste. Abandonment of consumerist norms could possibly work, but only if it stems from a genuine understanding of the negative consequences. If curtailment of resource-heavy activities is imposed by some authority or is otherwise reluctantly adopted, it will not be as likely to transform societal values.
20.6 Upshot on Strategies
No one can know what fate awaits us, or control the timing of whatever unfolds. But individuals can take matters into their own hands and adopt practices that are more likely to be compatible with a future defined by reduced resource availability. We can learn to communicate future concerns constructively, with out being required to paint an artificial picture of hope. Our actions and choices, even if not showcased, can serve as inspiration for others—or at least can be personally rewarding as an impactful adventure. Quantitative assessment of energy and resource demands empowers individuals to make personal choices carrying large impacts. Reductions of factors of 2 and 3 and 4 are not out of reach. Maybe the world does not need 18 TW to be happy. Maybe we don’t have to work so hard to maintain a peaceful and rewarding lifestyle once growth is not the driver. Maybe we can re-learn how to adapt to the seasons and be fulfilled by a more intimate connection with nature. The value of psychological preparedness should not underestimated. By staring unblinking into the abyss, we are ready to cope with disruption, should it come. And if it never does in our lifetimes, what loss do we really suffer if we have chosen our adventure and lived our personal values?
In this sense, the best adaptation comes in the form of a mental shift. Letting go of humanity’s self-image as a growth juggernaut, and finding an “off-ramp” to a more rewarding lifestyle in close partnership with nature is the main goal. Continuing the freeway metaphor, the current path has us hurtling forward to certain involuntary termination of growth (a dead end, or cliff, or brick wall), very probably resulting in overshoot and/or crash.
The guidelines provided in this chapter for quantifying and reducing resource demands then simply become the initial outward expressions of this fresh vision. Ignore the potentially counterproductive allure of fusion, teleportation, and warp drive. Embrace instead a humbler, slower, more feasible future that stresses natural harmony over conquest and celebrates life in all forms—while preserving and advancing the knowledge and understanding of the universe we have worked so hard to achieve. Picture a future citizen of this happier world looking back at the present age as embarrassingly misguided and inexplicably delusional. Earth is a partner, not a possession to be exploited. Figuratively throwing Earth under the bus precludes our own chances for long-term success. A common phrasing of this sentiment is that humans are a part of nature, not apart from nature. Let’s not lose the path in a flight of fossil-fueled fantasy.
March 22, 2021 Update: Tom Murphy wrote a post highlighting the ideas from his book that will be new for Do the Math readers, and asking for our help to promote his free book.
Last week, in the first Do the Math post in years, I kept the post brief, only pointing out the new textbook: Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet, and giving a brief account of the backstory.
In this post, I take a bit more time to introduce new elements in the book that Do the Math readers have not seen represented in some form in earlier posts. In other words: what new insights or calculations lurk within the book?
The following is organized into three sections. The first takes a brief tour of the book, pointing out large, new blocks that are not already covered by Do the Math in some form. The second highlights the results of new calculations or figures that bring new context to our understanding. Finally, I summarize some of the new big-picture framing that emerges in the book.
Rather than laboriously inserting associated graphics into this post, my intent is that you treat this as a companion to be used side-by-side with the downloadable PDF of the book. References are to sections, figures, boxes, etc. rather than page numbers, which vary between electronic and print forms. So go ahead and get a version of the PDF up, and let’s jump in…
Brief Tour of New Content
The Preface may be worth reading for overall framing and motivation. The middle part about student learning and approach to mathematics/problems might not be as worthwhile, but the beginning and end are likely of interest.
The first four chapters attempt to lay out constraints on growth, initially hewing closely to the first two Do the Math posts on Galactic Scale Energy and Can Economic Growth Last. Chapter 3 on population echoes some points in The Real Population Problem, but adds substantial analysis of the demographic transition. I felt this was an important addition because many academics look to this mechanism to “solve” the population problem. What I point out is that the transition is a double-whammy for planetary resources: even though the result is zero-growth, the road to that point involves a population surge and increasing resource usage per capita. More people multiplied by a higher per-capita resource use is bad news for resource constraints. The dream, therefore, has a nightmarish element that might be neglected by many because demographic transitions of the past were not constrained in this way and seemed to be very positive, on balance. A recurring message: the highly abnormal recent past offers poor guidance to the future. Finally, Chapter 4 echoes the popular Why Not Space post, closing off this exit—or at least prompting the invested believers to cast the book aside and waste their time in a manner more to their liking.
Chapter 5 is a dry one on units, and does not exist on Do the Math except in a static page called Useful Energy Relations. Chapter 6 consolidates several posts on thermal energy and heat pumps. Chapter 7 is basically new, as a snapshot of U.S. and global energy and plots of recent trends.
Elements of Chapter 8 on fossil fuels can be found among the Do the Math posts—especially those on peak oil. But no overview of fossil fuels really existed on the blog. Chapter 9 on climate change is similar to the Recipe for Climate Change in Two Easy Steps, but is considerably expanded to detail the expected impact on temperature, explore limiting-case scenarios for the future, and delve into the thermal requirements for heating the ocean and melting ice.
Chapter 10 provides an overview of Earth’s energy budget and introduces the alternative and renewable energy options. This short chapter has no direct analog in Do the Math.
The heart of the book covers topics that do not change much over time: technologies for harnessing alternative energy. Prices might change, but the fundamentals tend not to. Thus, Chapters 11 through 16 largely echo Do the Math content. Note that the writing itself is new, and has benefited from extensive student feedback to improve clarity and accessibility. So it’s not a cut-and-paste job, but the overall take-aways are going to be familiar to Do the Math readers. Chapter 17 is the book’s version of The Alternative Energy Matrix, and is the closest thing to cut-and-paste in the book, being billed as a slightly edited reproduction of an existing chapter in the State of the World 2013 book.
The two main changes in the alternative energy chapters have to do with solar prices going down (now at under $3/Watt for residential and $1/Watt for utility-scale installations; the panels themselves being $0.50/Watt) and new recommendations for wind-farm turbine spacing, lowering the estimated power per land area available. I also added state-by-state maps for hydroelectricity, wind, and solar photovoltaic utilization in the U.S., for four different attributes (total power, power per area, power per person, and capacity factor).
The last three chapters depart the most from Do the Math content, although containing familiar elements like an exploration of personality types and a description of the Energy Trap. Chapter 20 bears some resemblance to posts on household energy and dietary choices. But the packaging may be different enough that it does not feel like repetition of Do the Math.
The Epilogue is completely new, and likely of interest to Do the Math readers.
Appendix D is the most thoughtful Appendix. Of greatest interest will be D.3 on electric transportation, D.5 on the long view of human success, and D.6 on an evolutionary perspective regarding human intelligence and how that may or may not mesh well in the natural world.
Highlights of New Results
The following tidbits are arranged in chronological order, and for the sake of brevity only represent the more thought-provoking additions.
In Chapter 2, Figure 2.3 on lighting efficiency progress surprised me in that the same 2.3% growth rate adopted for Chapters 1 and 2 on growth of energy fits the lighting history rather well. If the trend continues, we reach theoretical limits well before century’s end.
Chapter 3 has one new development and one new presentation of interest. The development is the recognition that the population surge associated with a demographic transition is proportional to the exponential of the change in birth/death rate times the lag between declining death rate and declining birth rate (Figure 3.16). The factor can easily more than double the pre-transition population. The new presentation is in Figure 3.17, exposing how preposterous the “dream” scenario looks of advancing a growing population to “western” energy standards by the year 2100. Substances that facilitate such delusions are usually illegal.
The only thing I’ll say about Chapter 4 here is that I planted an (accurate) Easter egg in Figure 4.2—only applicable to the electronic version.
I was surprised by Figure 7.9, showing the U.S. as a literal super-power (as measured in Watts) in the mid-twentieth century—using more than 80% of global natural gas and over 70% of global petroleum. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some Americans long to return to these “glory” years (not at all glorious for less privileged individuals, it should be noted). The mistake is thinking that it’s a matter of choice. America’s dominant role in the world had a resource foundation, and that ship has sailed. It’s not a matter of politics: it’s physics, and anger won’t solve it.
Figure 8.8 made an impression on me as well. A simple calculation based on discovery and consumption of conventional oil, as presented in Figure 8.7, provides a measure of how many years appear to remain in the resource. Simply dividing unconsumed reserves by current consumption gives a timescale, and this can be tracked as a function of time as new discoveries accumulate and consumption rate increases. The startling result is that the predicted endpoint has not budged from around the year 2050 for about four decades! I caution readers not to take this literally to mean that oil runs out in 2050. First, the plot only applies to conventional oil reserves. Second, reduced consumption rate due to scarcity, prices, policy directives, or suitable substitutes will mean a tapering beyond 2050 rather than abrupt termination. Still, it’s a relevant and alarming data point: conventional oil is unlikely to persist in its present dominance for even three more decades! I think that’s big news, people. How many decades old are you?
A number of new results accompany Chapter 9 on climate change. Most rewardingly, I “took it up a notch” from the previous calculations of annual and cumulative CO2 emissions from fossil fuels and used annual data on fossil fuel use to produce a graphs of emissions from the three fossil fuels across time (Figure 9.3). Doing so shows coal’s prominence as the king of CO2 emitters—now and throughout the past. Since we still have more coal than any other fossil fuel, it may just be the gift that keeps on giving. But most remarkable was the exercise of plotting the predicted emission on top of measurements in Figure 9.4. Prior to this, I was satisfied by getting the annual and cumulative emission numbers to match measurements. But to see it graphically: faithfully following the curvature and lying right atop the measurements brought a smile of despair to my face. The same approach lends itself well to exploring CO2 emissions scenarios for fossil fuel expenditures going forward: what happens if we cease growth in consumption; if we replace all coal with natural gas; or if we taper off entirely by 2100 or 2050. Only the last, draconian option limits the ultimate temperature rise to 2.0°C, according to my math.
I also had some “fun” in Chapter 9 stepping through the process by which a radiative imbalance equilibrates (Figure 9.15), and computing the timescales for melting ice and heating up the ocean (section 9.4.2).
Box 13.3 in Chapter 13 looks at solar-powered transportation. Why had I never before computed that a Boeing 737 could only get 4% of its cruise power from direct solar power? It’s an important demonstration of physical limitations.
Box 14.3 computes the thickness of all life on the planet, if squashed to a uniform layer surrounding the globe. It’s 4 mm thick! Or should I say 4 mm thin? That’s precious thin: a fragile wafer. It’s what makes this planet special, and our own lives possible. That’s the ultimate treasure of the planet, and deserves every protection we can offer.
Figures 15.14 and 15.15 are my attempt to explain the origin of nuclear waste, and why the neutron-rich daughter nuclei are radioactive hazards. This resurfaces in Figure 15.19 on nuclear waste radiated power, which I derived from probabilities and decay energies found in the Chart of the Nuclides. On another front, a quick-and-dirty financial assessment for both fission and fusion does not put them in a favorable light against (also expensive) solar, while solar is much safer.
The only good part about Chapter 16 is the fish duo in Figure 16.2.
Box 17.1 is a bit of a follow-up to Box 13.3 on solar transportation, exploring electric (battery-powered) passenger airplanes, concluding that for the same “fuel” load, range would be cut by a factor of 20 (to about 200 km), making them sort-of useless.
Chapter 17 also introduces an alternative scoring of the Matrix, based on student weights for the ten attributes of each source. I was interested to see if the fossil fuel gap persists (it does), and if the rankings change (mostly, they don’t).
Box 19.1 takes a stab at quantifying the dollar value of Earth. It’s a crude approach, and not entirely defensible. But even under dubious assumptions, the resulting price is so preposterously large that the point is fairly robust: Earth is far more valuable than our global annual economy, by as much as a factor of a million. Decisions based on money (i.e., most decisions) are therefore woefully misguided. Earth and its ecosystems should come first in societal decisions. Sorry if capitalism gets hurt in the process. Money ceases to have meaning without a life-bearing planet. Priorities!
Chapter 20 works to frame individual adaptation and quantitative assessment of energy footprints. The biggest new piece is the quantitative toolset developed in Section 20.3.4 for assessing dietary energy impact. I think this kind of analysis has the potential to meaningfully reshape our habits and expectations around food choices.
Section D.3 in the Appendices represents a first attempt on my part to nail down the implications of electrified transport for shipping as well as personal transport. Part of the work was already done for Box 17.1 (airplanes), but I had never put pencil to paper on cargo ships or long-haul trucking. The results address the “why can’t we just…” musings on electrifying all transportation. It’s hard. Table D.2 is still new enough to me that I need to study it more and internalize it.
Okay—that takes care of the nuts-and-bolts additions. What larger messages might emerge from the textbook that may not have been apparent in previous Do the Math content?
Life is Precious
Much of the focus of this blog, and of the textbook, is on energy and resources. But a consistent undercurrent advocates prioritizing nature above ourselves. See, for instance, the reference to Box 14.3 in the section above. Also, Box 19.1—in computing the monetary value of the planet—stresses the backwards way we assess value. We put the flea (economy) in charge of the dog (Earth), ignoring the important fact that the flea can’t live without the dog. An upcoming post will illustrate this theme in an absurd yet compelling manner.
In the end, as the Epilogue wraps up, I try to encapsulate this in a message to the future (but not too soon to adopt the message now!!): Treat nature at least as well as we treat ourselves. It’s a partnership, and the health of the former is a prerequisite to the health of the latter.
Focus on the Long Term
Chapters 18 and 19 discuss the limitations of short-term focus in the face of our challenges. Democracy and business interests tend to have a very short focus, making us vulnerable to the Energy Trap.
But Section D.5 in the Appendix takes this to an expansive vista. It starts with the observation that civilization (cities, agriculture) began roughly 10,000 years ago. Lest we be nearer our end than the beginning, we should be thinking about practices consistent with another 10,000 years on this planet, at least. Maintaining uninterrupted civilization (preserving knowledge without a catastrophic reset) for this long is what we will call successful. Failure to do so is, well, failure.
What would it take to achieve success? As spelled out in section D.5, almost nothing we do today contributes to ultimate success. Therefore most of our actions today only make failure more likely. To me, that is sad to contemplate. Each passing day that we do not prioritize the natural world makes ultimate success a more distant prospect.
Section D.6 follows this up with musings on the role of human intelligence in an evolutionary context. My conclusion is that evolution tinkers, and is capable of producing a being that is too smart to succeed. We have the power to create our own failure, and take many species down with us. It’s time to “ask not” what we can do with our power, but what we should do to best ensure a long, rewarding existence in partnership with the rest of nature.
This Moment is Abnormal
Perhaps the most important message the new textbook can convey is that the abnormality of the last few centuries has turned us into the worst judges of future possibilities. Several times in the book, I compare the present era to a fireworks show: dazzling, awe inspiring, and a short-lived exception to “normal” activity. At least we can appreciate the aberration that a fireworks display represents by comparing it to a longer baseline: we have a broader context. Yet for those born and raised entirely within the fireworks show, it is easy to understand how their world view would be badly distorted.
Margin note 12 in Chapter 2 and the one below it points out our tendency to extrapolate, and think that just because we got “lucky” once (finding and learning to exploit fossil fuels) does not mean the trend will continue indefinitely. People often process the abnormality of our time in a dangerous way: because people 200 years ago could not possibly have predicted the amazing life of today, we are equally ill-equipped to fathom the miracles of tomorrow. I appreciate the bigness of thought that it takes to conceive of this. It’s a fair and alluring point. But it also ignores data and context: physical limits; a “full” earth; exhaustion of one-time resources; climate change perils; systemic collapses in ecosystems around the globe. Please work harder to incorporate these “wrinkles” into an otherwise grand notion.
Somewhat relatedly, margin note 24 in Chapter 2 and note 11 in the Epilogue make reference to the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” parable. This is a story told by adults to caution kids against raising false alarms, as setting up a reflexive dismissal of “fake news” can have damaging consequences. But consider two overlooked aspects of this story: first, a wolf did eventually appear and wreak havoc; and second, shouldn’t the adults bear responsibility for not protecting the town? Is the child really to blame? What idiots would put the responsibility of town protection on a child? I say that the failure rests mostly on the adults. They should recognize that children are prone to false alarms, and admonish them for knowingly creating disruption—after checking on the possibility of a real threat, for goodness sake! They utterly dropped the ball, and paid the price.
I came to think as I put finishing touches on the textbook that if asked to pick one message to communicate with this book it would be that the recent highly anomalous past has cruelly misshapen our perception of future possibilities. I put this into the abstract (and the back cover of the paperback), and sprinkled it into the text as an afterthought (search the word fireworks for some instances). As important as this point is, its presence throughout is implicit. I will likely try to more directly integrate the thought into a future edition.
A grounded understanding that our time is grossly abnormal in the long view is, I think, a necessary first step in snapping out of our current mindset, shaking off fantastical dreams, and getting to work defining and implementing a future that can actually work. It’s time to break the spell.
HELP SPREAD THE WORD
I am too close/biased to judge whether this book has enough intrinsic merit and appeal to “catch on” and reach a broad audience. But people will not give it a chance and instructors won’t adopt it for classrooms if too few people even know about it. Because I intentionally bypassed a for-profit publisher to make the book freely available, I lose the benefit of any publicity apparatus a publishing company might provide. So it’s down to “the people” to let others know of its existence. Fortunately, social media channels are well suited to this. Please consider sharing this book with others (reference the link to the book, not this “inside baseball” post). I hope the book is written in a way that can draw people in and then inspire them to keep turning pages. If recommending to friends and family, perhaps think about targeting a section or two to avoid their feeling overwhelmed by a textbook-sized reading assignment. If you can think of a personal connection to make it more directly relevant to them, all the better.
I don’t think I have ever asked for this sort of favor, and am not wholly comfortable with the appearance that I am shamelessly self-promoting here. But since I receive no financial benefit (even from the printed book) or prospect of job promotion as a result, I can convince myself that it’s out of a hope that the book might have some power to change minds and play some small role in setting us onto a more successful path. Call it optimism, bias, over-confidence, or whatever, but if the book can gain significant traction, then perhaps it deserves every chance and advantage. If months or years go by, this “old news” textbook will no longer have the shiny luster of newness, and will be less likely to spark a flame equal to the task ahead of us. The book may flop on its own (lack of) merits; then it flops—so be it. But let’s at least be able to say that it wasn’t for lack of trying to make people aware of its presence.
Apneaman wrote a song to celebrate the return of Tom Murphy:
Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back
He went away and hopium hung around And bothered me, every night And when I wouldn’t buy into it You said things that weren’t very nice My Physicist’s back and you’re gonna be in trouble (Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back) You see him comin’ better SHUT UP on the double (Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back) You been spreading lies that collapse was untrue (Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back) So look out now ’cause his math foretells doom He’s been gone for such a long time (Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back) Now he’s back to prove we’re out of time (Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back) We’ll all be sorry we were ever born (Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back) ‘Cause his brain’s kinda big and his math’s da bomb (Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back) (You’re a Green dreamer now but he’ll cut you down to size (Wait and see) My Physicist’s back he’s gonna prove our damnation (Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back) If I were you I’d pray for endtimes salvation (Hey-la, hey-la, my Physicist’s back) Yeah, my Physicist’s back (La-day-la, my Physicist’s back) Look out now, yeah, my Physicist’s back (La-day-la, my Physicist’s back) I could see him comin’ so you better get a runnin’ alright now (La-day-la, my Physicist’s back) Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah (La-day-la, my Physicist’s back) My Physicist’s back now (La-day-la, my Physicist’s back) Know he’s comin’ after you because he knows I’ve been true to doom (La-day-la, my Physicist’s back)
Brilliant new talk by my favorite alien engineer, Jean-Marc Jancovici.
If you only have 90 minutes to spare, and you want to understand everything that matters about how the world works, and the nature of our overshoot predicament, and what we need to do to minimize future suffering, then this talk is the best use of your time.
Jean-Marc Jancovici is an advisor to the French government on climate change and energy as part of the French High Council for Climate. He is a founding partner of Carbon 4, a Paris-based data consultancy specializing in low carbon transition and the physical risks of climate change (www.carbone4.com). He is also the founder and president of The Shift Project, a Paris-based think tank advocating for a low carbon economy (www.theshiftproject.org). Jean-Marc Jancovici also serves as an associate professor at Mines ParisTech.
The thermo-industrial development of our society has been possible due to resource extraction and the transformation of our environment. Unfortunately, it has led to severe environmental consequences that humanity is experiencing around the globe: shifting and unpredictable climate, extreme weather events, and biodiversity collapse. Humanity is paying the consequences for technical and technological progress. Thus, can technology still save us from climate change?
Jean-Marc Jancovici will address this question through the paradigm of energy. He will first detail how modern society is structured around thermal and nuclear energies, and will then discuss the impact of this structure on global climate and society. Finally, Jean-Marc Jancovici will conclude by exploring the trade-offs between economic growth and sustainable climate stewardship.
Thanks to friend and retired blogger Gail Zawacki at Wit’s End for bringing this excellent new talk by professor William Rees to my attention.
Rees discusses our severe state of ecological overshoot and the behaviors that prevent us from taking any useful action to make the future less bad.
Rees thinks there are two key behaviors responsible for our predicament:
Base nature, which we share with all other species, to use all available resources. Most people call this the Maximum Power Principle.
Creative nurture. Our learned culture defines our reality and we live this constructed reality as if it were real. “When faced with information that does not agree with their [preformed] internal structures, they deny, discredit, reinterpret or forget that information” – Wexler.
I don’t disagree with Rees on the existence or role of these behaviors, but we also need Varki’s MORT theory to explain how denial of unpleasant realties evolved and is symbiotic with our uniquely powerful intelligence, and other unique human behaviors, such as our belief in gods and life after death.
Some interesting points made by Rees:
The 2017 human eco-footprint exceeds biocapacity by 73%.
Half the fossil fuels and many other resources ever used by humans have been consumed in just the past 30 years.
Efficiency enables more consumption.
The past 7 years are the warmest 7 years on record.
Wild populations of birds, fish, mammals, and amphibians have declined 60% since 1970. Populations of many insects are down about 50%.
The biomass of humans and their livestock make up 95-99% of all vertebrate biomass on the planet.
Human population planning has declined from being the dominant policy lever in 1969 to the least researched in 2018.
The annual growth in wind and solar energy is about half the total annual growth in energy. In others words, “renewable” energy is not replacing fossil energy, it’s not even keeping up.
The recent expansion of the human enterprise resembles the “plague phase” of a one-off boom/bust population cycle.
50 years, 34 climate conferences, a half dozen major international climate agreements, and various scientists’ warnings have not reduced atmospheric carbon concentrations.
We are tracking to the Limit to Growth study’s standard model and should expect major systemic crashes in the next 40 to 50 years.
This is the new “age of unreason”: science denial and magical thinking.
Climate change is a serious problem but a mere symptom of the greater disease.
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:
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:
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:
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.” 
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: 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.”  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. 
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. 
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”. 
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.”
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.
Humans are in serious trouble
Disagree (I believe in God or Steven Pinker)
path: Carry on and oppose anything that threatens your beliefs and lifestyle
Agree (I believe my eyes)
It’s too late to do anything useful (nature’s forces now dominate human forces)
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
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)
Humans can’t or won’t change their behavior in time
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
Disagree (I believe Sapolsky that behavior is plastic and we have enough energy left to build a softer landing zone)
Genetic reality denial blocks any useful change
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
Agree (it’s not possible to act optimally without understanding reality)
Awareness of genetic realty denial will increase awareness of reality
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
Agree (most people want to learn)
Awareness of reality will cause positive behavior changes
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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:
We can’t grow out of our predicament (finite planet)
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.
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.