What if we’re denying something else?

Man in the Mirror

Thanks to a friend for bringing my attention to this recent essay on human nature.

The bad news on human nature, in 10 findings from psychology

https://aeon.co/ideas/the-bad-news-on-human-nature-in-10-findings-from-psychology

It’s a question that’s reverberated through the ages – are humans, though imperfect, essentially kind, sensible, good-natured creatures? Or are we, deep down, wired to be bad, blinkered, idle, vain, vengeful and selfish? There are no easy answers, and there’s clearly a lot of variation between individuals, but here we shine some evidence-based light on the matter through 10 dispiriting findings that reveal the darker and less impressive aspects of human nature:

  1. We view minorities and the vulnerable as less than human.
  2. We experience Schadenfreude (pleasure at another person’s distress).
  3. We believe in karma – assuming that the downtrodden of the world deserve their fate.
  4. We are blinkered and dogmatic.
  5. We would rather electrocute ourselves than spend time in our own thoughts.
  6. We are vain and overconfident.
  7. We are moral hypocrites.
  8. We are all potential trolls.
  9. We favour ineffective leaders with psychopathic traits.
  10. We are sexually attracted to people with dark personality traits.

The essay concludes with the obligatory happy thoughts that most mainstream journals require today:

Don’t get too down – these findings say nothing of the success that some of us have had in overcoming our baser instincts. In fact, it is arguably by acknowledging and understanding our shortcomings that we can more successfully overcome them, and so cultivate the better angels of our nature.

There’s no reason to dispute the accuracy of this article because it’s written by a respected scientist, is backed by peer-reviewed research, and is consistent with human history.

It’s interesting and diagnostic that this list of behaviors does not include reality denial as explained by Varki’s MORT theory. Perhaps the author was able to discuss our unpleasant behaviors because he denies he shares any of these behaviors as his concluding paragraph suggests.

The lack of reality denial on the list is consistent with my belief that denial of denial is and must be the strongest form of denial. This belief was constructed from much observation of how people (don’t) react to Varki’s MORT theory, and the following thought experiment:

If you believe genes control life, as of course they must, then how could intelligence emerge without denial, and how could an intelligent species function (not be depressed and/or go insane) unless it denies its denial?

This blog has had the following central themes:

  1. We dominate the planet because humans are uniquely intelligent and this intelligence evolved because of an improbable adaptation to deny unpleasant realities.
  2. We are in a severe state of overshoot and our modern civilization will not survive for many more years.
  3. We are increasing the suffering that will occur by denying the reality of our predicament.
  4. We will not act to reduce future suffering until we acknowledge and override our genetic tendency to deny reality.

I’ve assumed to date that we are not acting appropriately, by which I mean optimally, rationally, ethically, and morally, because we deny the severity of our overshoot predicament.

What if I’m wrong?

Perhaps we see our predicament and don’t give a damn if it means we have to sacrifice something for someone else, even our own children.

Maybe the reality we’re denying is our own human nature.

Perhaps this explains why meaningful debate about the dangers of excess debt is now absent from political discourse.

Perhaps this explains why we never discuss saving some precious non-renewable resurces for future generations.

Perhaps this explains why we never discuss population reduction.

Perhaps this explains why 28 years after the first IPCC report, CO2 emmissions are 65% higher and still climbing.

Perhaps this explains why the only thing citizens from both sides of the political spectrum can agree on is to spend an outsized proportion of their collective wealth on weapons of war. 

Eat the rich, save the planet?

Eat the Rich

A cursory look at human history or the genetic behavior of monkeys confirms that it is unwise for societies to permit the wealth gap between the rich and the majority to become too wide. Especially when the standard of living of the majority is falling.

Brexit, Trump, and the yellow vests are examples of increasing social unrest. Anecdotally I’m also seeing a meme emerge on the internet that can be summarized as “eat the rich, save the planet”. This meme is supported by some intellectuals like Kevin Anderson who argue that climate change can be addressed by focusing on reducing CO2 emissions from the rich.

We’ve been warned that to maintain a climate compatible with civilization we have 10 years to cut our CO2 emissions in half and 30 years to reduce them to zero. As Tim Garrett has shown, CO2 emissions are proportional to wealth, so to reduce CO2 emissions we must reduce the total wealth of civilization.

Many other important planks of our ecosystem’s health are sick and getting sicker, primarily due to the high consumption needed to support our collective wealth.

We also know (here and here) that the net return from our energy sources is declining due to the depletion of low-cost non-renewable reserves which means our productivity and thus ability to grow wealth is declining and this decline will accelerate.

Governments have responded to declining economic growth by reducing interest rates and increasing debt. This has deferred the reduction in our standard of living necessary to balance the books, but has also increased the wealth gap because low-interest rates have created a bubble in the value of most assets, and the rich own a disproportionate share of assets.

An individual cares primarily about their own wealth, not the total wealth of civilization. We could in theory keep individuals comfortable and maintain a healthy(er) planet by reducing our population without reducing our per capita wealth. Unfortunately, reproduction is the primary goal of our genes and we therefore don’t even discuss the obviously optimal solution of population reduction. To be fair on its potential effectiveness, we should have reduced our population back in 1970 when we were warned by our experts. It’s never too late to do the right thing but given that even the Green party doesn’t have a population reduction platform it is probable that any population reduction will be involuntary rather than voluntary.

The uniquely powerful human brain exists because it evolved to deny unpleasant realities. Topics don’t become much more unpleasant than overshoot so we collectively have not acknowledged, and do not discuss, and do not act, on any of the issues associated with overshoot.

To summarize:

  • The total wealth of civilization must decrease to maintain a planet compatible with civilization.
  • The total wealth of civilization will decrease due to the depletion of non-renewable resources (especially energy).
  • We are doing everything possible to prevent the decline of total wealth but our actions have increased the wealth gap and social unrest.
  • We do not discuss or act on the only “good” solution, population reduction.
  • We aggressively deny our overshoot predicament.

Governments react to pressure from their citizens, they do not lead their citizens. I sense some bubbling optimism about the yellow vest movement from people who seek fundamental change. A key question then is are movements like the yellow vests good or bad for our future prospects?

Put more succinctly, will eating the rich save the planet?

The answer lies in how we close the wealth gap.

If we close the wealth gap by taxing the rich and redistributing their wealth to the less fortunate we will temporarily reduce social unrest but will worsen our overshoot predicament. This is because the poor will tend to spend the liquidated assets of the rich which will increase the total consumption of energy and other resources.

In addition, the spending of liquidated assets will increase inflation because there are far more paper assets than real assets in our economy, and this inflation will be a new source of social unrest.

While it is true that total wealth will decrease no matter what we do, there are two paths we can take. The first path is deflation which means people have less money but the money is still worth something. The second path is inflation which means people have money but it is worth less. I think inflation is more corrosive to the social fabric than deflation. Inflation caused a modern civilized country to blame and exterminate 6 million members of a minority tribe.

If on the other hand, we close the wealth gap by taxing the rich and paying down public debt, then we benefit everyone, rich and poor, by helping to stabilize the currency in a shrinking economy. This is important because all modern currencies are debt-backed fractional reserve systems that tend to become unstable without growth.

So to answer our question, will eating the rich save the planet, we need to know what the yellow vests marching in the streets want.

Do they want the rich to be pulled down to their level?

Or do they want to be pulled up closer to the rich?

I suspect they want the latter. If true, this means the yellow vests are acting to worsen our overshoot predicament.

What we need is green vests marching in the streets demanding that our governments acknowledge our overshoot predicament and manage the required and inevitable decline in a fair and humane manner.

This of course requires citizens to understand what’s going on.

And that requires us to find some way to break through our tendency to deny reality.

And that requires us to study and communicate Varki’s MORT theory.

 

 

Yellow Vests

Yellow Vest

What would happen if we all put on yellow vests and protested in the streets?

Governments would panic and hand out printed money since that’s their only option for providing more stuff in the short-term. As a consequence, the riots would stop, CO2 emissions would immediately increase, and a few months later currency destroying inflation would begin, which would increase social unrest and enable a despot to take over (a la Weimar), who would attempt to increase prosperity with war, except this time war will not help because we’ve already burned all the good booty, and we would enter a scarcity death spiral since war will deplete faster the resources we are fighting over, and finally a few decades later, runaway climate change would take out whatever is left of civilization.

What if governments responded by taxing the rich and redistributing wealth to the poor?

Most of the wealth of the rich is locked up in assets that do not circulate within the economy. If these assets were liquidated and redistributed the poor would immediately spend their new wealth which would dramatically increase inflation because there is far more paper wealth than real wealth in our economy. As inflation destroyed the currency, social unrest would increase leading to the same death spiral described above.

Dammit you’re depressing! What the fuck should we do then?

New Badass in Town: Jean-Marc Jancovici (Radio Ecoshock interview)

Jean-Marc Jancovici

Step aside all you established peak oil and climate change pontificators. There’s a new badass in town and he’s an engineer who specializes in energy and climate which means you don’t stand a chance. 🙂

It’s very rare to find someone who can articulately explain in one hour, without hyperbole or bullshit, everything important going on in the world, including the underlying causes, what the future holds, and what we should do in response. Jean-Marc Jancovici is one of those rare gems.

Jancovici’s native language is French so English works by him are scarce. I’ve already posted the only other recent English talk that I’m aware of here.

Today’s interview with Alex Smith of Radio Ecoshock is a treat. After investing an hour here you will understand much more about the issues that matter than 99% of the people in the world.

Alex Smith wrote a very nice summary of his interview here:

https://www.ecoshock.org/2018/10/jean-marc-jancovici-whistling-past-the-graveyard.html

 

 

Following are a few quotes from the interview that I thought were noteworthy. Notice how close Jancovici comes to discussing denial of reality on several occasions.

 

Tell me how much energy you use and I will tell you how you live.

 

Governments are not guided by [wise] advisors. They respond to external pressure.

 

The present standard of living cannot be sustained without the help of fossil fuels for physical reasons.

 

Two centuries ago the world was fully renewable and consisted of 1 billion peasants with a life expectancy of 30 years. [We therefore] know of at least one option available to us.

 

Every time you hear the words “energy consumption”, replace them with “fleet of machines” .

 

A future with no growth is considered unthinkable by so many people, including Nobel prize-winning economists, that nobody thinks about what to do if it happens for real.

 

Q: What do you think is the greatest soonest threat: peak oil or climate change?

A: I place my bets on the likelihood that nobody will understand what is happening with either of these threats.

 

No government understands that energy equals machines, and if machines work less, GDP goes down.

No political leader understands that climate change is already putting refugees on the road.

 

Think of peak oil and climate change as opposing scissor blades squeezing your finger. Asking which is worse does not make any sense.

 

You must wait over 10,000 years for surplus CO2 to evacuate from the atmosphere. There is no such thing as a reset button for climate change. The only thing we are sure of is the day that consequences become unbearable, it will become worse later on.

 

A huge misunderstanding is that energy is a sector of the economy rather than the blood of the economy.

By Jack Alpert: On Sustainability (without the bullshit)

Sustainability is perhaps the most misused and misunderstood word in the human vocabulary. Most people who advocate sustainability have good intentions but no idea what they’re talking about.

Jack Alpert is an exception. He’s spent a lifetime thinking about the human overshoot predicament and what we could and must do for our species to continue with comfortable lives in a technologically advanced civilization.

Today Alpert released a new video that I think is his best work to date.

In summary, we must reduce our population to a level that does not consume energy and other renewable resources faster than nature generates them, and we must recycle 100% of non-renewable resources, and we must not excrete wastes faster than nature can absorb them.

Once a sustainable population of about 50 million people by 2100 is achieved, they can continue to enjoy our current level of technology despite fossil energy being mostly depleted, in a climate still compatible with civilization, provided they constrain their birth rate to equal their death rate from natural causes.

Alpert believes that both the initial population reduction, and the long-term constraint on population growth, can be achieved in a democratic, voluntary, and humane manner, provided we can get a majority of humans to understand that there is no alternative other than unimaginable suffering.

This awareness needs to occur soon because we are very close to triggering a scarcity-conflict death spiral, probably caused by low-cost oil depletion and/or climate change, where scarcity causes war and other antisocial behavior that in turn worsens scarcity, which will kill the majority of humans and will prevent the survivors from rebuilding a technologically advanced civilization, because the non-renewable energy and other natural resources needed to prepare a sustainable civilization will be depleted by the conflict.

Alpert calls this awareness and willingness to act “anticipatory behavior”. It’s anticipatory because it must be learned from understanding and prediction, rather than experience.

Although Alpert does not get into the details here, the method (I think) he proposes for reducing and constraining the population is a law voted for by the majority that creates a system where a sustainable number of birth permits would be calculated each year and distributed by random lottery.

I’ve heard Alpert argue elsewhere that the best method for building political momentum might be to mobilize grandmothers as a single issue voting block since they are motivated to protect their grandchildren and no longer feel biological pressure to breed. There is one historic precedent that provides some cause for optimism. It was a highly motivated block of women voters fed up with alcoholic males that spearheaded the  1919 constitutional prohibition of alcohol in the U.S..

There will of course be many challenges to passing a population reduction law such as:

  1. Genetic denial of reality behavior which makes it difficult for most to understand what’s going on.
  2. The biological drive to have children.
  3. Economic forces pushing for growth to avoid debt defaults and a deflationary collapse.
  4. Opposing cultural forces like religion.
  5. Widespread misunderstanding that renewable energy can substitute for the 20 TW of depleting non-renewable fossil energy that 7 billion lives depend on.
  6. Enforcement of a population reduction law.

But what’s the alternative?

There is no alternative other than unimaginable suffering and the permanent loss of scientific knowledge and technologies that have improved the quality of our lives.

What we’ve achieved as a species is amazing, extremely rare in the universe, and worth fighting to preserve.

There is one and only one good path available: rapid voluntary population reduction.

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

Here’s the new video Alpert released today:

 

 

 

By Tom Murphy: The Energy Trap (we all scream for ice cream)

The Energy Trap

A friend reminded me of this 2011 essay written by the brilliant physicist Tom Murphy.

I read it when Murphy first published it but I had forgotten how good it was so I’ve dusted it off in the hope that it sees more daylight.

https://dothemath.ucsd.edu/2011/10/the-energy-trap/

Many Do the Math posts have touched on the inevitable cessation of growth and on the challenge we will face in developing a replacement energy infrastructure once our fossil fuel inheritance is spent. The focus has been on long-term physical constraints, and not on the messy details of our response in the short-term. But our reaction to a diminishing flow of fossil fuel energy in the short-term will determine whether we transition to a sustainable but technological existence or allow ourselves to collapse. One stumbling block in particular has me worried. I call it The Energy Trap.

In brief, the idea is that once we enter a decline phase in fossil fuel availability—first in petroleum—our growth-based economic system will struggle to cope with a contraction of its very lifeblood. Fuel prices will skyrocket, some individuals and exporting nations will react by hoarding, and energy scarcity will quickly become the new norm. The invisible hand of the market will slap us silly demanding a new energy infrastructure based on non-fossil solutions. But here’s the rub. The construction of that shiny new infrastructure requires not just money, but…energy. And that’s the very commodity in short supply. Will we really be willing to sacrifice additional energy in the short term—effectively steepening the decline—for a long-term energy plan? It’s a trap!

 

In the parallel world of economics, an energy decline likely spells deep recession. The substantial financial investment needed to carry out an energy replacement crash program will be hard to scrape together in tough times, especially given that we are unlikely to converge on the “right” solution into which we sink our bucks.

Politically, the Energy Trap is a killer. In my lifetime, I have not witnessed in our political system the adult behavior that would be needed to buckle down for a long-term goal involving short-term sacrifice.  Or at least any brief bouts of such maturity have not been politically rewarded.  I’m not blaming the politicians. We all scream for ice cream. Politicians simply cater to our demands. We tend to vote for the candidate who promises a bigger, better tomorrow—even if such a path is untenable.

The only way out of the political trap is for a substantial fraction of our population to understand the dimensions of the problem: to understand that we’ve been spoiled by the surplus energy available through fossil fuels, and that we will have to make decade-level sacrifices to put ourselves on a new track. The only way to accomplish this is through sober education, which is what Do the Math is all about. It’s a trap! Spread the word!

 

Tom Murphy stopped writing in 2013 after (I think) he realized that no amount of education will change the behavior of the majority.

By James Kunstler: The Uncomfortable Hiatus

The Next Financial Crisis Lurks Underground

I haven’t posted anything by Kunstler for a while. When he’s occasionally good, he’s really good, like today.

http://kunstler.com/clusterfuck-nation/the-uncomfortable-hiatus/

And so the sun seems to stand still this last day before the resumption of business-as-usual, and whatever remains of labor in this sclerotic republic takes its ease in the ominous late summer heat, and the people across this land marinate in anxious uncertainty. What can be done?

Some kind of epic national restructuring is in the works. It will either happen consciously and deliberately or it will be forced on us by circumstance. One side wants to magically reenact the 1950s; the other wants a Gnostic transhuman utopia. Neither of these is a plausible outcome. Most of the arguments ranging around them are what Jordan Peterson calls “pseudo issues.” Let’s try to take stock of what the real issues might be.

Energy: The shale oil “miracle” was a stunt enabled by supernaturally low interest rates, i.e. Federal Reserve policy. Even The New York Times said so yesterday (The Next Financial Crisis Lurks Underground). For all that, the shale oil producers still couldn’t make money at it. If interest rates go up, the industry will choke on the debt it has already accumulated and lose access to new loans. If the Fed reverses its current course —say, to rescue the stock and bond markets — then the shale oil industry has perhaps three more years before it collapses on a geological basis, maybe less. After that, we’re out of tricks. It will affect everything.

The perceived solution is to run all our stuff on electricity, with the electricity produced by other means than fossil fuels, so-called alt energy. This will only happen on the most limited basis and perhaps not at all. (And it is apart from the question of the decrepit electric grid itself.) What’s required is a political conversation about how we inhabit the landscape, how we do business, and what kind of business we do. The prospect of dismantling suburbia — or at least moving out of it — is evidently unthinkable. But it’s going to happen whether we make plans and policies, or we’re dragged kicking and screaming away from it.

Corporate tyranny: The nation is groaning under despotic corporate rule. The fragility of these operations is moving toward criticality. As with shale oil, they depend largely on dishonest financial legerdemain. They are also threatened by the crack-up of globalism, and its 12,000-mile supply lines, now well underway. Get ready for business at a much smaller scale.

Hard as this sounds, it presents great opportunities for making Americans useful again, that is, giving them something to do, a meaningful place in society, and livelihoods. The implosion of national chain retail is already underway. Amazon is not the answer, because each Amazon sales item requires a separate truck trip to its destination, and that just doesn’t square with our energy predicament. We’ve got to rebuild main street economies and the layers of local and regional distribution that support them. That’s where many jobs and careers are.

Climate change is most immediately affecting farming. 2018 will be a year of bad harvests in many parts of the world. Agri-biz style farming, based on oil-and-gas plus bank loans is a ruinous practice, and will not continue in any case. Can we make choices and policies to promote a return to smaller scale farming with intelligent methods rather than just brute industrial force plus debt? If we don’t, a lot of people will starve to death. By the way, here is the useful work for a large number of citizens currently regarded as unemployable for one reason or another.

Pervasive racketeering rules because we allow it to, especially in education and medicine. Both are self-destructing under the weight of their own money-grubbing schemes. Both are destined to be severely downscaled. A lot of colleges will go out of business. Most college loans will never be paid back (and the derivatives based on them will blow up). We need millions of small farmers more than we need millions of communications majors with a public relations minor. It may be too late for a single-payer medical system. A collapsing oil-based industrial economy means a lack of capital, and fiscal hocus-pocus is just another form of racketeering. Medicine will have to get smaller and less complex and that means local clinic-based health care. Lots of careers there, and that is where things are going, so get ready.

Government over-reach: the leviathan state is too large, too reckless, and too corrupt. Insolvency will eventually reduce its scope and scale. Most immediately, the giant matrix of domestic spying agencies has turned on American citizens. It will resist at all costs being dismantled or even reigned in. One task at hand is to prosecute the people in the Department of Justice and the FBI who ran illegal political operations in and around the 2016 election. These are agencies which use their considerable power to destroy the lives of individual citizens. Their officers must answer to grand juries.

As with everything else on the table for debate, the reach and scope of US imperial arrangements has to be reduced. It’s happening already, whether we like it or not, as geopolitical relations shift drastically and the other nations on the planet scramble for survival in a post-industrial world that will be a good deal harsher than the robotic paradise of digitally “creative” economies that the credulous expect. This country has enough to do within its own boundaries to prepare for survival without making extra trouble for itself and other people around the world. As a practical matter, this means close as many overseas bases as possible, as soon as possible.

As we get back to business tomorrow, ask yourself where you stand in the blather-storm of false issues and foolish ideas, in contrast to the things that actually matter.