Editor’s note: Articles on GIM typically reflect the assumption that we may be able to avert societal collapse or other catastrophic consequences of our ongoing violation of Earth’s limits. Admittedly, though, that assumption is just a guess and is increasingly strained as nations and the media continue with “business as usual” concerning such issues as population, energy, and economic growth.
In this guest essay, Ken Whitehead starts with a different assumption — that the magnitude of the challenge upon us and the history of our responses to similar challenges makes a collapse of today’s civilization inevitable. His wide-ranging essay focuses, therefore, not only on key elements pushing us today toward the brink, but on actions we might take to ensure some sustainable continuation of human society in a post-collapse future.
Ken is a Ph.D. student at the University of Calgary, currently studying the dynamics of arctic glaciers. He has a background in remote sensing and geography, but in recent years has become increasingly concerned about the societal and ecological factors he discusses below. My thanks to Ken for this thought provoking article. — JF
By Ken Whitehead:
Civilisation as we know it will no longer exist within 30 years. This bleak conclusion is not one I have arrived at lightly. However, wherever I look the evidence suggests that we are heading towards a major ecological breakdown which the majority of us are unlikely to survive. A number of critical environmental problems are coming to a head and the fall out from these will dwarf any attempts we can make to tackle them. If the pitiful attempts that have been made so far to tackle the environmental crisis are any guide, then major ecological breakdown is inevitable within a few years.
Once civilisation starts to unravel, it will happen quickly. Crop yields will fall considerably as the effects of climate change and peak oil really start to bite. It is likely that one of the first casualties will be the current banking and financial system, which is unlikely to be able to withstand the strain. Thus wealth will offer no protection.
Compounding this will be the fact that fossil fuels and other oil-based products will become increasingly hard to obtain, so the transportation infrastructure will grind to halt. From a practical point of view, food will be in very limited supply, no one will be able to pay for it, and there will be no transportation available to deliver it. As the crisis deepens, the electricity supply will be disrupted as will water supplies. Disease will almost certainly thrive in such an environment. Conflict over what limited resources remain will be almost inevitable. In short we will be transported back to the dark ages in a very short space of time and many people, used to living a comfortable western lifestyle, will be unlikely to survive this transition.
So what has brought us to the brink? There are many factors which have contributed to our current situation. In particular overpopulation and over consumption of resources such as fossil fuels lie at the heart of our dilemma. This is underpinned by our economic system, which rewards exploitation of resources and focuses on economic growth. This system has contributed to the demise of ecosystems worldwide.
What is often not realised is that the environmental and societal problems we face are all connected and all can be attributed totally to the impact of too many people consuming too many resources. This is why symptomatic treatments, like trying to tackle climate change, while simultaneously encouraging economic growth are doomed to failure. Unless humans change their entire philosophy and way of life such band-aid solutions will do little to avert the coming crisis. Unfortunately, powerful national and corporate interests will never allow the kind of fundamental changes that are necessary to address these issues constructively.
The Earth is resilient, and there is little doubt that it will recover its former glory in a relatively short time period. Over millions of years, surviving opportunist species such as rats and crows will evolve into a myriad of new specialised life forms. Forests will return to cover much of the Earth. However what is a short time period for the Earth is totally outside of the human time frame. None of us will be around in ten million years time to see the planet reborn. We will have to contend with struggling to survive on a resource-depleted planet, under inhospitable climatic conditions. It is inevitable that many of the other life forms with which we share the Earth will also be impacted, with the rate of extinctions reaching a peak as civilisation collapses. Many of the plant and animal species we currently share this planet with are already poised on the brink, as a result of human activities, and are unlikely to survive long into the current century.
In spite of our predicament, I do not believe that our current western civilisation has been entirely bad news. Over the last two hundred years, our civilisation has gone through an unprecedented period of growth and expansion. We have made vast progress in our knowledge of all fields of science, arts and music have flourished. Technology has also developed which makes our lives easier than ever before. These are the gifts of the oil age. The development of many of things we take for granted today would not have been possible without the one-time gift of energy from fossil fuels. The capitalist economic growth model has lead to rapid advancement in many areas. Even periods of wartime have lead to beneficial advances in knowledge and technology.
However, we must now move beyond free market capitalism and the philosophy of unlimited growth. A new guiding philosophy is now needed for humanity and for the Earth if human civilisation is to survive in any form. I believe it was always inevitable that humanity would one day reach this point, the often talked about bottleneck of civilisation, where we ourselves have become the main threat to our continued survival as a species.
The problem is that now the ideology of the capitalist age is now so entrenched in society that few are capable of visualising a future which does not involve economic growth. The ideas and philosophies which have served us in the past can have no place in a future society. In particular, the concept of nation states, which protect their own interests at the expense of all others, and corporations, which exist only to make money, are not compatible with a sustainable vision of the future.
So how can we prevent the upcoming crisis from occurring? I believe that the harsh truth is that we cannot and that it is inevitable. Our planet simply cannot support so many people, consuming so much. We can make efforts to try to soften the landing. In particular, I believe that the environmental movement can play an extremely important part in helping to protect many of the remaining wild parts of the Earth, and in slowing the build up in greenhouse gasses over the next few years. However these can only be stop-gap measures. The main focus should be on sowing the seeds of a future sustainable society. For the rest of this essay I would like to look at how this could be done.
Consider what will happen after the initial crisis. A much reduced human population will be concentrated in areas which are still capable of producing food. For the most part, these will be parts of the world where climate change has not impacted local weather conditions too severely. In some cases, climate change may also make some new areas suitable for agriculture. Over time, these societies will grow and will probably make exactly the same mistakes as our society has done.
I foresee a situation where humanity will consist of a number of scattered populations, ruled over by feudal warlords. The end result will be a cycle of war and famine, with associated population growth and crash, and with additional resources being depleted in each cycle. This pattern will likely lead ultimately to the extinction of humanity, over the course of several thousand years. If history proves one thing it is that the lessons of the past are rarely learned. There is ample evidence that many of the major civilisations of the past were wiped out by environmental factors, but have we taken the lessons from this to heart?
So what is the solution? Clearly we cannot all go back to being hunter-gatherers. We can certainly learn from how so called “primitive” societies live as a part of their local environment. However even many of these societies are not perfect examples of living in harmony with the environment, as evidenced by the disappearance of mega-fauna on all continents, shortly after the arrival of humans. I believe that our best hope lies in developing entirely new sustainable settlements which can act as focal points for the development of a new society.
The classic science fiction series “Foundation” by Isaac Asimov describes a situation which has many parallels to our current predicament. The galactic empire appears to be at the height of its power, with its rule extending across the entire galaxy. One man however, the mathematician Hari Seldon, sees the inevitable collapse of the empire, where all others do not. His solution is to establish a colony in a remote part of the galaxy where the seeds of a new society can be planted. He is unable to prevent the break up of the empire and the subsequent turmoil, but the colony he establishes goes on to flourish and after many years becomes the basis of a whole new galactic civilisation. It is instructive to know that one of Asimov’s inspirations for this series was the decline and break up of the Roman Empire, which has often been compared to our current situation.
In a similar way, I think that it is necessary to establish a series of sustainable settlements to act as seed points for a future civilisation. Although many current towns and cities are becoming more environmentally conscious and recognising the value of local sourcing, I believe that the changes in philosophy necessary are of such magnitude that even the most enlightened population will be unable to bridge the gap. The settlements I envisage must be totally self-sustaining, producing all their own food and meeting their energy requirements locally.
Unlike many environmentalists, I believe that technology should also play a part in a future society. The best of today’s technology can be incorporated into the design of such settlements to allow the residents to live with a level of comfort vastly greater than other remnant human populations. Locally generated electricity can be used to provide lighting and limited transportation for example. The key to any technology however, is that it must be replicable within the community. Any technology which relies on outside sourcing will not be sustainable in the long term. This means that such communities must develop micro-manufacturing processes to produce materials such as electrical wiring, steel, glass, ceramics, and possibly even bio-plastics.
These settlements must also have a certain critical mass. One of the more encouraging recent developments is the movement towards eco-villages worldwide, but the fact is that most of these communities are simply too small to be sustainable in the long run. They lack the size and diversity to enable specialisation, with the result that on their own, they are likely simply to remain as subsistence farming communities.
The sustainable community of the future will need to have a population in the thousands to be viable. It must have a strict population control policy and environmental focus to remain sustainable and always look to the long-term future. Decisions should be made by the population as a whole; perhaps all members would be expected to spend a year as part of a governing council. This would ensure that all members of the community are fully represented and their voices are given equal weight. One model that could be effective is if a number of eco-villages were to locate adjacent to each other, the larger community would then have the required critical mass.
Unfortunately, it is inevitable that the coming crisis will result in millions of refugees, with a mass movement towards areas which are still capable of producing food. This is likely to be the main threat to the survival of many of these planned sustainable communities. If they are overwhelmed by a vast flood of refugees, the system will simply break down. To avoid this problem I would suggest that such communities be established in areas remote from existing population concentrations. A number of suitable areas exist throughout the world where population pressures are still not critical. Areas such as the South Island of New Zealand, Northern British Columbia, Patagonia, and parts of Scandinavia, have temperate climates and are sufficiently remote from major population concentrations to assure these budding communities a measure of protection over the first few years of the crisis.
Over time the function of these settlements will change. For the first ten or twenty years after the crisis starts, they will have to focus purely on survival. Outside contacts will be limited and the community will need to concentrate on feeding itself, and developing and refining appropriate technologies for sustainability. After this period it is likely that stability of a sort will have been established in the outside world. The community can then start reaching out to adjacent populations, helping them to create similar societies and settlements. Over time, entire regions will be able to develop sustainably, providing focal points for the development of a new genuinely sustainable society.
These then are my visions on how we might make it through the environmental and population bottleneck we now find ourselves in. Given that I believe a major environmental crisis is unavoidable, how might we ensure that genuinely sustainable communities could become a reality? Firstly I believe we should use the most powerful tool of the current age to design exactly how future communities should look, what technologies and system of government would be most appropriate, and how to ensure that such communities remain sustainable over time. Computer games already exist which allow users to design cities and societies. It would be a relatively simple undertaking to design an on-line computer game which would allow interested parties worldwide to refine the details of exactly what such a future society should look like. Remember that if communities develop in a haphazard manner, it is likely that they will fall into many of the traps that our current society has.
I believe it will be necessary to find a wealthy benefactor. It is ironic that in order to create a vibrant, sustainable community of the future, where money will have a place only as means of exchange, will take a considerable amount of money. It will be necessary to purchase large tracts of land and cover the costs of developing the initial infrastructure. This is a project which could easily capture the imagination of some of the more forward thinking philanthropic trusts and private benefactors. I think it would be very fitting to see capital derived from economic growth going towards the development of sustainable communities for the future.
The final component will be to find volunteers who are willing to commit themselves to such a project. Initially they would be involved in the design and construction of these settlements, but ultimately they will be the ones who would live there. If enough people can be found who would be willing to be involved in such a project, I believe that we can sow the seeds of a future sustainable society.
In conclusion, I have a bleak view of the future of our current society. There are many well meaning initiatives out there, but in order for our society to have any hope of survival we would need to completely abandon economic growth as a philosophy, and ensure that all women currently on the planet have no more than one child each. While these are desirable goals, we have to ask the question; is it at all likely that either of these scenarios will occur? I believe that instead of clinging to lofty and unachievable goals, we must actually prepare to face the unthinkable and set about designing the society of the future, using the most powerful tools available to us in the present. It is only by planning and developing settlements for the future now that we can help to ensure that future society will develop in a benign and sustainable manner.
Image source: see what you want to see’s photostream, flickr.com, Creative Commons license
We used to struggle to overgrow others, and thus be able to survive, while they perished. However, we are rapidly reaching the point where everyone attempting to overgrow the others means almost nobody will survive by doing that.
I found it refreshing to read something that attempted to face these facts that there are currently no signs that human beings are going to change, until that was too little and too late.
I had already been thinking that way myself for several decades. Although I continued to hold irrational hopes for a series of political miracles, all of the political experiments I have engaged in have confirmed that things are much worse than I would have otherwise liked to believe.
Even though this article endeavours to be more realistic about the apparent failure of people to face the facts and adapt, until whatever they do ends up too little too late, I still find most of it superficial in that it talks about what we “should” do without respecting the mechanisms of what actually does happen.
I remember an experimental futurology course that I took at university back in the 1970s where the professor emphasized as much as he could the importance of what actually happens in society and why.
He pointed out then that the pessimists had way more evidence than the optimists had.
He pointed out that technological fixes were not enough, although they could help buy some more time.
The financial system we use does not allow any overall sane ecological accounting of the real world as a whole.
The financial systems have become electronic frauds backed up with the threat of weapons of mass destruction.
I agree that the financial systems might be the first to collapse, because they are a house of cards based on huge lies, that only worked because of the history of real violence in the past being able to maintain the social habits that made the threats of more violence in the future be effective enough.
Every currency in the world is now based on faith, and that faith is based on the history of being able to back up huge lies with coercions.
However, as those systems create more and more new money out of nothing but the borrowers’ promise to repay, and the ability to enforce those repayments depend on being able to threaten harm to the borrower, this financial house of cards is the most extreme manifestation of the problem of the madness of exponential growth.
There was a history of debt control and death control. Both have gone into exponential growth.
More and more new money made out of nothing to pay for strip-mining the planet, and more and more weapons of mass destruction to be able to back up the debt collection.
Now we have trillions of new dollars being made out of nothing every year, and weapons that are trillions of times more powerful than anything that ever existed before in history.
Both of our debt and death controls have grown exponentially, based on huge lies backed up with lots of violence. However, the violence did not make the lies become true, but only enabled those lies to get further and further away from reality and out of touch with real limits, since their social success was based on some bullies being able to get away with bullshit.
We could make the money out of nothing to pay to strip-mine resources, and we could back that up by being able to overkill people many, many times.
However, the resources were only there to strip-mine once, and after killing somebody once, it does not matter if there are enough weapons to kill them trillions of more times.
Yet, all of our social habits and political institutions were evolved in times when those things were not yet true, and none of our behaviours are yet related to those realities, but rather are based on realities that no longer exist. Thus our difficulties that all our habitual behaviours have become insane.
For those few who have enough information, intelligence and imagination, we are sweating it in the sweltering hot box of anxiety in the relative calm before the social storms that we can see brewing on the horizon of history.
The paragraph that I found most unrealistic in the above article was the following:
“The sustainable community of the future will need to have a population in the thousands to be viable. It must have a strict population control policy and environmental focus to remain sustainable and always look to the long-term future. Decisions should be made by the population as a whole; perhaps all members would be expected to spend a year as part of a governing council.”
When people did not agree, they ended up resolving the conflict by fighting, and those who were best at being dishonest and violent ended up prevailing.
That is what made the kind of civilization that we live in now. I see nothing in the paragraph I quoted above that has any realistic attitude towards the kinds of death controls that it would take to make strict population controls work.
I see nothing in the paragraph that I quoted that explains why democracy is going to work when the established systems of death control break down.
The way I cope with these facts is regard human behaviour as going down the path of least resistance, the same as everything else does in nature.
We can build damns, and channel water, and within the law of entropy, we can still even pump water uphill somewhat.
However, we live in an exploding universe, and thus water runs down hill.
Future surviving human beings will still live inside the laws of thermodynamics and information.
Unless there is some unthinkable miracle to get out of that context, then we are going to see our real ecologies of forces and symbols continue to evolve within the laws of the conservation of energy and the increase of entropy.
Any genuine sustainable system in the future will have to be an ecology that is based on new systems of lies and coercions.
Talking about population controls without talking about death controls is silly.
Indeed, what we need, and will really get, is the evolution of new systems of death controls that make new systems of debt controls.
The reality of death controls will make the reality of debt controls.
The problems we have now are that our debt controls are huge frauds, and our death controls are similarly out of touch with reality.
As possible triple whammies, such as peak oil, climate change, and people fighting with each other over the consequences of those things, all converge in the foreseeable future, we will be forced to face real facts about so many things that we are getting away with lying to ourselves about now.
Beginning to face the facts that exponential growth will end in catastrophic collapse and chaos is the catalyst to thinking through how to make those genocides evolve into sustainable systems of death control where the rates of robbery reach an ecology with a sustainable dynamic equilibrium.
We need to evolve a new monetary system that is based on more of a truth standard.
We have to face the fact that Spaceship Earth is our lifeboat, and live inside of that. Even though the solar system has at least a trillion times more resources than planet Earth does, that still would not be enough to sustain endless exponential growth.
Everything that is happening to human beings is that they are being forced to grow up and face the facts that they live in one spaceship that is their lifeboat, and that any future groups of people are going to be living in even more intense varieties of the same situation.
What we are doing now is acting like children that refuse to become adults.
Spaceship Earth is in a state of mutiny, and our lifeboat is threatened to be overloaded and sink … leaving a life raft, if we are lucky, that would be even more precarious than the lifeboat was … etc. …
Human beings fundamentally act like robbers in their environment, and they lived by fighting with each other to see who would rob whom, and tried to reproduce as much as possible in order to have the biggest gang of robbers to defeat the other gangs of robbers.
All of that has led to where we are now, and only by facing those facts and developing radical ways to evolve within the context of those facts might some of us being able to survive the exponential growth phase we are in now.
The most important things we need are a new military ethics, for a new age warfare, that does effective and efficient death control, that will enable sustainable human ecology, that will make it possible to have a sustainable industrial ecology, that will integrate the natural ecology.
The real way we are going to get there is along the path of least resistance.
There is going to be more and more growth, until it eventually collapses, and then there will be genocides.
Transforming those genocides to evolve new systems of death control is what may happen.
Understanding that, and working with it, and through it, are our best real hopes.
Right now, we have extremely well developed systems of death control that are as dishonest about themselves as possible.
Right now, it is practically impossible to talk rationally about death control in public, even though it controls and regulates everything else.
Everything begins and ends with militarism. Adapting to weapons that are trillions of times more powerful is the biggest challenge, and the way to do that is develop a real, radical, revolutionary military ethics.
We are headed towards martial law, as a phase of the collapse caused by exponential growth going into gross overshoot.
What we should try to do is to transform that martial law into something that works. Of course, that still seems as improbable as any of the other political miracles that I like to daydream about.
Without a breakthrough in understanding death control, that reconciles artificial selection with natural selection, then martial law will be another step towards dismal failure and even worse collapse into deeper chaos.
The difficulty of the human species growing up is that we have to stop believing in childish fairy tales and impossible ideals.
We have to build everything real out of real forces, and those real forces are robberies. Those robberies were what make it possible for social stories that are lies to have prevailed.
We have been able to use dishonesty backed up with violence to live, but, in the process of doing that, we have convinced ourselves to believe in our own huge lies.
We can not change the laws of nature. We can not stop being robbers in our environment with the potential to reproduce at an exponential rate.
However, we could and should change the social stories that we tell ourselves that deny and suppress those truths. We are still going to have bullies, but we should stop believing in their old bullshit.
A new military ethics, a new kind of bullies’ bullshit, is what we need more than anything else to adapt to the triumphs of science and technology understanding the world better, and being able to make our machines work trillions of times better than they ever did before in history.
A greater use of information and higher consciousness in our death control is what is necessary, and is the only thing that might evolve to make it possible for human beings to survive having science that works.
The article above is correct that a sustainable society “must have a strict population control policy.”
However, I do not get the impression that the writer has thought through enough of what that means, and how it might really exist and evolve to be.
Any strict population control is a death control system that requires military ethics.
Warfare is the oldest and best developed social science, and it is warfare that has to undergo the most profound paradigm shifts, to enable human beings to survive in the future.
Warfare ran the death controls, that directed the growth of civilization. New age warfare has to change the death controls to change the direction of civilization.
As long as any human beings at all survive, the chronic political problems will stay the same.
If exponential growth is pushed until it causes uncontrollable collapse, then there will be martial law and genocides.
Really planning for the future is being open and flexible to how to try to direct the martial law and genocides to become new sustainable systems of death control.
Things will continue to go down the path of least resistance, and building systems of resistance to change that path are done within that overall context.
The bullies’ bullshit about democracy does not describe the real world now, and more of the same are not going to be the real solutions in the future.
Real death control systems will grow, and die, and new systems be reborn to grow again in that context.
A dynamic equilibrium of the real rates of robbery is what exists now, and will be punctuated by the collapse of that equilibrium, to change state to some new one.
Although I found this article to be refreshing in that it tries to face the facts that we seem already committed to exponential growth overshooting into collapse and chaos, I did not find it deep enough in its understanding of the mechanisms that are driving that to happen, which also will be the real mechanisms that must change to cope with that, and eventually, perhaps, transform to become new mechanisms that cope with that having actually happened.
Well, well, well.
Ken, I am in 100% agreement with your analysis and your conclusions. I’ve been thinking along precisely the same lines regarding the convergence of ecological, energy and economic catastrophe for a while now. The problems we face are indeed insuperable, and I believe we need at this point to be putting all our energies toward facilitating the survival of small, widely distributed groups to carry our species through the bottleneck.
I have a slightly different orientation regarding the nature of those seed communities, though. One of my biggest concerns is about the degree of resilience our species will need to come through the bottleneck. I think that planned communities lack the necessary resilience. This is mainly due to the fact that the necessity of planning will reduce both their number and their overall diversity. I think we may be better off with as large a number of such communities as we can generate, organized in as many ways as possible, even though some or even many may seem sub-optimal. We have no way of knowing in advance what forms will succeed and what will fail, so diversity is our best defense. They also need to be as disconnected as possible from each other to reduce the risk of failure cascades.
Fortunately, I think the seeds for such communities are already in place, though they tend at this point to be more communities of interest than physical villages.
The signs I see pointing towards this potential are outlined in <an article on my web site as follows:
The question for me has become, “How do we ensure that the seeds are in place for a value set that will survive through and bloom after the bottleneck, a value set that will ensure that the next cycle of civilization has a chance at sustainability even in such a badly damaged, resource-poor world?” How will we ensure that our descendants will eventually inherit a sustainable world, even though our current situation is not sustainable by any stretch of the imagination?
I’ve become convinced over the last couple of months that the seeds for such a transformation have already been planted. They are even resilient enough to make it through the bottleneck, and they carry the correct values for the rebirth I suggest.
American activist Paul Hawken has just written a tremendously important book called “Blessed Unrest” in which he describes a set of one to two million local, independent, citizen-run environmental and social justice groups. These groups exist world-wide, and each is acting on local problems of its own choosing. There is no overarching ideology beyond “making the world a better place”, there is no unifying organization, no white male vertebrate leader setting the agenda. As a result the movement is extremely resilient – no government action anywhere can shut it down, even though individual groups may be suppressed. These groups make up the largest (though unrecognized) social movement the world has ever seen. For a glimpse of some of these organizations, take a look at the web site WiserEarth.org.
Hawken sees this movement as part of humanity’s immune system. While I like the metaphor and think it is exactly correct, I believe the importance of these groups is much greater than just their efforts to mitigate an unavoidable collapse. These groups have been called into existence by the world’s dis-ease, and do two things: they work to fix local problems now (which will mitigate some local effects of the collapse), but more importantly they act as carriers for the values of cooperation, consensus, nurturing, recognition of interdependence, acceptance of limits, universal justice and the respect for other life. Those are precisely the values that a civilization will need to achieve stability and sustainability. To top it all off, many of these groups are led by women or espouse specifically matrifocal values, one attribute I sthink is essential for any sustainable civilization.
At the risk of sounding sentimental, I call these groups the antibodies in Gaia’s bloodstream.
I am convinced we will not save this civilization, and will lose a large fraction of humanity in the process. But I’m equally convinced that thanks to the seeds that have already been planted in these groups we have a shot at a much better one in a couple of hundred years. The crucial change in perspective required to see the hope in this is to stop looking from here forward into the decline, and instead look backward from a position out two hundred years and imagine what it will take to rebuild a truly sustainable civilization from the ashes of this one. The values required are already embodied in a resilient organization, enough of whose elements will survive to transmit a sustainable value set into the ecologically damaged, resource-depleted world we will bequeath to the future.
Another area in which I’d like to add a different perspective is on the root causes of population growth. I just wrote this article yesterday:
When most people look around the world today they see a set of problems. They see energy/technology problems. They see ecological/environmental problems. They see economic problems. If they are slightly deeper thinkers they may see population problems. I believe they are all suffering from vision problems.
What most people see as “technological problems” are, in my estimation, more correctly seen as the set of symptoms of the real underlying problem, symptoms that are that are manifesting themselves in the technological arena.
In the same sense, what people interpret as “ecological problems” are the set of symptoms that are manifesting in the world’s ecology.
And what people call “economic problems” are merely the set of symptoms that are manifesting in the world’s economy.
The underlying problem is the same in all three cases. Humanity is an overly successful species with no effective predators, the ability to manipulate its environment on a planetary scale, and the perception that it is apart from that environment.
I actually disagree with the spreading perception that the core environmental problem is human population growth. I used to think it was, but I now realize that population growth is just another symptom of that same problem. You can prove this to yourself with a simple thought experiment:
Imagine that we miraculously stabilized our population tomorrow, at our current 6.6 billion people. Would that fix the problems of resource depletion, ecological devastation and the economic instability caused by our insistence on continual material growth? I maintain it wouldn’t. After all, those problems are still worsening in places where populations have already stabilized, or are even in outright decline.
Addressing any one of the problem areas – energy/technological, ecological, economic or population – would still leave us with problems in the other three. We can (and will) tinker around in each of these areas, because that’s our Buddha-nature — human beings are innate tinkerers. We will inevitably do things to ease the situation in each of those symptom domains, but none of that tinkering will, or even can, address the fundamental problem:
Humanity appears to have evolved without a crucial internal self-restraint mechanism. That happened because, as is the case for every other species, those restraints were readily available within the environment – mainly resource scarcity, predation and disease. Because those external restraints were available, selection didn’t endow us with internal restraints. They simply weren’t needed. In fact, during our early time as a species, any internal self-restraint mechanism acting in addition to the external restraints would have been counter-productive, and so would have been actively selected out of our makeup.
However, as we developed the intellectual ability to circumvent those external restraints — through extinguishing all large predators, and developing agriculture, mining and medicine — we outfoxed ourselves. In the absence of either internal or external restraints we are left with no effective way to reign in our genetic urge for expansion. All that remains is our intellectual capacity to foresee outcomes and to regulate our behaviour through reason. As far as I can tell, mere reason is not a strong enough counterbalance to our innate behavioural tendencies. The evidence of this is no further away than the $2500 Tata Nano.
So I hold out no hope whatever that our tinkering will solve the “real” dilemma of humanity. We are behaving exactly as our evolution intended, and it’s unlikely that we will stop. What we need to do is to figure out ways in which our feeble reason can create the necessary conditions for the continued survival of our species (and perhaps some of our civilization), despite both our unconstrained, innate urge to grow and our glorious but ultimately tragic ability to reason.
These aspects of our nature that are at the root of all our troubles however, and we will need to be enormously cunning to outmaneuver them.
You have my complete respect for your clear-eyed comprehension of the problem, its scale, and the probable outcome. Thanks for writing this.
Dear Blair and Paul,
I completely agree with both of you, with Ken Whitehead and also with a growing number of contributors to blogs like this one.
The point I have been feebly trying to make is simply this: the adamant and relentless pursuit of fossil fuel-based economic globalization, marked so starkly as it is by the rampant expansion of unbridled business activities we are seeing today, could possibly result in either cataclysmic ecologic challenges or economic collapse or both in these early years of Century XXI.
A global economy, one that demands cheap fossil fuels as its primary source of energy, could lead life as we know it to a place named nowhere, I suppose.
Could any manmade economic structure, however religiously defended and idolized, ever be judged more vital to human wellbeing and life as we know it than God’s Creation as a fit place for human habitation?
Hear, hear! I totally agree with Paul about the “solution”. Diversity is the key to survival. Nobody knows what the “winning” strategy will be – and it certainly can be different in different places.
Of course, these planned communities can also work. But they are not the only way.
While I appreciate the courage it takes for a mainstream academic (meaning one participating in a PhD program) to express these thoughts, I don’t agree with the presentation or the conclusions.
John writes, “Ken Whitehead starts with a different assumption — that the magnitude of the challenge upon us and the history of our responses to similar challenges makes a collapse of today’s civilization inevitable.”
That assumption is so dramatic that presenting it and drawing conclusions from it without any attempt at motivation is irresponsible. For that, I fault Ken as its author and John for giving him a forum. There is much in Ken’s piece with which I agree, but I have this (possibly naive) notion that dramatic conclusions (especially) should be motivated by evidence and rational argument, not appeals to Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. Doing otherwise merely contributes to the doomsday literature which is by no means lean.
So that’s my “tisk, tisk, shame on you” diatribe.
I’m not so naive as to not recognize a “cry for help” or “can’t you see what might happen” narrative which is what this is and what I wish John had labeled as such. It makes Danny Bloom look like a sage with his polar cities meme. (Apologizes to Danny who I think knows what he is doing.)
If it needs to be said, Ken should be making a case for why his projections should be believed, why “Civilisation as we know it will no longer exist within 30 years”, why “we are heading towards a major ecological breakdown which the majority of us are unlikely to survive.”
I’m so old school I believe in evidence first, ranting and radical projections second. Shit, anyone can make crap up. That’s easy (Asimov wrote 500 books). Showing why it should be believed is the hard part. Get to fucking work and spare me the histrionics — or at least label them as such.
[Whew! Got that off my chest. It’s not about Ken or John, it’s about me and what I care about. It’s about the GIM community of which Magne, Steve, Paul, and maybe Danny if he hangs around are a part.]
I have a rather angry comment in the moderation queue which is probably best deleted when John gets to it.
The non-angrgy version is just this: I don’t see value in doomsday literature and have a strong, visceral reaction to the idea of throwing up our hands and planning for survival post-collapse. Danny Bloom’s Polar Cities may be great alternative messaging. Ken’s piece here is just deflating.
I understand your reaction, but I urge you to take a wider view.
There are a lot of people advocating for a huge variety of outlooks and actions. this diversity in approaches is a good thing, even if it includes things like ethanol for happy motoring or planning post-collapse communities. We are in serious trouble here, and we need to be examining all possible options. There are enough people doing this that no one needs to involve themselves in aspects of it that run counter to their sensibilities.
However, if we refuse to consider possible outcomes because they are distasteful, we run the risk of missing important avenues of exploration. Declaring such musings to be beyond the pale seems little different than the mainstream rejection of all discussions of overpopulation. After all, Ken’s postulated future amounts to little more than an extension of the ideas of overpopulation and overshoot with the added wrinkle that evolutionary psychology will constrain our response domain.
I’m at a loss to understand why such mental explorations seem to have no value for you. To me they seem to be essential, though I’d be the first to admit that my opinion is coloured by the fact that my research and analysis has propelled me to precisely the conclusions as Ken.
I agree with the theory behind Paul’s comment about diversity providing adaptability. That is common throughout the ethical parables that can be learned from studying evolution.
Consider that the dinosaurs are not extinct, rather, the most improbable dinosaurs were the birds, and they have flourished.
Human societies might be like that in the far future. The most improbable of societies might be the ones to finally survive.
However, I will return to my main point that the reason the world does not have significant diversity in human societies now is that globalized gangs of pirates went everywhere, and assimilated every one of those diverse societies by force.
We have a global fascist plutocracy that ate all of the other different cultures.
I agree that “leaderless resistance” is about the only kind that seems possible at the present time. However, I still maintain that, eventually, the Sovereigns’ power to rob and kill will matter the most.
Alternatives have to survive, and eventually a system of alternatives is necessary for survival in an integrated Spaceship Earth, or any other holistic spaceship of life.
The article above rightly worries that:
“the coming crisis will result in millions of refugees, with a mass movement towards areas which are still capable of producing food. This is likely to be the main threat to the survival of many of these planned sustainable communities.”
The most important aspect of any invasion of refugees is that they may be armed and dangerous.
Indeed, the paradox of being prepared for bad times is that one makes one’s preparations a target for those who were not as prepared. What happens if you work so hard to build a more sustainable system, and then the first thing that happens during a disaster is that the armed forces of your own country commandeer it?
While I agree with more diversity of alternatives, I will continue to maintain that the most important of these is the alternative forms of death control.
When we concern ourselves with long-term survival, the short-term struggle to see who can kill whom first will still take precedence.
The point is that diversity is already collapsing. Every native cultural has already been wiped out or hybridized beyond recognition, as it was assimilated.
The real world problems are already due to the triumph of dishonesty backed up with violence, and any genuine solutions have to work through that reality.
I think it is very worthwhile to attempt thought experiments about what would be necessary after the current civilization that controls the world finally collapsed.
I think those thought experiments converge with those who attempt to do thought experiments about how to change the current civilization to prevent it from collapsing.
I think they are two sides of the same problem. I think that only focusing on what we should do to change to enable civilization to survive is assisted by focusing on what would be necessary to try to survive even after the dominant civilization failed to adapt and did not survive.
I think it is a bad idea to only talk about how we could change to enable our current civilization to survive.
These things are mostly thought experiments, which attempt a diagnosis of the problems, to try to find treatments.
I happen to believe that the prognosis for the current global civilization is very bad. I hope I am wrong. However, even if I am wrong, then it still helps to gain perspective on our current problems to try to imagine what would be necessary to try to survive after our current civilization died.
That is why I try to blend artificial selection with natural selection, rather than separate them. That is why I try to understand how death control really works now, to try to understand how it might be changed to really work in the future.
Right now, it is huge lies backed up with coercions that are organizing what human beings are doing. That continues to be the dominant factor within any possible future, since things will always still go down their own path of least resistance.
I sympathize that it is a lot nicer to work on lower level alternatives, inside of the established systems of death control that one takes for granted.
However, the highest level alternative is alternative death control, and working on that most important of problems can not take for granted the established systems.
I understand where you’re coming from, but frankly the semantic load of phrases like “fascist plutocracy” and “death control” put me off. That sort sort of value-driven language makes attempts at reasoned debate uncomfortable, and may even make it impossible, depending on the philosophy and personalities of the debaters. I agree that our civilization is being driven by various flavours of authoritarianism, corporatism and fascism, and that they need to be resisted, but language that borders on sloganeering isn’t helpful. We are not a rabble to be roused.
Having said that, have you run across the book “The Parable of the Tribes” by Andrew Schmookler? It’s a look at power relationships that is based on a very simple thesis: power always wins. The parable itself is very concise:
Imagine a group of tribes living within reach of one another. If all choose the way of peace, then all may live in peace. But what if all but one choose peace, and that one is ambitious for expansion and conquest? What can happen to the others when confronted by an ambitious and potent neighbor? Perhaps one tribe is attacked and defeated, its people destroyed and its lands seized for the use of the victors. Another is defeated, but this one is not exterminated; rather, it is subjugated and transformed to serve the conqueror. A third seeking to avoid such disaster flees from the area into some inaccessible (and undesirable) place, and its former homeland becomes part of the growing empire of the power-seeking tribe. Let us suppose that others observing these developments decide to defend themselves in order to preserve themselves and their autonomy. But the irony is that successful defense against a power-maximizing aggressor requires a society to become more like the society that threatens it. Power can be stopped only by power, and if the threatening society has discovered ways to magnify its power through innovations in organization or technology (or whatever), the defensive society will have to transform itself into something more like its foe in order to resist the external force.
It explains a lot about human interactions in a pleasingly parsimonious manner. Given your particular interests and worldview, I thought it might be a useful tool for you.
Seeds through the bottleneck
Ken Whitehead said:
“Unless humans change their entire philosophy and way of life such band-aid solutions will do little to avert the coming crisis. Unfortunately, powerful national and corporate interests will never allow the kind of fundamental changes that are necessary to address these issues constructively.”
I fully share your sentiments regarding the impending collapse and consequences. But I have a slightly different take on the causes that might provide insights into the above referenced “national and corporate *interests*”. I also suspect, if I am right about the “cause” then it provides a potential insight into what kinds of seeds we should focus on preserving for after the bottleneck.
For the last ten years I have reshifted my research focus from the emulation of natural intelligence in machines (see: http://faculty.washington.edu/gmobus/research.html for a synopsis of my research and links to details) to a related but much broader issue — wisdom.
For many years I have observed the foibles of humanity in something like disbelief. My main question has been: If we are so smart, why is the world the way it is, and seemingly getting worse? I discovered that intelligence is not the key. Nor is creativity. These are the main cognitive facilities that have been rapidly evolving in Homo sapiens for the past 100,000 years or so (see reference list links from above URL). In my studies I ran across several references to the psychology of wisdom which I found intriguing and followed. In a nut shell here is what I have discovered.
Homo sapiens is misnamed. I now think that humans did indeed evolve a capacity for higher moral judgment based on two key elements of what I now call sapience. The difference between wisdom per se and sapience is that the latter is directly tied to brain functions of the prefrontal cortex, whereas wisdom also relies on internalizing the lessons of life experience. The two are strategic thinking and systems thinking. The former can briefly be described as the ability to coordinate one’s life with the world, including other humans. The latter is the ability to comprehend causes and effects through dynamic systems relations — to see the world as a whole and understand the interconnections between seemingly disparate objects and processes.
But the evolution of that facility was just getting purchase (through, it turns out, the advent of grand parenting) and was finding selective value in terms of family and tribe and territory when an explosion in cleverness (the combination of intelligence and creativity) led to agriculture and a complete restructuring of social needs. What had been a growing reliance of wisdom (generally described in the psychology literature as tacit knowledge used to make moral judgments in complex social problems) to govern the life of a tribe was irrevocably altered. The needs of villages and farming (e.g. location protection) put more emphasis on the more aggressive and manipulative aspects of human nature. The Machiavellian was selected for from that time onward. And wisdom (sapience) has taken a back seat ever since. While systems thinking has still been needed it tends to be restricted to solving local technical problems rather than global social problems.
The end result is that today we are a species that should be called Homo calidus (man the clever) rather than sapiens. I submit that the problems we are facing are due to an incomplete or minimal competency in sapience. Our brains are simply not sufficiently developed, on average, to develop the wisdom needed to base good judgments on global issues. None of the current batch of world leaders and none of the wannabe’s currently running for US president display any great signs of wisdom in my view.
That doesn’t mean that the genetic basis for sapience is not still in the species extant today. There is sparse evidence that some individuals still possess at least the genetic propensity for sapience such that if the behavioral traits associated with sapience were of selective advantage then it is conceivable that over a span of, say 10,000 to 1M years a new, robust species of humans might emerge that would be better equipped, mentally, to be the basis of a new civilization with a new capacity to understand the consequences of their integration with the natural world. I have christened the new species Homo eusapiens — man the truly wise.
I would like to suggest that the seeds we should focus on would be the genetic basis of higher sapience (not higher intelligence!) and a form of nearly indestructible yet readily recoverable recording of the most important knowledge that you mention in the article. It would be an ark with people who showed the highest capacity for wisdom and a library of knowledge gained by our species that could be used in the future by the new. I doubt very much that we should try to, or even could, preserve other species other than food stuffs. As several have pointed out, it is impossible to predict what will happen so plans, per se, might not be very useful. Preparation would be focused on preservation and genetics with just the hope that symbol manipulating sentience will survive on this planet, but certainly no guarantees.
Meanwhile, I still exert effort to prevent the worst case scenario.
Institute of Technology
I’m travelling for a few days with limited Web access, but see a fascinating discussion it taking place. (Welcome, Janne and George.) I’ll try to offer my two bits when I get back home in a few days.
In the meantime, if a comment gets stuck in moderation or the spam filter, be patient and I’ll free it up just as soon as I can get online again. 🙂
Ken is not shying away from calling a spade a spade and, in this case, I do not mind his crying ‘wolf’ at all, specially if all of us here seem to feel in their innards that what Ken is positing is very, very likely to transpire.
Trin, ‘reasoning’ works sort-of-adequately while the adopted paradigm continues to be ‘workable’. However, when the artificially-imposed-on-the-ambient-environment paradigm begins heading towards a breakdown, the intuition must and does step in; the rational ‘constructs’ holding up that paradigm have begun to fray and we can all sense the oncoming breakdown.
Using a geological event as an example, fauna and certain tribal peoples were all aware of the oncoming tsunami in SE Asia and were conspicuously absent from the areas hit by that visitation. I am sure there must have been other ‘reasonable’ humans waiting for research and evidence to confirm to them that the tsunami was indeed coming or, after the fact, that it was indeed a tsunami that had just hit them.
Paul, I find your conclusions very comprehensive in the complexity of their consideration as well as your assertion that we cannot really anticipate what will work. We are trying to imagine what uncharted territory is likely to be served up to humans. I completely agree with you on the population issue being symptomatic and not causative – a symptom that, I think, has been aided and abetted by all of the ‘successes’ of the Age of Reason.
Paul, with the ‘vision’ thing, could you be pointing at the problem being that of the MIND? If so, I am completely in agreement with you. In fact, it is the inability to see the MIND as causative that we focus on wrestling with the symptoms at the apparent level.
The Tata Nano is the latest and very logical serving of the current global mind-set.
I do not know how to say what I want to say here. This is not a new a problem for me, as most of you are aware.
I am only going to begin, in a very brief way, now.
Trinifar, there are no statements in this thread more important than yours. Regardless of what we are seeing, saying, understanding, as least for me, it would be an absolute mistake to suggest that there is NO HOPE FOR THE FUTURE. Who among us could make such a statement?
As was reported to us in the Qumran Scrolls, “Not one there is that knows the whole tale.” For me, that means the is always a place for hope.
As Ashit suggests so well, Ken is calling a spade a spade and, yes, a tsumani appears on the far horizon and, yes, the road ahead looks bleak, but that should not mean to any one or all of us that there is not a real foundation for hope in our circumstances.
We are a small group on a promontory of sorts from where we can see the colossal wave in the offing and, therefore, at some kind of beginning……..
First, let me express my agreement with Trinifar. I’m definitely not going to start, all of a sudden, to discuss how a relatively small population of “post-collapse survivors” are going to have to organize themselves in order to lead their lives. The reason is simple: I’m just not interested. What I am looking at, is a situation in which humanity overwhelms the Earth and all of its ecosystems, and thus make living conditions impossible for a lot of other lifeforms. I’m thinking of a mass extinction that will not affect us humans all that much. It will be caused by humans, though. Human overgrowth activities will affect the environment in a lot of foreseeable ways, and if we cannot change our ways, well, that would be a pity. But so long as there is food, water and (relatively) fresh air, the human species will show itself quite able to adapt to all sorts of human driven changes to the biosphere.
I don’t know about Ken Whitehead — he seems to have taken an overdose of Mad Max — but I can assure everyone else here that I’m still looking at a foreseeable future in which more than 10 billion people are alive and kicking, while not a single ice bear is doing the same.
As far as I know — and I do believe it is knowledge, and not some utopianist dream — we are still up against problems that can and should be solved. As far as I can understand, it is all a question of will-power. And this is the point where it is all starting to depend. Will “westernized humanity” ever be willing to make some sacrifices? It depends. I believe, just like Ken does, that “we must now move beyond free market capitalism and the philosophy of unlimited growth.” — Well, again: it depends.
Ken: “The problem is that now the ideology of the capitalist age is now so entrenched in society that few are capable of visualising a future which does not involve economic growth.”
That’s right. — And this is the lesson learnt from the UN’s Climate Change Conference on Bali: the more powerful climate diplomates made it perfectly clear that future economic growth concerns supercedes the environmental plight which the IPCC scientists presents to the world, meaning: if it is not profitable, it cannot be done.
Ken: “The ideas and philosophies which have served us in the past can have no place in a future society. In particular, the concept of nation states, which protect their own interests at the expense of all others, and corporations, which exist only to make money, are not compatible with a sustainable vision of the future.”
I’m in total agreement. Solving problems that are global in nature would be much, much easier if only the nation-state could be removed from the picture. You do not need to be much of a philosopher in order to understand that much. But the nation state is not going to disappear from the world map, just because it would be a convenient solution to a long range of problems faced by the whole of humanity. So I think, short term, what should urgently be put in place is an International Code of Environmental Conduct. A ruling and regulating body under the guidance of a reformed United Nation’s structure is what I have in mind. Not that it is ever going to happen, but hey … are we discussing desperate matters that require an openness of mind? … I think so …
Now, here’s another mighty problem, — a problem of political and economic philosophy which has been with us ever since Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote his first major discourse for the Academy of Dijon, in the year 1754, titled: “What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by natural law?”
Rousseau’s answer was: the institution of property, and especially the ownership of land, is the origin and root cause of inequality among men. And he did not think that it was authorized by natural law. He accused civil society, social and cultural regulations of bringing such an atrocity to the realms of men.
“The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this imposter; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”
– Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Full text: http://www.constitution.org/jjr/ineq.htm
Now, seriously: less than five percent of the world’s population control more than ninety percent of the property of this planet. — How can that be? And how can that make for a sustainable world system? Well, it beats me. It beats me very hard, too. Because I do understand that I am trespassing here, and making enquiries that the political ruling class and all of the cultural, social, and economic elites of this world do not want to about. And this is where the ruling class is bound to resort to cruelty. I dare say that without doubt in my mind. The institution of property is the holiest of all holy capitalist grounds.
Yes, I am naïve. But the fact is fact. Almost 7 billion people are sharing one planet that is owned, secured and violently controlled by a fraction of humankind. What is not owned by people or corporations, belongs to nation-states, counties, and religious societies; all capable of calling it a natural fact. I say: this is only a natural fact in-so-much as Eminem is stating a natural fact when he’s saying that he has “the money to have you killed by somebody who has nothing.” — At which point he concludes: “I’m past bluffing.”
Other than the evidence provided by researchers such as Jared Diamond (c.f. “Collapse”) the strength of argument for an impending global collapse must come from modeling the factors that led to the collapses of other civilizations applied to the global situation.
Chief among the factors that determine any system’s density and organizational complexity is the flow of high quality energy to do the work of sustaining the system in dynamic evolution. I would have to say that my personal experience in working with alternative energy systems leads me to conclude that we will never be able to adequately scale up to the level of energy production needed to sustain our current population in time to offset the decline of energy flow due to depletion of fossil fuels.
I know there is a strong belief that technological breakthroughs will somehow come in time to save us (suspecting that the old saw, “Necessity is the mother of invention” somehow still applies). I am even engaged in developing a Master’s degree in Energy Systems Engineering in the event that such breakthroughs come and we will need people trained in developing the technology (c.f. http://faculty.washington.edu/gmobus/Admin/EnergySystemsEngineering/MSEnergyEng.html)
So it isn’t the case that I have given up entirely. But the odds that these breakthroughs will come in time are slim, in my opinion. We have gotten close to the maximum conversion efficiencies for most of our alternative energy capture equipment (e.g. photovoltaic cells). While there are marginal increases in efficiency being reported in the press, the fact is that we would need significant increases to supply the kind of energy needs of 7-9 billion people.
WRT: the notion of collapse and evidence that it is likely: There is no data on such a phenomenon because it has never happened before. We can only surmise that given something like the above considerations and reflection on the lack of psychological factors such as sapience, that unless something truly amazing comes to pass in the technology realm (all of our hope) that collapse is the most likely scenario. It seems prudent to me to consider all possibilities, anyway.
We are in serious trouble here, and we need to be examining all possible options.
To use engineering lingo, if you have a large solution space, the first thing to do is take to the plainly useless options off the table so you can concentrate on the ones with potential value.
Declaring such musings to be beyond the pale seems little different than the mainstream rejection of all discussions of overpopulation.
Only if one ignores the vast difference between talking about overpopulation and the end of civilization. It’s important to declare foolish musings foolish if for no other reason than sustaining the credibility of more rational thought.
After all, Ken’s postulated future amounts to little more than an extension of the ideas of overpopulation and overshoot with the added wrinkle that evolutionary psychology will constrain our response domain.
“Little more than” hardly applies here — even accepting that evolutionary psychology has anything to offer (it’s a field in its infancy, struggling for acceptance).
His hyperbolic writing (based on nothing but guesswork) is exactly the kind of thing that undercuts the efforts of people who work in this space.
“The main focus”! Really, this is just rambling. If packaged as a novel or poetry maybe it has value, but it’s not. It’s Danny’s Polar Cities all over again but without the saving grace of being guerrilla theater.
In order to decide that an option is “plainly useless”, you first have to be sure you understand both the problem and the solution under consideration. That’s been a constant theme of my investigations – trying to discover the true shape of the problems the world faces today and the full impact of the proposed “solutions”.
To understand how this can go drastically wrong we need look no further than the promotion of agrofuels as a solution to both oil depletion and global warming. Contrast that with the fact that Terra Preta, a technology that has a remarkable potential to simultaneously enhance soil fertility, sequester carbon and even supply a bit of liquid fuel, all from a scalable and low-input technology, has so far failed to even enter the debate. Unfortunately Terra Preta has no corporate champion like Archer Daniels Midland or Monsanto. As a result agrofuels are seen as a useful solution (rather than the crime against humanity that they actually are) while Terra Preta, if it is known at all, is dismissed as inconsequential.
My position is that many of the solutions being proposed today are “plainly useless” when one understands the nature of the problems the world is facing. Beyond agrofuels, that set of useless options includes such things as electric cars, an expansion of nuclear power generation, liquidity injections into the world financial markets, underground CO2 sequestration, fish farming, and pushing the Green Revolution deeper into Africa. My judgment that these “solutions” will actually be damaging is based on my quantitative and qualitative understanding of the nature, scope and interactions of the energy, ecological and economic problems the world faces.
You seem to take the position that discussions of overpopulation can and should take place absent any consideration of possible extended consequences to our civilization. I think that sterilizes the debate.
The threat to civilization that Ken and I see so clearly has overpopulation as one of its factors, but it’s by no means the only one. It’s not even the largest one. The threat to industrial civilization starts with the energy changes I outlined in the article “World Energy to 2050” that you reviewed so ably on your blog. That article and the follow-on piece about consequential GDP changes illuminate the nature of the coming population crisis within the context of growing energy and economic constraints. It is seen in the graphs of haves and have-nots, and how the number of have-nots quadruples over the next 40 years.
There is undoubtedly a population crisis coming in the underdeveloped world. In fact it has already begun, and will only get worse as time goes on. I’m currently working on a third article in that series, one that will quantitatively address Africa’s deteriorating human situation over the next 40 years. While I haven’t finished all the number crunching yet, early indications are pointing to a massive food shortfall starting within the next decade, due to the convergence of declining energy, rising fuel and fertilizer costs, reduced crop yields due to climate change, and a rising population. That convergence will likely prompt the first large scale Malthusian event the world has ever seen, with the potential to kill hundreds of millions outright and shorten the lives of hundreds of millions more. And while Africa may be hit first and hardest, the numbers seem to say that South Asia won’t be far behind.
Now, deaths in Afrasia (even in very large numbers) don’t necessarily mean the end of civilization. After all, civilization is really a Western phenomenon, and we’re not going to starve to death because we’re too rich for that, right? (I’m half kidding here, but only half kidding.) The coming influences on Western nations will be different from those in Africa, and will primarily hit our industrial base rather than our agriculture. The net oil export crisis described and analyzed by Jeffrey Brown appears to have the potential to reduce the international oil market to an empty tank, and to do it in very short order – perhaps within 30 years. Given our dependence on oil and the evident inability of our national and corporate masters to address the problem, this bodes poorly for the continuation of a culture based on the massive mobility of people and goods.
If the dominant culture of the planet (basically represented by the OECD) stumbles, at what point does civilization take a hit? What does that phrase even mean? As I’ve said before, the full outcome of this change is unknowable because it looks like it’s going to involve a major non-linearity.
However, some things can be postulated with reasonable accuracy. One is that the institutions that define a civilization (economic activity, political cohesion, the rule of law etc.) will probably fragment into smaller systems as our ability to transport people and goods at will over long distances diminishes. This fracturing is likely to lead to increased conflicts of various sorts. Some regions will inevitably do better than others, but disparities even between “civilized” regions will probably increase. There is likely to be an upsurge in authoritarian governments and inter-group scapegoating . There will probably be a decline in our ability to maintain widely distributed, highly interconnected, technologically sophisticated systems. That last effect is already being seen in the electrical grid problems spreading through the underdeveloped world.
So, a Malthusian crisis in Afrasia and an industrial resilience crisis in the West, both of which are quantitatively supportable projections, will happen essentially simultaneously. What kinds of interactions will they generate? Will the potentially vast flow of refugees from the Malthusian areas impact the ability of the industrialized areas to support their own civilizing institutions? Might the West decide to keep those people from swamping the lifeboats? Would decisions like that affect even further the trade ties necessary to maintain a global economic “critical mass”? At what point might economic, technological and social disruptions – all of which flow naturally from those quantitatively supportable projections – make large-scale activities in any of those spheres impossible? If that happens, at what point do you say that civilization as we understand it today is gone?
In fact it doesn’t even need to be “gone” to make attractive the kinds of village-scale social organizations Ken and I are thinking about. Groupings of that size (insert obligatory reference to Dunbar’s Number) have been successful throughout human history. The fact that I consider them to be an effective bulwark against the kinds of changes I have deduced from the available evidence should not be surprising.
Will civilization as we know it be gone in 30 years? That depends greatly on how you characterize civilization, and what degree of dissolution you require to declare it gone. Based on the evidence, I certainly think there is a better than even chance that our industrial civilization will undergo a massive transformation within that time. Whether such a transformation qualifies as “civilization as we know it being gone” is open for debate, but I think that is one reasonable description of such changed circumstances.
Regarding the credibility of the debate, my position is that the circumstances humanity faces over the next generation are so dire that a bit of hyperbole is useful. The situation is itself hyperbolic as far as I can tell. Such contemplations are always loaded with emotion of course, as evidenced by your use of words such as “foolish” and Blair’s use of phrases like “death control”. I’d like to think it’s possible to consider even the possible end of our current cycle of civilization dispassionately and objectively. I therefore think your attempt to proscribe the debate rather than to guide it in directions you might feel more appropriate is unhelpful. In my opinion these matters cry out for good-faith discussion.
I’m sorry for the length of this response, but I think this is a crucially important topic.
It seems to me like “death control” is simply a term which you are not familiar with. I’m not particularly familiar with it myself, as Blair T. Longley here is the first berson I’ve “met ” who is using it. Anyway: it’s more than just a phrase. As far as I can understand it should be a term which most, if not all, demographers would be familiar with. Especially these days, as child mortality is going down, while the elders of society may live for much longer than ever before, and a great lot of people expects the average age of death to be rising to 90, 100, and 120, depending on the time frame.
I agree Ken…you have written almost exactly what i’ve been thinking last couple years..looking forward to find more people who think like you.
Magne, I just googled the term “death control” and it doesn’t seem to be in wide use among demographers. From the references I saw it’s being used fairly loosely in a number of contexts. But yes, it does appear to be more benign than I at first assumed.
I’ve seen that many of the regular users of this forum “believe in” a future of smaller towns and villages, scattered around in what today must be called wilderness. I understand that many of you are full of hopes that mega-cities like Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Jakarta, and Lagos (to mention just a few) are the results of urbanization processes which should need to be coming to and end, and a relocation of people would ensue: a movement of people from these mega-cities and back to the countryside. John, Trinifar, and Paul are among those who have proposed such an ideal development.
Now, I wonder: how can this be. The population of the world is going to rise by 50% in the next 40 years. I mean: get real here. The population explosion is a sure sign that the total number of mega-cities is bound to increase. And rapidly so! So the best solution would surely have to be that of “greening” the city environment, and not to be dreaming of a ruralization movement that simply can’t come true.
The combination of population explosion and a capitalist system and ideology is a certain way of ensuring further urbanization. In order to realize that this is the case, you need only to take a look at recent history. Village and countryside life is being abandoned because of a patent lack of jobs and the economic impossibility of surviving that often idyllised life of subsistence farming. What we are seeing is that more and more land belongs to fewer and fewer large-scale farmers, and that those who are selling out, either by choice or by force, are very soon leaving the countryside in order to find a job and settle down in large towns. More often than not in some slum area which is a toxic cesspool of open sewers and a lack of clean water. Enjoy. 8)
Yes, Paul, that’s right. I have googled the term myself, and found that it’s definitely not in wide use. I believe most demographers are choosing not to talk too much about the average age of old age death, and I think that would be because this is yet another taboo topic. Problems concerned with exceptionally long lifetimes, as developed by the medical profession, aren’t being discussed at any length by anyone, because the topic itself is taboo. And my God! How I hate taboo topics!!
It is popularly assumed — and quite rightly so — that almost all human beings want to live for as long as possible. Therefore, the issue of average age of old age death is hardly ever mentioned by anyone. Any possible “problem” concerned with the average length of life, is readily assumed to be unspeakable. And rightly so, I believe. This is human nature, and that’s final.
If the human species is in fact going to do itself in, it will most probably be because of the frantic up-keep of taboo topics. Problems that cannot be discussed, because … well, because! … so shut up about it, please! … you’re out of line! … don’t mention! …
And that’s what a taboo topic looks like.
For my part, I emphatically do not believe that the population of the Earth is going to grow by 50% over the next 40 years. The energy/economic/ecological numbers simply do not support any such development. If I had to put a stake in the ground, I’d say a more realistic outlook is a population peak of 7.5 to 8 billion in 2020-2025, thereafter declining to 4 billion (+/- 1 billion) by 2050.
The onrushing net oil export crisis is going to pose a severe challenge to capitalism in its current form.
We will see a greening of the cities in various places (similar to what happened in Havana) though we may also see natural or forcible depopulation of urban centers.
Economic opportunity is unlikely to remain a driver of urbanization if the economy takes a hit and food distribution becomes problematic due to fuel costs and/or outright food shortages in some areas.
Thank you, Paul. Now we’re getting somewhere. You have finally thrown some of your more interesting cards on the table. And I’m not being sarcastic here. I understand that you have undertaken a lot of research here, and I’ve been in agreement with you for a while now, especially when it comes to the notion that we’re discussing future events that are not going to happen. That is: we’re dreaming of future developments that would make for further sustainability, like the reduction of CO2 emissions, for one. That is not going to happen, and the main drive behind this is the shear growth of the world’s population, as teamed up with rapid industrialization projects in plenty of third world countries.
Trinifar’s mathematic model here, makes for the best possible argument of why the proposed CO2 emissions cuts are not going to happen. It’s going to require too much for too many, that’s all. And it’s making it difficult to hold faith in a forseeable future of sustainable development.
Now, my most basic kind of philosophical view, is that human beings, when pooled together into large groups or great masses of people think, act and behave like little children. Which means that so long as it is impossible for North Americans, Western Europeans, Australians, Japanese and Middle East peoples to cut down on any form of consumption what-so-ever, there is no reason to expect that poor people of South America, South Asia and Africa south of the Sahara are going let themselves be persuaded to think green. That is why we need to achieve the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, and that is definitely not going to happen any time soon. Not in a million years, so to speak, and certainly not by 2015, as is the target year of the UNDP; a year which, as a matter of cruel coincidence, is the final year of the “window of opportunity” as proposed by Al Gore and the IPPC.
However! — I think you are underestimating the human ability of adaptation. I have said it before and I gladly say it again: the human species is already producing food enough to feed about 12 billion people. I only wish I could remember the source of this information. I first got it at a time when I still wasn’t too disturbed by the future of the ecosystems, the biosphere, the planet, and in the last instance, humanity. But I remember the key elements. It was an article on “Why on this Earth should anyone be starving, so long as we produce enough food to feed 12 billion people?!” The answer was a very complex matter. We used a lot of the food as animal feed, and lots of food went to waste as litter, garbage or thrash. There was huge amounts of different foodstuffs stuck in storage buildings in Europe and the USA; like butter and other milk products, eggs, vegetables and fruits. — I must have read this article around the year 2000.
A future of real possibility of food shortage, will probably mean a future of serious re-thinking of the value of food. Another problem, of course, is that of fresh water. — I believe this is just another problem that is going to be solved.
All in all, I have every reason to believe that the world’s population is going to reach 9 billion by 2050. I don’t believe in a massive human die-off. I believe this species is too good at adapting, and that it will not allow for any such experience.
There is one development that is disturbing, though. This is the prospect of outright war over control of dwindling natural resources, and the adoption of “killing off” tactics, starting from the moment when (and not if) the ruling class of this first ever world civilization (which is armed to the teeth) decides to take a more serious — and sinister — look at the population explosion and the issue of overpopulation. Believe me: you do not need to be much of a prophet in order to see the possibility of genocide.
I remain hopeful that we are going to arrive at a more humane form of trouble-shooting; namely that of coming together in co-operation. But I’m not so stupid that I do not understand when I am dreaming and not thinking.
Magne: “Now, my most basic kind of philosophical view, is that human beings, when pooled together into large groups or great masses of people think, act and behave like little children.”
And the first thing you need to know about little children, is the oft-heard phrase: “It’s not fair!”
And the first thing you need to know about the impoverished masses of grown-ups, is the oft-heard phrase: “I’m sorry, we can’t afford to …”
The second thing you need to know about the impoverished masses of grown-ups, is the oft-heard phrase: “I want to travel to America; I’m a good worker, and that is my dream.”
I appreciate your long, thoughtful response. I’ll try to keep my emotions in check and respond in kind.
I know no more about Ken than what John writes at the top of this post (he’s a PhD candidate studying glaciers). While Ken offers a few qualifiers — very few — most of his essay consists of declarative sentences offered with no supporting evidence. Given the conclusions he comes to are so dire and the course of action he suggests (“The main focus should be on sowing the seeds of a future sustainable society”) so morally objectionable, I find Ken’s approach intellectually irresponsible at best. (And that it comes from a grad student in science pisses me off all the more.)
What Ken has done in his essay is different than the work of yours that I reviewed in a couple of important ways:
(1) you have that giant qualifier at the top of your essay which says in part, “Given projected trends in energy supplies, energy efficiency and population levels, this is a probable outcome if we just continue business as usual.”
(2) you provide data and analysis, even put your raw data online for inspection.
As I said in my post, those two things give you credibility. Not having done that, Ken’s essay can not be distinguished from the ravings of a madman which is unfortunate for everyone interested in this area. It is just fodder for people to say, “Look, these folks are just making crap up” — in stark contrast to your work which forces people to think and consider. (To put it in personal terms, Ken’s approach strikes me as like that of Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Rielly, Ann Coulter, etc.: talking in extreme language that enflames people and showing not an ounce of feeling for people who will suffer the consequences of the path they advocate.)
Why I find Ken’s course of action morally objectionable:
He says, “The main focus should be on sowing the seeds of a future sustainable society.” We should use angel funding to build lifeboats, remote communities of like-minded people, to land on the shores of a post-apocalyptic future after many billions have perished from thirst, hunger, war, and disease. The parallel to any number of doomsday cults is obvious: save the people like us to build another civilization of people who are just like us. Screw everybody else. It’s like a Eugenics movement on a grand scale — justified by claiming (again without evidence) that these lifeboat people will be able to create a sustainable society without the problems of the current one.
Anyone who builds models (in their mind or with computers) must understand the difference between the model and the thing being modeled. It’s a vast difference in the simplest case and even more so (to say the least) when modeling the entire world and its people. Even two years ago did anyone guess that 48 new coal-fired power plants in the US would be stopped by concerns about greenhouse gas emissions, or that Florida would elect a Republican governor who is a bleeding-heart greenie opposed to coal-fired power?
We have no accurate models of societal change. Unrestrained global capitalism might well have seen its day and be on the wane. (I think that’s the case and my evidence is at least as good as Ken’s musings.) As oil prices continue to increase, more water shortages ocurr, and food becomes more scare, society will change, but there is no guarantee that that change will only cause more strife. In the face of resource contraints, it’s a least as plausible that our economy will evolve away from its current destructive course as stay on it.
One thing that is highly probable is that none of the business-as-usual scenarios will actually occur. I’m not a Panglossian. I’m worried about the presence of a large number of nuclear armed countries in a world of shortages, but I never thought I’d see the day when Russia and the US were working together dismantle nuclear warheads and submarines (called the Nunn-Lugar program in the US).
In any case, the future will be a mixed bag consisting of some dramatic pitfalls and some marvelous, positive changes. We can’t know what will happen. I think it is silly to assume we will peg the meter on all the negative possibilities.
I’m sympathetic with Ken’s musings because they’re where I started out as well. My first run at the subject, Population, the Elephant in the Room, was much the same sort of position statement, driven by a developing but still intuitive understanding of our circumstances. . Even my second kick at the can, Energy and Population to 2100 was little better. In fact, I went much further than Ken in my assertions, postulating a sustainable carrying capacity for the earth of 1 billion and pointing to energy as the proximate cause of the die-off. I had nothing but intuition to back up my position. After I was roundly pummeled for both of those articles, I decided to back off and try to build a defensible quantitative framework.
However, something very interesting has happened as I built that framework. While my projections have grown more nuanced, my original intuition has turned out to be broadly correct. Humanity does indeed seem to be facing a set of potentially insuperable problems that will probably result in a dramatic reduction in our numbers over the next 100 years.
This has led me to be very sympathetic to Ken’s perceptions. I see in them the road I’ve traveled, and I’m now confident that the numbers support that inchoate, intuitive assessment. Ken is experiencing his part of the great awakening that’s going on all over the world right now. When we first wake up we don’t yet have all the hard facts, but there is this overwhelming feeling that we’re screwed. I think objective assessment does little more than put flesh on the bones of that gut reaction.
But, given your assessment of the situation, what actions are you suggesting? Do we put most of our effort into Ken’s lifeboat program (or Danny’s Polar Cites)? That’s the part of Ken’s essay that distrubes me the most. In short, are you of the opinion that we should give up on existing human society and just plan for a future one (or put most of our effect into the lifeboat)? And if so, on what basis? How do you “see through” a chaotic system to the “one true outcome” in a way that is distinguishable from mere prophecy?
How do you measure “insuperable problems”? How can you decide that your intuition is “broadly correct”? Is it on the basis of pluging inputs into a crude, unverified computer model, a model for which you can not show correctness or even appropriateness? All you can say is that if these assumption are correct (and complete) then this is the outcome of my model.
Do you think, as Ken does, that we should abandon billions of people to their “fate”? These are hard question which require honest, evidence-based responses.
Nothing wrong with guessing or intuition as long as it is labeled as such. I have my own dark imaginings of the future, and I’m not disparaging your work for which I’ve shown much appreciation. What this is about is how we talk about it. Do we say it as an appropriately qualified model with reasonable error bounds (and lacking a set of reasonable scenarios, or even verifiable scenarios) or relax into some doomsday vision presented as a fiat accompli? Where’s the intelligence in that?
I’m interested in good, solid reasoning, not intuition for which I have enough of my own. Anyone can choose a position and do nothing but select data and rhetoric that supports it. We’re dealing with a vast system — the world and its people — and, to date, no one has modeled it accurately. No one will. It can’t be done for reasons that should be obvious to any sophisticated modeler.
One of the things I’ve tried to do since I began this morose adventure is to refrain from prescriptions. I’ve done that largely because I didn’t think I had a good enough handle on the situation to be sure my suggestions would be any better than anyone else’s. And God knows, there are enough suggestions out there already. I’ve concentrated on describing the problem as best I can, given my marginal competency with modeling and my unfortunate tendency to go with my gut.
Nobody has a clue what we “really ought” to be doing. Everybody has an opinion, founded on some combination of information, interpretation, misinformation and misinterpretation. I’m just another third-desk violin in the orchestra, playing as best I can (don’t tell anyone, but most of the time I’m just sight reading).
The most I can say about my models is that I have yet to find a piece of evidence that conclusively invalidates them (though selection bias may be playing a role…).
I laid out my personal opinions on population levels above, and I’ll do the same about human behaviour here. As individuals we have very good intentions, but in groups we tend to act out a toxic brew of self-interest, parochialism, short-sightedness, denial and laziness. As a result, despite people like you, John Feeney, Steve Salmoney, Al Gore, James Hansen, Davis Suzuki, Tim Flannery, Lonnie Thompson , David Attenborough and me, humanity as a whole will probably keep doing what it’s doing until it can’t.
That doesn’t mean we stop trying to steer the Titanic away from the iceberg. It means we should be realistic enough to accept the amount of inertia we’re dealing with.
What do I think we should be doing? I think we should be fostering diversity, redundancy, localization, economy and distributed architectures in every possible aspect of human endeavour. I think small towns are a great idea. So are Community Supported Agriculture, local barter economies, off-grid living, educating women, co-housing, learning a trade, knowledge retention projects, universal health care and putting a stick in the spokes of corporatism at every turn. Beyond that I haven’t a clue what we “ought” to be doing. In the past we’ve muddled through some pretty tough times, and I expect a lot of the outcome this time will come from that same source.
I think that indeed, we should be “sowing the seeds of a future society”. But I also believe that we should be sowing the seeds right were we are, in the cities and neighborhoods we live in. Seeds of a future society are not lifeboats, they are memes. I also happen believe we should do everything we reasonably can to make the situation better right now. Maybe we can even make the inevitable collapse a little less horrific..
I hear you, and I agree with you. What you just said corresponds very well with the (humanist) points of view that have always guided — and still guides — my way of thinking. That sentence — “I also happen (to) believe we should do everything we reasonably can to make the situation better right now” — has been part of my vocabulary for years now. I am also thinking that “the inevitable collapse” can can be made a little less horrific, as you put it.
As a matter of clear thinking, and as a result of good planning, I believe it should be possible to make “the inevitable collapse” a lot less horrific. But then, based on my personal experience with structures of authority over the past few years, I can do nothing except agree with George Mobus, above, and conclude that “our brains are simply not sufficiently developed, on average, to develop the wisdom needed to base good judgments on global issues,” and that the very competitive, and very warlike, political regimes of our times are crowded with people who do not “display any great signs of wisdom.”
I believe Paul’s horror scenario of a period of mass human death occurring from 2025 – 2050 would have to come as a result of bad leadership: leadership of the kind that talks of lasting peace while at the same time wages bloody war in the name of … whatever. — It’s the kind of leadership we have grown extremely used to over the past 20, 50 or 100 years or so. We need to move on, and get out of this vicious circle of violence and bloody madness. We need to move on, and start to co-operate, as a unified species that is facing a common enemy as abstract as global warming, but yet as concrete as disrupted climate systems and local environments that are systematically and methodically destroyed for no other reason than ensuring economic growth.
Today is Martin Luther King Day. 🙂 — So to all the people of America, I’d like to say: get on with the celebrations. And to all the political leaders of this world, I say: Don’t bother thinking about Martin Luther King’s Dream Speech. I know that you hate dreamers more than anything, so get on with your hate speeches. Just tell us all about the importance of killing muslims, christians, jews, hindus, sikhs or buddhists. And let that be only for starters. You can tell us about the importance of going to war against this ethnic group and that terrorist organization, afterwards.
The global economic meltdown that’s happening as I type is obviously going to be a factor in any plans we might have for material mitigation in other problem areas. As global capital evaporates, we may wind up in a situation of Catabolic Collapse, where more and more of our existing capital assets have to be fed into the fire to try and keep the machine running.
I wonder to which degree the ongoing economic meltdown — stock exchange collapse on a global scale — finds its base in what was the result of the UN’s Climate Change Conference on Bali, taking place in the beginning of December, 2007? With Al Gore and the IPCC receiving the Nobel Peace Prize at exactly the same time? All sounding an unmistakable alarm on account of the natural environment of this planet? While that closed community of globalization economists present at the climate conference acted in the interest of various national economies and multinational corporation, without much further ado pushed economic growth concerns ahead of all possible ecological needs and deeds?
Now, of course, I’m quite aware of the fact that I may be the only person to perceive it in this way. I am no member of any economic community what-so-ever, and because noone ever taught me how to think like they do, I simply can’t tell how these people think. I can only imagine things like these. But I can easily imagine how several years of massive global warming and climate change reporting from all over the world might have had an effect on the economic movers and shakers of this world. — I mean: if they aren’t suffering from cold feet, then maybe they are starting to feel the heat?
I don’t know.
Some of the richest people among us may even be able to understand that overconsumption of stuff and gear really isn’t the way to go? As this is like backward thinking. — As the exact opposite of the advocation of overconsumption would be the more sustainable way to go?
Magne: “Now, of course, I’m quite aware of the fact that I may be the only person to perceive it in this way.”
Apparently, I am not. 🙂
December 4, 2007: http://comment.independent.co.uk/commentators/dominic_lawson/article3220980.ece
“Some ‘dark green’ environmentalists argue that a recession in the developed world would be a good thing, since it would reduce carbon emissions in a way that action by Governments had failed to do. For example, the always interesting George Monbiot wrote a couple of months ago that “a recession in the rich nations might be the only hope we have of buying the time we need to prevent runaway climate change”. He might soon have the opportunity to witness the recession he hoped for.”
History teaches us empires come and go, rise and fall; but history provides no evidence for the existence of so huge, and soon to become unsustainable, an empire, one that actually threatens to engulf the surface of our planetary home in the way the seemingly endless expansion of the “economic globalization empire” is doing in our time.
The gigantic scale and rapid growth rate of the unbridled, global big-business empire, the one we recognize as the predominant human construction on Earth, appears to be approaching a point in history when this economic empire irreversibly degrades Earth’s frangible ecosystems, dangerously dissipates its limited resources, and recklessly diminishes Earth’s capacity to offer a fit place for human habitation by our children and coming generations.
Steven Earl Salmony
AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population, established 2001
I agree with Paul that my use of the phrase “death control” is deliberately intended to have emotional impact.
As the registered leader of fringe political party, whose name appears on the ballots as
I have nothing to gain from being moderate, nor attempting to appeal to the mainstream.
I presume that events are going to eventually radicalize the mainstream of society.
I hope that I am leading the way towards a radical political philosophy that is based on paradigm shifting in political science that is not interested in compromising with the mainstream society. I am only interested in attempts to catalyse the radicalization of the mainstream, when events beyond human control, or human ability to ignore, force that to happen.
I remember the days back when things like health food stores and recycling were consider quackery and fringe ideas.
As I slow down, and the rest of society speeds up, I hope that I may catch the wave at some point. (Hah!)
Endless growth IS total madness.
In the longer term, more and more people are going to have to face that fact.
The questions are when and how is growth going to be limited?
I have deliberately adopted a language that says everything that limits the growth of the human population is a form of death control.
I say that exists in the context of artificial selection and new age warfare.
The goals are to have the most efficient and effective forms of death control possible, for the sake of human ecology and human evolution.
The better alternatives are mostly what other people euphemistically refer to as “birth control.”
I lump abortion and euthanasia together as aspects of systems of artificial selection.
I emphasize that most of what people call “birth control” is actually a form of death control.
If one looks at the bigger picture changing human ecology changes human evolution.
The are plenty of non-linear functions that are extremely important there.
The English language, like all other natural languages, is full of philosophical assumptions, many of which are wrong.
True birth control is to say “yes” to a potential to develop.
Real death control is to say “no” to stop a potential developing.
Life never actually begins.
Human beings are one life form in two bodies that alternate generations.
(Also all animals are one life form with plants, since animals can not live without plants.)
There is no beginning to life at conception, and the common sense beginning of life at birth makes no more sense.
What happens is that there is an alternation of generations, from adult male and female, to sperm and eggs, to adults, again, and so on …
So-called “birth controls” are really forms of death control, since they cause the death of sperm or eggs, or other entities before “birth.”
In general, real death control is the most important of all political issues which controls everything else. (Of course there has to be life first, or there is no death, but once there is life, then death controls that life.)
All living things have the ability to reproduce at an exponential rate, and it is absolutely impossible for any environment to keep that going indefinitely.
All living things can reproduce, and they could reproduce at an exponential rate that becomes impossible to continue.
Therefore, there always is, and must be, some system of death control to limit exponential growth, sooner or later, in one way or another.
Contraception and abortion are forms of death control, and there must necessarily be some system of death control.
In nature, the combination of the factors that govern death rates and birth rates develop ecologies. Over time, that directs evolution.
In nature, the balancing of these factors is called natural selection, which directs evolution.
In human society, our nature has evolved to surround ourselves with more and more of an artificial environment.
At the same time, therefore, there are more and more systems of artificial selection working through our culture, manifesting as human ecology.
Most of that artificial selection is buried under the bullies’ bullshit world view that hides what it does as much as possible.
Death controls, in the form of abortion and euthanasia, etc. are both aspects of the issues of artificial selection. Every stage of the life cycles have artificial selection aspects.
In the contexts of human ecology and evolution, artificial selection becomes new age warfare. Artificial selection is ideally what old-fashioned warfare transforms into being after we face the facts that post-modernizing weapons of mass destruction are too omnicidal, and therefore we need new age warfare that depends upon a new military ethics.
The human population has been going through an explosive exponential growth during most of our history.
We are rapidly reaching the most important turning point in history.
Relatively soon, it will be impossible to keep that exponential growth going much longer.
The human population can not keep on doubling every few decades forever, like it has been.
Most of human history has been doing that, but it is absolutely impossible for it to continue forever.
The issues of abortion and euthanasia etc. fit into this overall dilemma of sustaining some human ecology.
The most important factors throughout history has been militarism as manifested through death controls.
We need radical changes in the systems of death control that we have had throughout history.
There are chronic political problems that are inherent in the nature of life, and all of the old-fashioned solutions to those problems have become insane, due to the same reasons why it is now possible and necessary to have a new set of solutions, namely, the success of post-modernizing sciences and technologies making human beings become billions and trillions of times more powerful than ever before.
Our understanding of the laws of nature must include more of understanding our nature, and more scientific revolution in society and politics.
Ideally, we need all of the good things that actually work, such as the education and rights of women, to transfer the locus of death control to make the women more responsible for maintaining the human ecology balance of death controls.
Those are the kinds of new age warfare that could solve some of the chronic political problems that men killing each other with weapons used to solve.
One of the major themes of this Web site is that population control problems deserve more attention that they have been getting.
To put it extremely, in an oversimplified way …
women that have less than two children are committing suicide,
women that have more than two children are declaring war on their neighbours.
(Of course, that could be qualified, but the fundamental point remains the same, and I am deliberately being provocative when I oversimplify and state it in that way.)
In every other area, there is a point of just enough that is good, while both too little and too much are bad.
That is true about the human population too.
However, we come from civilizations that have been growing and growing for hundreds and thousands of years.
We are used to living in a world that has the human population growing exponentially, being able to continue doubling in size. We are used to being controlled by people who always have a lust for power that demands more and more, too much, too much.
However, the too little would also be bad.
We are used to resisting the too much, and have little experience or concern with the too little. However, a good theory has to be concerned with both.
One way or another, sooner or later, endless exponential growth has to stop, and certainly will stop.
At the present time, it is practically impossible to have any rational public debate about these issues.
I deliberately use a provocative language that uses phrases like “death control.”
Those concepts fit into my overall radical political philosophy.
I have little use for false fundamental dichotomies. I look for unitary mechanisms.
Death control ideas blend from the most gentle kinds of birth control, that prevent conception, to the most vicious kinds of mass murders and genocides.
I think those all merely change gears about how the human ecology is driven.
I consider my politics to go to the radical center. The real truth is not far away from anything except the huge lies that control our civilization.
Governments already care more about death control and debt control than anything else.
Death and taxes have always been recognized as two of the most certain things in life.
What I try to do is penetrate through the layers of lies and hypocrisy that hide the reality of our already established death and debt controls from being rationally debated.
Of course, that is barely working at the present time. However, I am still serious about attempting to do that.
Whether we are talking about changing the mainstream society so that it could adapt to survive, or developing alternative societies that could survive after the mainstream society collapsed, I think there are theoretical constants that continue to be applicable throughout all of those possible transformations.
I am not aware of anyone else that talks about these issues like I do.
But nevertheless, I have been on this path for several decades.
Paradigm shifts do not change what is, they only change the frame of reference that we perceive what is.
Concepts like death control and artificial selection merely relabel what was there already.
I am sowing the seeds of a future way to think about human ecology problems.
Y’all discuss stuff till my eyes bleed trying to follow.
It’s not that hard to come to the conclusion that it needs to be legal to allow people who don’t want to live anymore to make a humane exit.
That is simply because they themselves will come to the conclusion themselves that the youth will be worth investing the dwindling resources in.
That will happen once the financial system collapses.
Don’t count on Hillary (whom I sadly predict will be the next president) to hasten that along, she’s busy trying to be more of a man than the men she’s running against.
I agree with Janne and Magne.
(Blair, you just posted a 1,600 word essay as a comment. Why not put it on your website and just put a link to it here along with a brief synopsis?)
Actually, I did exactly the opposite to what you recommended, which is put a short link on our Web site forum, to this growthmadness.org page.
I find that amusing because, after reading several of your posts, I expect that that you and I probably have opposite opinions on many topics.
Trinifar (and Blair),
First, let me tell you that I’ve found a lot of very interesting new concepts in great many of Blair’s rather longish comments. I appreciate Blair’s thought provoking and rather unusual ways of thinking and writing. Then again, it is absolutely fair to say that the proposed possible collapse of the current world civilization is not something I am afraid of, but much rather something I hope — and sincerely so — might be fruitful to humanity in the long run.
Maybe the on-going collapse of the world’s stock exchanges could lead to a fresh start. I mean: we have previously discussed such creative terms as “fake” and “real” economy here. What if the collapse of the current financial system is really a much needed reality check on the part of those growth mad structures of the current financial or economic systems?
Now, about your agreeing with Janne Haarni and me: I’m more than just a little confused here, and don’t know exactly what to think or believe.
On the one hand, yes: I am a true humanist. I am left wing radical by nature, but I’m certainly not the kind of revolutionary who smells blood. I am way too much of a poet in order to be in favour of massive blood shed of any kind. I believe that problems that we have in common, all of us, and regardless of gender, race, nationality and wealth should be solved in unison, in peace, and with the ideals of togetherness and co-operation always in mind, and la la la la la …
The point is: I may be a humanist, but it doesn’t mean that I need to be stupid. I know too much about the evils of government, I know too much about the cynicism of the economic cummunity, I know too much about the dubious practices, unscrupoulousness and agressiveness of a few too many of the social, cultural, beaurocratic, and administrative systems of this country and indeed of the world. I know too much about the racist and xenophobe religious zealots who are in charge of too many national and international policy making processes, not onlyn in the USA, but across the world. The list of reality checks can continue through much more than the 1.600 word essay presented above. Oh yes, I could go on and on and on about the different weapons at our disposal, and I could write drearily about the many realities of the class system. I could go on and on and on, and effectively arrive at the easy conclusion that Magne Karlsen, the humanist, is utterly mistaken and has it all desperately wrong. In which case Paul Chefurka’s conclusion that we are going to count about 4 billion people in 2050 would be absolutely right, and I’d be sorry. — As humanity, in that case, will have allowed itself to subdue all manners of humanism and allow for a vampire-like philosophy of mass death to occur. And, as I see it, quite unneccessarily so, but then again: who am I to judge?
All my hopes for the future depends on a mental, social, psychological, philosophical, and cultural revolution to take place. And that: not only on a global scale, but as a matter of fact on all possible local scales as well. This is a tall order, I know. It is hardly worth dreamins about, that’s all. We’ve only got to wait and see what might be the nature of human response in the face of unprecedented danger. It sure seems to me like the most popular response is one of absolute indifference. While I remain hopeful that humanity is somehow going to decide against overconsumption, and actually start to think green. — Whatever that means?
One more thing. I do understand that Paul has a quite naturally occurring period of mass death in mind. As desertification continues, as local soils get eroded, and as farmlands no longer produce as much food as they used to, Paul sees a period of third world mass hunger and despair as a quite natural consequence, not only of global warming but also of the many by-products of peak oil.
Now, this would be the point where I wouldn’t be able to do nothing except mumbling about some long forgotten ideals of sharing. And the concept of sharing is an ideal that has never had anything to do with capitalism, if I may say so.
Uh, this discussion is becoming wierd.
Let’s be rational here, please! If we really want to take a serious step towards “sowing the seeds of a future society” we should not be thinking about Danny Bloom’s polar cities, and we should not be contemplating a future “much reduced human population [that] will be concentrated in areas which are still capable of producing food,” — to quote Ken Whitehead here. We should not let go of possible solutions to the crisis we are finding ourselves in, as part of a species which is about to overwhelm and overgrow the very planet and its many and diverse natural habitats. We should try to make people and governments understand that the global growth culture, with its industrial face, coal-fired heart and petrol-fuelled soul, is the exact mishap which is leading humanity, as a whole, down this road of ecological destruction, and that we might as well be better off by cutting the lifeline of this on-going madness off, simply by putting a stop to shopping. That would be the perfect first move. And yes: it will have its effect of the national and corporate economy. And yes: it will have its effect on the work market. Oh, and yes: it will make the rich and the powerful start to do and say crazy things. To some of us, it will actually be quite funny.
If we want to sow a seed of a future society, we should not be thinking about human colonisation of the solar system, but we should urge humanity on towards a more sustainable lifestyle. I do not expect any of the present times’ politicians and beaurocrats and economists and lawyers to do it for us. We must — just like Steven Earl Salmony and Krishnaraj Rao has said, over and over and over again — start campaigning for the obvious solution towards taming the growth machine. It is all about cutting down on consumption. After that it will be all about rainforest conservation, protection of the fish resources. It will also be about a slow, steady and certain move away from the fossil-fuelled nightmare of our times, and towards solar powered, wind powered, wave powered and possibly nuclear powered future. A that should be marked by friendship and peace, and not by the current hate and bloody warfare. An age of mutual understanding is what I have always been dreaming of (silly, little me), and I know much better than that. And I’m telling you all: that’s unfortunate.
Here’s what I had in mind more specifically. I agree with this statement by Janne:
And I agree with your comment that immediately followed that Janne’s.
I’ve said repeatedly on this blog and my own that I think some kind of horrible drama will play out on a grand scale this century and that the response must be (from a moral standpoint) to do as much as possible to minimize the damage including making it possible for honest, knowledgable leaders to get elected to public office. My most viseral reaction to Ken’s essay is his suggestion that “the main focus” should be on seeding a future civilization — a position that undercuts everything I hold dear and one that is to me morally bankrupt.
“Uh, this discussion is becoming wierd.” — I agree with that too!
Sometimes it seems like there’s a bit of a contest here to see who can be the most pessimistic about the future, the nature of humanity, and our political, economic, and other social systems. I don’t see the need to play that game, we’re all sufficiently pessimistic to meet any reasonable litmus test. (I suspect Steve as the resident practicing psychologist can verify that.)
However, both pessimism and optimism at the extremes lie in the realm of feelings and intuition — not facts, not good science, not even good rhetoric — and should be treated as such. By that I mean, when you can’t back up a feeling or intuition with anything approaching clear objective evidence, it is certainly insane to use it as a basis for planning a path of action, which is what I think Ken has done and that some others are suggesting. (Paul, notably says he isn’t offering a plan of action.) We are after all talking about the future of humanity and the lives of billions. We should put at least as much effort into ensuring our plans are effective, viable, and well motivated as we do for, say, a space shuttle flight, a drug trial, or building a bridge.
As to my comment on Blair’s essay-as-comment, I really meant only what I said; it was too long to be served up as comment on this post. I happen to agree with much of what I think Blair is saying.
The current civilization, which is based primarily on financial and military might, and is owned and run by the keepers of financial might, backed up by armies of soldiers and policemen, as well as law makers, advocates and judges.
I do not quite understand the notion that there is a real danger that the current world civilization, which finds is first and most important base in a monetary and financial system that noone — not even trained economists — can make any sense of, should crumble and fall? I mean: I fail to see any danger in that. To the contrary: the current world civilization is the result of one huge growth machine which is travelling at a very high speed and is threatening to quench the future for all of the species of the planet, up to and including the human race, — although that would have to be in the long term.
I wish I could talk about the unavoidable fall of the cash mad civilization we currently are cursed with, but I’m not. It seems as if people in general are quite ready to do whatever it takes in order to allow this corrupt, violent, and impersonal competition culture to survive indefinitely. The Big We has made itself dependent of a system that is strangling and choking this planet at a speed which is simply amazing. It has got to stop. And as soon as possible, too. Humanity and all endangered species of this world is in need of a fresh start. A new deal. A second chance. A lazy day after tomorrow.
Where are we at odds, Magne? You don’t wish for maximal damage in the collapse of civilization and neither do I. Both of us wish for a dramatic transformation, one in which human welfare replaces consumption and GDP as a measure of “goodness.” Both of us think that may be a long shot. But given the choice between throwing in the towel and trying for something better, I think both of us choose trying for something better.
Something more and something better definitely, yes definitely, can and will be done.
It is inconceivable that reasonable, sensible and courageous people will ever advocate the idea, “Let us exercise the courage to do nothing,” even though we see this perverse perspective presented in many places, but only by the Masters of the Universe and their many minions.
The leaders of my not-so-great generation are a disappointment, ruled as they are by selfish interests and wealth accumulation, without realistic regard for the children, coming generations, the environment or even the integrity of Earth as a fit place for human habitation.
Pingback: a dark green future « Trinifar
Oh man!!! What a lot of cogitations… SERIOUSLY!
On a very earnest (and non-sarcastic) note: I see that we — the folks on this forum — are trying to think our way out of a problem of a magnitude that even global economists and statesmen are afraid to look in the eye! And grandiose as it may sound, the future may well depend on the direction of thinking — the policies — that we evolve here on this forum and other like it.
If that happens, we shall collectively (at a planetary level) have given a very different twist to at old latin saying — Cogito Ergo Sum, “I THINK, therefore I AM.”
I’ll have to do some serious reading to catch up with this thread of discussion… and then maybe I’ll have something non-tangential to contribute to it.
Meanwhile, kudos to all of you, guys!
Okay, let me respond to a couple of issues in this thread. In this comment, I want to respond to Trinifar’s objections to the essay and how I introduced it.
To me, Trinifar, it’s simpler than what I read as your stance.
Here are some thoughts:
1) My view has been and remains one of tenuous optimism. Because I’m not yet convinced we can know whether and to what degree we can or cannot avert collapse or something approaching it I think it’s only logical to continue to invest significant effort in acting on the chance that we can get through this bottleneck reasonably intact, effecting globally a major and positive societal and cultural transformation in the process. (Without such a transformation, any “tinkering,” to use Paul’s term, no matter how massive, will be no real solution.)
2) I suspect we all agree that if we continue on anything resembling our present ecological course, collapse (or something approaching it) will be inevitable. Because we can’t predict well at all the decisions, social changes, etc. to come in the next several decades, one can reasonably conclude either that we have a decent chance of averting collapse or that we don’t. (Again, I want to qualify that because some gray area in between total annihilation and happy, triumphant continuation of a cornucopian myth seems likely. But anything not too near either extreme seems to me to be a reasonable guess.) Therefore I don’t see Ken’s musings as any more foolish than those of someone saying, “I think we can do A+B+C, and if we do we’ll get through this and achieve sustainability.” Both know their assertions are at best educated guesses.
3) Though Ken didn’t lay out his evidence and underlying assumptions (a la Paul’s models), we know others have. There’s Paul, of course, and Jason Godesky, and others including some of the peak oil writers who see a possible transition to relocalization, the end of the suburbs, etc. – a sort of partial collapse I suppose. I think it’s okay for someone like Ken to come along and say or imply, “Those folks’ conclusion that collapse is inevitable is my starting point. See their work for details. Now I want to explore how we might adapt to such a collapse.”
I personally don’t share the conviction that it’s inevitable. I think it’s a real risk, and see benefits in an essay like Ken’s: First, as you mentioned, it tells people, “Look at what we might have to deal with if we don’t get extremely serious about addressing this ecological crisis. This is what we hope to avoid.” Second, in the event collapse is in the offing, working through such ideas will be of obvious value. What would we do? Whoever might be left standing doesn’t want to get there with no thoughts about what might be a good next step.
Is there anything wrong with working both to avert or soften collapse and to prepare for its possibility?
4) I think that because Ken’s essay doesn’t provide much support for his initial assumption, readers will realize it’s an assumption, not a fact or established likelihood. I think it’s hard to assume otherwise as a contrary assumption is all around us everyday in the communications of our culture. i.e., Ken’s assumption is very far from the mainstream. So I don’t see the need to spell that out.
5) [EDIT: This item (#5) is in response to this comment: “I don’t see value in doomsday literature and have a strong, visceral reaction to the idea of throwing up our hands and planning for survival post-collapse. . . . Ken’s piece here is just deflating.” ] If it depresses some readers, well, I don’t see it as my responsibility to make sure everyone always comes away from here happy. I don’t subscribe to the vein of thought now prevalent in environmentalism that says we’ll just turn people off with dire scenarios and so must be careful how we package everything. I like packaging things as the plain truth to the extent possible. As far as I know, the possibility of collapse is the truth. Other than those who completely agree with it, I think most will read Ken’s essay and see his initial assumption as just that, an assumption and a judgment call which they can investigate for themselves. No reader has to agree with him that the “main focus should be on sowing the seeds of a future sustainable society” for the essay to have value.
I’m not sure if we disagree on the population issue or not. But I want to make clear that I don’t see it as the root cause of our ecological dilemma. Never have, I don’t think. I think sometimes people assume I see it as such, because I write about it a lot, but I’ve said a number of times here and elsewhere that there are clearly deeper societal and cultural forces which have caused human population growth to go so far. Ultimately those factors have to be the focus. Here’s an analogy I used in a comment not long ago:
Let’s say the earth is like a medical patient with cancer caused by exposure to some environmental toxin. This patient now has a brain tumor which will kill him within a month if it’s not removed. Yet, slightly longer term, he will die, as well, from continued exposure to the toxin, the root cause of his cancer, unless all traces of it are removed from his body and his environment.
How do we treat him? We address both the root cause and the immediate symptom (tumor). Ideally, we should address both facets immediately and as effectively as possible. But if forced to focus on one or the other in the next “week,” we would have to choose the tumor.
With regard to the human ecological plight, I currently focus on population and economic growth because, like the tumor, they are very serious, relatively short term threats which, on a very physical level, and converging with climate change, groundwater depletion, and other problems, threaten countless lives in the coming decades. But I do so also because other environmental writers and political commentators avoid or ignore them more than any other serious environmental issues. But I completely support and encourage simultaneous attention to the root, societal causes of this mess. Certainly, civilization will face cataclysm if we don’t do that as well. We must do both.
Ending and reversing population growth (stabilization, bah!) seems to me to be one of the key actions we’ll need to take. At worst it would seem to have great potential to save some millions of lives; at best, if by some chance we can avert real collapse, it would could be one of the central bits of “tinkering” which would get us out of this mess. But yes, we must address underlying forces which have brought us here.
To me, much of that means cultural forces going back to the adoption of agriculture and our coming to see ourselves as separate from nature and other species. I wonder if that may not be even a more fundamental problem than our lack of a self restraint mechanism. The line of thinking in Ishmael may not be far off, I think.
Which brings me to something that occurred to me when I read:
But we did exercise that restraint for a couple million years or so before we seriously adopted agriculture. e.g., pre-agricultural peoples exercised population control, seemingly out of an awareness that, like any other species, they could deplete their habitat’s resources if they weren’t careful. What changed? In a sense I can see how we would have dropped such restraint simply as a result of having agriculture at our disposal. But that would seem to be more cultural than evolutionary. (One of George’s comments above seems to address this. I’m just thinking “out loud.”)
A final comment on population: Another reason I think it’s an important topic to talk about is that the average citizen is not even aware of the basics of the global ecological crisis. Emphasizing the incredible growth of the human population and the overshoot in which we now find ourselves and it’s connection with the breakdown of the web of life seems to me a good way of driving home the whole issue and its potential to flat kill us.
by James Howard Kunstler
The dark tunnel that the U.S. economy has entered began to look more and more like a black hole recently, sucking in lives, fortunes, and prospects behind a Potemkin facade of orderly retreat put up by anyone in authority with a story to tell or an interest to protect – Fed chairman Bernanke, CNBC, The New York Times , the Bank of America… Events are now moving ahead of anything that personalities can do to control them.
The “housing bubble” implosion is broadly misunderstood. It’s not just the collapse of a market for a particular kind of commodity, it’s the end of the suburban pattern itself, the way of life it represents, and the entire economy connected with it. It’s the crack up of the system that America has invested most of its wealth in since 1950. It’s perhaps most tragic that the mis-investments only accelerated as the system reached its end, but it seems to be nature’s way that waves crest just before they break.
Read the rest…
[Admin note: Steve, please use a truncated quote and link to the rest as above. – JF]
John, you say: “But we did exercise that restraint for a couple million years or so before we seriously adopted agriculture. e.g., pre-agricultural peoples exercised population control, seemingly out of an awareness that, like any other species, they could deplete their habitat’s resources if they weren’t careful.”
I don’t think pre-agricultural peoples did that – I think “nature” did that. Without agriculture there was no way humans could really badly exceed the carrying capacity of their habitat – except perhaps for over-hunting, which apparently did happen many times, with sometimes devastating results.
I doubt that any species have this kind of internal restraint – although I cannot be sure, of course.
I was about to post that exact point. We didn’t exercise restraint, our numbers were controlled by our environment.
Starvation and exposure to the elements were the biggies (we dealt with the predator problem earlier when we were still hunter-gatherers). When we developed agriculture we not only grew more food, we also stayed in one place long enough to permit the building of more secure shelter – we didn’t have to carry it with us, so we could build out of heavier materials. this would have drastically cut the previous death toll from exposure.
Animals that were the top carnivores in their ecosystem for millions of years evolved self-restraint systems over their own populations.
Animals that were prey did not.
Human beings were prey for millions of years.
Not until relatively recently did human beings become the top carnivores.
We are monkeys that used to be eaten by tigers. Now we are monkeys with guns that are killing all the tigers.
The top most of the top carnivores are now the men that “prey” on men.
There are lots of good metaphors about how human ecology works.
(Of course, they are only metaphors, while the literal truth is far more complicated.)
The worst of our problems is that our top carnivores now are the people who are the best at being dishonest and violent, and that is all they are good at, because they do not have to be good at anything else.
The top carnivores in the human ecology are the best wolves that control the vast majority of other humans who act like sheep. However, they all have gotten mad sheep disease.
The fundamental problem is the unfinished process of the explosion of intelligence into natural selection, which has only a half-baked artificial selection so far.
In terms of a previous post, we do not have wisdom to go along with our power.
The wolves have taught the sheep to bleat their morality.
The bullies control society by hiding everything they do behind bullshit.
The bullies control the education and mass media and use them to brainwash the sheep to believe in lies and hypocrisy.
We are in the process of working through the problems presented by human intelligence exploding the old box of natural selection that all other living things, including ourselves, used to live within.
We have gained awesome powers, but have not yet gained enough wisdom to use those powers.
The world we live in now is in the process of adapting to the exponential increase in human power, that has gone way too far ahead of our wisdom to be able to use that power.
Forums like this are the efforts of a few people to use their intelligence and imagination to try to cope with the information about the problems that human beings are destroying the natural world.
Human beings are bad weather animals that drove their own evolution, and now we are making our own bad weather to drive our own evolution more.
Exponential growth in the ability to use tools and language has got to go through a change of state, and quantum leap, in qualitative change towards a different kind of wisdom.
More from James Howard Kunstler………..
Blair: “Forums like this are the efforts of a few people to use their intelligence and imagination to try to cope with the information about the problems that human beings are destroying the natural world.”
Well said. – 🙂
You won’t have to try and teach me anything the that little pack of like-minded wolves and that massive amount of very diverse sheep, each and every one of them equally authentic. I do not know many wolves, but I know all there is to know about the character traits of that relatively small pack of wolves. They go to any length, and they do anyhow. And the tragedy of the masses of docile sheep is that they depend on the wolves in order to make their lives complete. Complete with news from the war front and the weekend’s football league results, if I may say so. I guess I shouldn’t do that, as it makes me become a bad sheep. One to eat. To consume. Like dead meat.
But okay. My native country and local society has made me become a zombie. I do not live my life, I merely exist. It’s what I deserve, I guess. As the whistle-blower I am, but unfortunately a whistle-blower who’s last stand is as perverse as believing that the monstrous growth machine which is ready to kill this planet, and is slowly but certainly doing so, must be killed. And that it can be killed by means of under-consumption, as opposed to the good capitalist practice of over-consumption. And that it will have to happen on the largest of all scales, as any other scale would be too little, too late.
So kill me if I’m wrong. It doesn’t matter much. As I’m cought between my culture and the system (just like Rage Against The Machine envisioned it in “Settle For Nothing”), there is not much I can do. I can run, but I can’t hide. And you can visit Norway and ask for me, and all you will hear is: “Never heard of the guy.” — As it is, this is my writing on the wall: noone’s here to catch me when I fall. I’m not kidding.
And why should I wish to kid any of you? As it is, my personal life has become my best example of all what can go wrong in the life of a young man. But it is also my best proof that the rich and the powerful are seriously up-to-date with all of the situations which are being discussed on this blog. Yes. All topics here. All of them.
Well it seems like I stirred up a hornet’s nest. I thought I would wait for a week or so and watch the fireworks before commenting myself.
I appreciate all your comments, including the more colourful ones. Most (though not all) of you correctly identified the fact that this was an opinion piece designed to provoke discussion, rather than to be dissected in detail. As such I make no apologies for writing in hyperbole. I do apologise if it took some of you out of your comfort zone.
I must confess I found Trinifar’s angry response rather baffling. It became clearer when I re-read what I had written. At one point I said that “The main focus should be on sowing the seeds of a future sustainable society”. I can see how this could be interpreted to mean, sit back and leave the rest of humanity to their fate. This is certainly not the impression I was trying to convey. To do so would be effectively to condone genocide.
On the other hand I did pick up a certain resistance to new ideas. Trinifar’s comments about mainstream academics and the GIM community suggest a certain cliquishness. It doesn’t matter where ideas come from; it does not make them any more or less valid. I think that most people on this forum would probably agree that NOT having a background in classical economics makes it easier to see the big picture, rather than getting bogged down in detail. Similarly, with an impending ecological crisis, web sites such as this one have to be receptive to all ideas and thoughts, otherwise they become irrelevant.
The main thrust of my argument is that we had better have a plan B. The idea that we are going to get though the coming bottleneck unscathed, with nine billion of us competing for increasingly scant resources against a background of climate change, peak oil, and ecological collapse is something which challenges my intuition. You only need to look at the response of global markets to the, relatively minor, sub-prime lending drama to get an idea of how unstable the current financial system is. How is it going to stand up to the exponentially greater crisis caused by peak oil and climate change?
In general I find myself in agreement with Paul’s position more often than not. Where I differ is that I believe that any society that develops in an ad hoc manner will of necessity be driven by short term priorities. Even where there are active and diverse community organisations it is likely that they will be overwhelmed by the short term priorities of the community as a whole. Thus our current system will perpetuate itself. I believe that it is only by planning an entirely new form of society and allowing it to incubate far from other disruptive influences that we can create something truly sustainable. We currently have the technology available to help us in this task. The internet allows an exchange of ideas in a way that has never before been possible, and likely will not be in the future. If we can’t do it now, we certainly will not be able to in a post-crisis world.
I have enjoyed following the debate so far and have found much of value in your responses. George’s comments on the differences between intelligence and wisdom are interesting and could go a long way towards explaining our current situation, and why our leaders adopt positions that appear to defy common sense. The plea for an indestructible record of our knowledge as a society is also put forward by James Lovelock in his book the Revenge of Gaia and appears to be a sensible step, as are such initiatives as Spitzbergen’s doomsday vault. These resources may be a great asset to a future population.
I do not want any of this. I would like to just bury my head in the sand and get on with my life. I am not by nature a pessimist, but I have a deep intuitive feeling that something is going wrong and I cannot ignore it. Perhaps I am the one that is wrong. Perhaps in a year’s time I will wake up and realise that everything I have been thinking has been a bad dream, that we can carry on living the way we have been for the foreseeable future, and that everything is going to be all right. My thoughts that I presented represent my current analysis of our situation as well as one vision of how we might move beyond it. It is certainly not the only answer, in fact I do not believe there is a single answer.
Janne, Paul, and Blair,
While I’m sure basic ecological principles played a large role, I think there’s more.
It seems to be debated but many anthropologists say hunter-gatherers did practice population control. Now, according to those who believe they did, the methods varied according to locale and necessity and many (but not all) of the methods may have been built into culture so that little conscious restraint was necessary. And some of them would be seen as barbaric today. But they were there nonetheless.
A couple of quick, unendorsed references:
“Aspects of social relationships among hunters-gatherers:
# delayed marriage
# late weaning
# wide spacing of children”
See the highlights here.
Interesting review here.
“Wood (1998: 100) claimed that social scientists had abandoned the idea of Palaeolithic population control and the necessitated relatively low mortality, because of the onslaught on this position by theoretical population biologists, Maynard Smith (1976) and Wade (1978), both in the Quarterly Review of Biology, and Uyenoyama and Feldman (1980) in Theoretical Population Biology. In reality, very few field social scientists have ever cited these sources and most had probably never heard of them before Wood’s (1994) Dynamics of Human Reproduction or more likely his 1998 paper in Current Anthropology. Judging by current textbooks, neither the majority of epidemiologists nor most anthropologists have changed their stance.”
More informally, Quinn talks about American Indian tribes having had boundaries which other tribes did not cross without the threat of being killed. This, he says, served as a means of population control, telling other tribes, in essence, “Keep your numbers down because you can’t simply invade our territory or even become one of us.”
Here (under “history”) is a bit on more recent methods of population control:
I think one line of thinking is that the advent of agriculture allowed humans to relax concerns about population numbers because they could always store more food or put more land under cultivation. I would think any population control methods would likely need to be built into culture. i.e., we need a deep, cultural understanding of the need to limit our numbers. We don’t have that now, but it appears some groups may have had it to varying degrees in the past. I’m just winging it here and would love to hear from an anthropologist or two. I may go over to the Anthropik network to ask about it as Jason Godesky would probably know the consensus on the topic.
But the idea that we are going to inevitably have to witness a period of mass death in the duration of this century, is one that I do not believe in, but of course also a notion that we can seriously take into consideration, in-as-much as nobody knows that the world’s population will actually find its balance point at about 9.2 billion or so, at which point the population is supposed to stabilize and then start to decline. Unless something is done here, in terms of family planning programs in the third world of fanatic religious sects and thought systems and cultural practices, we could equally be looking at the prospect of counting 10 or even 15 billion people by the end of this century. Who knows? Or are we going to stick to the US Census Bureau’s “decision” that in the foreseeable future countries like Mexico, Indonesia, Cameroon and The Philippines are going to experience fertility rates of 2.1 by the middle of this century? Think about it: where is the statistical evidence which can serve to substantiate such an idea? You see, I just don’t know about that. It looks to me like the US Census Bureau is a congregation of dreamers, who are only hoping that the population will stop growing exponentially, but which cannot provide any evidence to support the fact that it will.
I have been working on a book for the past two years regarding the nature of wisdom and its lack in our current species of human. For what it is worth, here is the beginning of the introduction. (sorry for the length of the post!) Criticisms welcome.
Eusapience: Evolution of the Wise Mind
Introduction: Homo sapiens Is Not Sufficiently Sapient
Homo sapiens is doomed to extinction.
As “startling” as that may sound, it is actually not at all controversial! Species last, on average, only several million years. Many last for far shorter periods before going extinct. Previous human species, habalis, erectus, neanderthalis, etc. have come and gone. Why would we think our current – and as far as we know – only extant species will go on forever?
In some sense this is really the same thing as saying that we, as individuals, are all going to die. It is trivially true. No matter how much we might be tempted to wish we could live forever, when faced with the statement that you are going to die some day, you cannot deny the obvious fact of it. There are even some risk-taking individuals who clearly understand that the things they do could result in their deaths, yet do them anyway.
But for most of our lives personal death seems only a distant, abstract notion. We don’t tend to dwell on it, or live as if we were about to die. We go on with daily life. Some of us, most I suppose, cling to a belief that when that day comes we will live on in some non-material form. In some versions of this incorporeal existence, we could end up suffering for eternity or being in a state of eternal bliss. In any case, most of us do not fret about the end point of this material existence because we have seen the pattern of human life that suggests, barring accidents, war or untimely diseases, we should expect to live for 50+ years. Thus, as the only species, we know for sure, that knows about its own mortality, and can think about it, we have this peculiar situation of knowing we’re going to die, but not letting the fact interfere with our lives.
So saying that our species will become extinct at some time in the future is not particularly earth-shattering. We have seen the pattern of evolutionary duration for other species and most of us know that man’s time will come some day.
In the limit, of course, the Earth itself will die in some finite time. The Sun will cease to be a stable source of energy and, in all likelihood, swell up as a yellow giant, scorching the surface of the planet, in its death throes. Even supposing that some version of Homo manages to escape this fate by going to the stars, eventually the Universe will burn itself out. Granted we are talking billions of years for the Sun and trillions of years for the Universe. Still, it is clear that intelligent life is ultimately doomed, so the statement above is, in this sense, uncontroversial.
What would be controversial, and in a big way, is to claim that Homo sapiens is very close to becoming extinct. That is, the time is near at hand for the current species of man to disappear from the face of Earth, forever. This is like when we, as individuals, realize that we are really old and frail and have virtually no more time to get our affairs in order. It is not uncommon for people to age and never really acknowledge the fact. Look at how many “past 50’s” pursue youth restoring strategies, in the herbs they ingest to the plastic surgery or botox treatments they undergo in order to maintain the impression of youthfulness. It is a curious psychological paradox that one can realize they are getting old, and look it, and at the same time think to themselves they are still “really” young and should look so. Is this a form of denial?
Most people today expect our species to go on, more or less, indefinitely. People generally think their children will live out full lives, that their grandchildren will do the same, and, in general, that our kind will go on pretty much as we are well after each of us is dead and gone. So when you raise the prospect that extinction might come as soon as the current generation or the next, you will get belligerent denial. It just can’t happen to us.
Unfortunately, as I will argue in this book, the possibility that people alive today will see the end of our species (well, at least see the recognizable beginning of the end), is very real. Among many scientists in the study of evolution, even this claim has some merit. For those who study the ebbs and flows of life on this planet, the conditions for selection against survival are recognizable. And in the view of a growing number of these scientists, the conditions for selection against human life are increasingly obvious.
The thesis of the book is this: Homo sapiens has been so clever that it has created a world that is now, in its complexity, rate of change, and dangers, exceeding the average individual’s capacity to cope. Indeed, as the situation degrades further, even the above-average (whatever that might mean) individual will find it hard to survive. No less a thinker than Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal of England and Royal Society Professor at Cambridge, gives humanity no better than 50/50 odds of surviving the consequences of its own cleverness. Personally, I think he is being generous. I will argue this further in the book. What I think is missing in all this is the capacity to modulate cleverness appropriately. Humans do not seem to have what is needed to successfully manage their own cleverness.
The current species of man is misnamed. Homo means “Man”. No qualms there. But sapiens means wise. And it is with that part of the species name that I have a quarrel. According to Linnaeus’s naming conventions the species name should; first attempt to find a name representative of a distinctive anatomical or behavioral feature, second name it for the region/place discovered, and third, failing anything more creative, use the name of the discoverer or someone who needs to be immortalized. If it had been up to me I would have christened us Homo caladus, ‘Man the clever.’ Linnaeus, being in charge at the time, chose sapiens (after first calling us diurnis – ‘of the day’) thinking that it represented our most profound difference from animals – wisdom. But, of course, he must have meant wisdom in the biblical sense: “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom.” In that case, any devout person was wise, and humans have been pretty good at acting devout.
No. It isn’t a vengeful god that we worry about that will be our undoing. It is a living planet undergoing a catastrophic switch to a new chaotic regime that will unseat humanity. It is simply this: We have failed to exercise good judgment, both on a personal level and on a collective level, in being clever. We are intelligent, but not wise. And that fundamental lack of wisdom has allowed us to wreak havoc on the world without even knowing we were doing so. And, now, very soon, we will have to pay the price. Homo sapiens/caladus will suffer extinction as a result of his own success. Right at a time when we think we have transcended physical constraints (e.g., the ‘social construction of reality!’), when we are reveling in our cleverness for converting non-renewable resources into iPodsTM, when our leaders have decided we no longer have to worry about what science says, just now, the whole thing will collapse and the species will become extinct.
What comes after Homo sapiens/caladus is gone will largely be decided by what Homo sapiens/caladus does in the meantime. As Jared Diamond has noted in “Collapse”, cultures/societies disappear largely due to poor decisions, bad choices that are made by the people, long before the collapse ensues. If I am to become part of an extinct species, I would at least like to have some say in what the consequences of that extinction will be. On our present course, we will not only die off ourselves, but we will take much of the life on this planet with us. Indeed it may already be the case that a significant fraction of species of plants and animals will succumb to forces we set in motion, even if we were to miraculously change course tomorrow. However, I suspect it could be much worse if we don’t change course. Whether there is any meaningful life on the planet Earth one million years from now may largely depend on what decisions we make today. This book attempts to build a framework for making those decisions.
I see two objectives that are worthy of consideration regarding the aftermath of humanity’s hubris. One is to prevent the changes in climate and chemical composition of the planet from being so radical that no life has a chance to adapt. The other, assuming we are successful in the first, is to assure the continuance of some form of Homo. That is, just because sapiens/caladus goes extinct doesn’t mean that some form of our genus won’t survive. And that is the conclusion of this book. If this projection is even near the mark, we, sapiens/caladus beings, should muster just enough wisdom to take steps necessary to get some, probably small, contingent of humans through the bottleneck of mass die-offs. Those humans that make it should have what we don’t have. They should be truly wise as well as clever. They should be the precursors of eusapiens.
If Whitehead had prefaced his piece with “here’s a possible future scenario” instead of declaring “this is what’s going to happen and we should build lifeboats,” I think it would be a much stronger piece. As it is, he comes off (to me) as another moonbat rather than a serious thinker to be taken seriously. Maybe I lack an appropriate appreciation for irony, metaphor, fringe musings, hyperbole, ….
My reaction to Ken’s essay is not because it’s depressing (your point #5), but that it’s only useful to the extent it wakes people up to the problem of collaspe and inspires them to do something about it — something other than his “lifeboat communities” idea. Senge et al. offer a good context for this as noted here and I suspect that’s the sort of thing you had in mind.
“It looks to me like the US Census Bureau is a congregation of dreamers, who are only hoping that the population will stop growing exponentially, but which cannot provide any evidence to support the fact that it will.”
That is what I thought too when I first looked at a projected graph of population growth more than 40 years ago.
Since then, after learning more and more about how the real world works, I have come to the conclusion that the most probable future is one in which a few people will deliberately kill most of the others.
There is no doubt that there are plenty of creative alternatives that are theoretically possible, which would be a lot better than that.
However, in the real world, there is nothing that can stop a few people with access to weapons of mass destruction from using them, after they decided to do so.
Throughout history, plague has killed way more people than war and famine combined. Since we now could have warfare that deliberately caused plagues, and that could stop the interdependent system of food production and distribution from working, which would result in famine, all of the riders of the apocalypse could stampede any time somebody with the real ability to start that stampede decided to do so.
That brings me back to my fundamental point that any and all alternatives, before or after the collapse of the the established systems, depend on new death control systems.
If biological weapons get loose, then they will, in fact, become the most important new death control systems, and they will drive all of the other changes.
I have no idea how to actually stop that from happening, and I am certain that the ability to make that happen already exists.
When looking through a dark, frosted over, glass towards the future, that scenario is surely possible.
It is quite possible for new systems of death control to quickly wipe out most of the world’s population.
Alternative communities in the future would not emerge from the current situation, but from the situation that existed after that genocide.
I completely agree with the comment made in the article that started this thread of posts:
” … the evidence suggests that we are heading towards a major ecological breakdown which the majority of us are unlikely to survive … ”
The deliberate use of biological weapons could accelerate that to happen any time, very rapidly.
Indeed, it is quite possible that 50 years from now, there will only be 500 million survivors.
Most of the current problems would have been “solved” by genocides that wiped out most of the population.
I believe that the people who really control the world have contingent plans to do that, and they have actually prepared for it.
I think that is the most probable of all the disasters that could shape the real future. The precarious balance of terror from weapons of mass destruction has been the main feature of our world since the 1960s. Our entire civilization has been indulging in psychotic ideas about “national security” since the end of the Second World War.
That is the main thing that I have been thinking about since then, and the reason why I got involved in registered politics.
Right now, I doubt that I would survive, and nothing I have done would survive to influence that future, if weapons of mass destruction started to be significantly used.
I started worrying about several decades ago, when I first understood this threat … but, I have never been able to come up with any practical solutions. Instead, I have developed a philosophical way to cope with not being able to do anything real to prevent it.
The only things that could be better would be better alternative death controls, but all of old-fashioned religions and ideologies that people believe in make that practically impossible to do in the real world.
In the real world, having a rational debate with most people is almost impossible, but killing them is easily possible.
Personally, I possess no weapons whatsoever, and I would not use them if I did.
However, the real world is full of people who do, and the only question is whether any of them are insane enough to use them.
If they ever do, then everything else that we were hoping about becomes irrelevant, and the new reality is unimaginable.
The seeds of new alternative communities may well sprout up in emptied fields.
On the other hand such web sites become irrelevant if they don’t do some filtering. There are all kinds of ideas floating around, obviously they don’t all deserve equal “receptivity.” To his credit, John’s a very openminded guy and the comments on this post of yours have taught me a lot. I’m surprised by the support your ideas have here among a very highly educated group.
I take the coming bottleneck as a given but doubt many of us agree on the details. Will it be a moderate (but still devestating) contraction in the population and economy or so severe very few will survive? Will it be soon and happen quickly, or occur later and over centuries? You, George, and Paul tend toward soon, severe, and quickly while I think it will start soon, be harsh, but dragged out over centuries. The difference in time scales dictates very different notions of what a reasonable Plan B is — so does one’s ethical stance.
I must admit I’m in a novel position. Most of my experience is in conveying to the techno-optimists that a bottleneck will happen. Until now, I’ve never been in the position of arguing with reasonable people that it’s not going to happen so quickly and severely that building lifeboats must be considered. Kind of bounds the problem for me in a useful way.
As long as we’re talking about intuition, mine is that the current pre-quake tremors like the “credit-crisis” and persistently high oil prices will continue and business-as-usual will change. Not sure how much that change will be, but ideas like Lester Brown’s Plan 3.0 will get more attention. Doomsday predictions/projections will then change as well.
Trin, (may I call you that?)
Later in my introduction (not included above) I do say that just as one prepares for death by attempting to make the transition as painless as possible, the human race should consider preparations for the bottleneck in a similar sense.
If we realize that it is inevitable then the question becomes one of how do we make it as comfortable and humane as possible? This is a deep ethical question. My thoughts are that we should at least try to soften the decline in population as much as possible. We should reduce our CO2 emissions, we should find alternative energy sources, etc. And we should reduce the population and per capita consumption by the haves. But it will always involve trade-offs. There will be some kind of pain, just as in personal death, with the decline of the population. I think we might even need to consider a species question analogous to self-determined euthanasia (Right to Death) that has been introduced as law in some states. We can’t afford to take any options off the table until the true constraints become clearer.
It has seemed to me that the only way one can avoid belief that an end will come is to believe that our species will go on forever and that is clearly not going to happen. The question is how soon, and how fast? Those of us who track some relatively clear signals and consider human psychology are beginning to see signs that it will be much sooner than any of us thought, and it could be much faster in playing out if human nature keeps us from responding appropriately.
For my part I hope to shock people into thinking the unthinkable to get them to consider ways to soften the pain. We would be the first species to recognize our own extinction and take steps to assure our genus did not go extinct as well. It will either happen naturally; some lucky few will go through the bottleneck with great pain and the new environment will do the selection that will lead to future speciation. Or none will survive.
The thing about crashes and chaotic attractor switches (or Rene Thom’s catastrophe theory) that scares me is that they tend to be nearly complete surprises and once underway there is nothing that can be done to change course. Once you know you are in a crash, its too late.
What is the best strategy to convey this to the masses?
I have no great insights on how to communicate a deeply troubling prognosis, however, let’s continue with your metaphor. If you’re talking to a dying person exaggeration and hyperbole is not a good approach. 😉 Neither is coddling. When I’m on the receiving end of that kind of information, I want it delivered without drama, in plain language, with some idea of how certain it is and within what time frame my illness will playout. A touch of compassion is a very good thing as well. I also want to know about the credentials of the person delivering it (are they a specialist in the right field, is their degree from a small island nation I’ve never heard off) and what they’ve done to come to their conclusions. Needless to say, the last thing I want is to hear from the doctor as she walks by, “I’ve got this deep intuition that you are soon going to start suffering horribly and then die. Have a nice day.”
I wonder how many smokers have quit smoking because someone showed them a picture of diseased lung, or how many pregnant women have foregone abortion because someone shoved a photograph of an aborted foetus. My guess is that kind of shock-and-awe approach has near zero effectiveness.
What does work for me is seeing a pile of straighforward evidence and intelligent argumentation offered from a variety of credible and verifiable sources. Some people are very good at distilling that for more general consumption and making the story compelling without resorting to either shock or schlock.
E.O. Wilson is a good example. Handles the English language very well, doesn’t pull punches, drips credibility and compassion. [And yes, I don’t mind “Trin”]
Since y’all have invoked this analogy, I’ll mention an article I remember reading a couple of years ago. A physician (or perhaps multiple oncology authors), a specialist who deals with frequently terminal forms of cancer, wrote an insightful piece about “realistic hope”. Besides the initial hurdle of breaking bad news, the article described healthy ways that patients incorporate knowledge of unpleasant _probabilities_ into their lives.
I don’t have a link handy. I’m not sure the article is available online anymore. But it made an impression on me. It changed the way I think, it changed the way I write, and it changed the way I try to influence others about the _probabilities_ that we can see ahead of us.
I spent a portion of my earlier career in the technology prediction business. It was relatively easy to plot the direction of trends. But I learned, eventually, that specific outcomes can be influenced by many factors that are utterly independent of trend lines. I don’t play that game anymore. I find the cancer physician’s approach to realistic hope seems to resonate with more of the people I now strive to influence.
I’ve been a big purveyor of “shock and awe” outreach in the past, especially before I developed a more nuanced view of humanity’s short and medium term future. If one is convinced that doom is the only outcome, and “sauve qui peut” is the only way forward, such an approach might have some value. At least that was how I rationalized it – it may have actually had more to do with my own despair that the objective situation.
Since I’ve accepted that there will be vastly different outcomes in different regions of the globe, and that we in the West are probably doomed to survive for quite a while yet, my outreach message hass changed dramatically.
I still think that a very strong message about the nature and scale of the convergent crises is warranted, mostly because a loud noise tends to wake people up. What I’ve modified is the follow-on: what does this mean to us and what should we be doing about it? In that regard I split my message in two. I tell people that there is no way to prevent these crises from hitting – after all they’re already here. Oil’s at $100, the ice caps and glaciers are melting, and the stock markets are gyrating like a belly dancer on crystal meth.
What they can and should be doing is adopting all the adaptive and protective measures they can. I sell this by pointing out that such protective measures would make their lives better even if they were done in good times. That includes strengthening their personal communities and circles of friends, getting involved in local environmental and social justice groups, economizing their consumption, getting closer to the earth either through gardening or joining CSAs, buying longer-lasting goods, reducing their consumption of unnecessary services, preparing more nutritious foods, using more economical and eco-friendly modes of transportation, getting out of debt, upgrading their home insulation etc. etc.
Since I dove deeper into my analysis I now believe such measures are actually useful, whereas before I really didn’t.
I went to a meeting a couple of days ago with the provincial NDP (Canada’s social democratic party) member of the provincial legislature who is the party’s environment and energy critic. I went in feeling very skeptical because I really didn’t think many politicians understand the scale and nature of these big issues. It turned out that he is completely clued in. He carries around Powerpoints on Peak Oil and Peak Gas on his laptop, and realizes we have very little time left before TSHTF. He explained that even the party in power has a very good understanding about what’s going on.
However, they all recognize that in order to get into a position to implement effective strategies, politicians have to get elected. The also all recognize that telling the electorate they’re screwed and that the only way forward is voluntary impoverishment is not the way to do garner votes. There are some “third rails” out there, and that’s one of them.
Something similar applies in outreach efforts like mine. If I don’t offer some realistic suggestions for amelioration people are going to say, “So? Even if I believe you, what’s the point of getting worked up about it since you say I can’t do anything anyway?” What I want is for people to get worked up enough to do something about it, to act with some urgency to protect themselves, their families, their communities as best they can. I’m just glad that I’ve found a world-view that makes it possible for me to believe that such action is useful without having to soft-pedal the severity of the situation.
Thanks for your comments here. They are much appreciated.
Blair: “[A]fter learning more and more about how the real world works, I have come to the conclusion that the most probable future is one in which a few people will deliberately kill most of the others. / There is no doubt that there are plenty of creative alternatives that are theoretically possible, which would be a lot better than that. / However, in the real world, there is nothing that can stop a few people with access to weapons of mass destruction from using them, after they decided to do so.”
Comment #9 (Magne): “Nuclear war is a possibility which I do not care to think too much about. The same goes for biological, bacteriological and climatological war. I hate war, that’s all. But there is nothing I can do to stop the warmongers of this world from doing what they do best. I can only hope that they are not going to opt for a quick Endlösnung.”
You know, Blair. — Your general worldview, into which the ruling class of modern societies fits in neatly with the metaphorical role of the predator or the proverbial wolf, if you like, corresponds perfectly with my own personal experience with people and structures of power. However, since I know that my story is way too extraordinary and also way too touchy to be considered as a likely possibility in a democratic society like Norway, I have tended to shut up about these problems. To quote a social worker in Oslo, the capital city of the Kingdom of Norway: “We just can’t help you. I suggest that you read Michel Foucault, as he can explain to you how the system is fascist and works to protect itself.”
What more can I say?!
I can do nothing about the fact that democratic systems are fascist, in the sense that they do all that is necessary in order to protect itself against intruders as myself. —
And it is absolutely true what you’re saying. I’ve expressed this fear many times before. I believe the ruling class of our ultra-modern societies are most probably already seriously worried about the ecological side-effects of overpopulation, but covertly so, and not openly. — The fact that the political, economic, social, and cultural elites of this world are not talking openly and aloud about the obvious problems concerned with the well-known population explosion, can only mean that they intuitively or instinctively knows that “the best and simplest” possible solution to the urgent problem of overpopulation would be genocide of a very large scale, possibly by means of some of the ultra-modern forms of warfare which remain at their disposal: chemical, bacteriological, and climatological warfare would certainly be among the options.
The end result of such ultra-modern warfare or genocide would most probably be the simplest of terms around, namely that of natural selection or survival of the fittest.
Or new lies would be adopted. — The lie that what was, in fact, bacteriological warfare, was actually an outbreak of an epidemic or a plague which as a matter of circumstance hit the third world and the poor people of the western world extremely hard. 😉
Now, I don’t know for how long time the concept of “population explosion” has been with us. What I’m saying is I don’t know exactly when that term was introduced to the world. I expect that it must have been in the 1950s or -60s.
Logically speaking, there should be no reason for anyone to believe that our present world leaders are ignorant of many of the problems concerned with overpopulation. What is logically correct, is that these people shut up about the problem, and that there must be some reason lurking behind a choice like that. Possibilities, probabilities, and a long range of options.
I agree with you about this: I think The Men Who Really Pull the Levers are both fully informed and capable of monstrous things. If they think their hold on those levers is threatened, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they pulled one or two. They may have already done so, but that’s a topic for other threads on other boards.
What I’m equally sure of is that while such actions might make the road ahead very bumpy, it will not materially alter our destination. The medium term outcome is being determined by natural forces much stronger than mere leaders armed with weapons and ideology (although the development of a genetically targeted virus would be a black swan that could do planetary-scale damage.)
Restructuring and setting limits on the endless growth of the world’s artificially designed human economy are in the offing, I suppose.
Worldwide expansion of industrialization activities, unrestrained gigantesque corporatism and unbridled economic globalization present a clear and present danger to humanity and function with regard to Earth’s body, ecosystems and limited resources as the equivalent of a weapon of mass destruction, a WMD more powerful than any yet imagined by the human mind.
While I do not think the family of humanity needs to immediately stop these “overgrowth” activities, we could consider limiting the increases of what appears to us, even now, as soon to become unsustainable growth of the manmade global economy.
Steven Earl Salmony
AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population, established 2001
“Given the rate at which we, as a species, seem to be degrading our life-support systems, it might be good to know if we even have the mental capacity to solve the problems we’ve created.”
– George Mobus
I believe the answer to this question is “Yes.” But only if some very simple guidelines are provided to the people, as concerns how this task needs to be adressed on a societal/communal level, as it goes without saying that a sustainable way of life can only be achieved in-as-much as everyone is willing to take his/her share. I believe any other arrangement would be perceived as unfair, and I believe very strongly that groups of people quite naturally think, reason and act in a very childish manner, meaning that if something must be seen and considered as a communal/societal routine or obligation, and some people — very often one class of people — do not agree to take part in the proceedings, it will be perceived as unfair to all others. As a result of such structural unfairness, there is every reason to believe that nothing will be done by anyone.
Wisdom is wasted on people who are not able to co-operate and co-ordinate their efforts with all others, as a group.
It is important to understand that very simple guidelines are needed in order to make it easier for people who are not co-ordinated as a group, to become co-ordinated and ready to co-operate in solving a communal/societal task. — Like that social task of making the cumbersome shift from leading patently unsustainable lives to actually leading relatively sustainable lives. In good time, that is. After several periods of trying and failing, I can imagine. But okay: this is where local social and cultural factors wade into the big picture and come to make a difference.
I believe. very strongly, that SIMPLICITY is the most important component needed in order to make groups of people “ready to become able” to kick-start the civilizational shift which is needed here. And how I wish that all of the owners of this world’s many television channels would become able to grasp the importance of cutting back on general consumption! How much easier it would have been for people to start practicing what so many of us preach, if only they got the message straight in the face, straight out of the television screen, just as often as these social machines are giving us the news, sports, and weather, which is about once every hour. Am I right?
What seems to be the problem here, as I see it, and as concerns humanity’s “capacity to solve the problems we’ve created,” I am much more worried about emotional aspects. I mean: just take a quick look at the different social classes, and admit to yourselves that this issue is very difficult to the American mind. There is a reason why it is virtually impossible to make any middle-class citizen of the U.S.A. capable of discussing class issues. The reason is a question of emotion, and not of the mental capacity of Americans who all know about the living conditions on the other side of the tracks, but feel uncomfortable about mentioning this shit; the whole thing is taken for granted, that’s all. — Don’t think about it, as it will only make you feel somehow.
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“are we bacteria or primates?”
That is a good article.
The graphs help visualize the problems.
One does not go into the lifeboat
until AFTER the ship is sinking.
One prepares the lifeboat,
in case the ship might sink.
I believe that trillions of dollars
have already been spent on the
underground shelters for some.
There are not enough lifeboats for most.
As long as the big ships still float,
then we will stay on them, while
attempting to persuade captains
and crew to steer differently …
The point Trinifar made that
I agreed with the most was:
“It’s going to be a bumpy ride, and each
of those bumps will change minds about
the seriousness of our quandary.
The pace of positive social, political,
and economic change can increase
I regard that as the feedback between
natural selection and artificial selection.
At the present time, huge lies
control our whole civilization.
The most important example
is fractional reserve banking.
Nothing is more necessary to change.
Nothing seems more impossible to do.
Over and over again, I have decided
that building a lifeboat was not then
the best thing for me to try doing.
I have been doing politics instead.
However, everything that I have done
and learned from political experiments
has repeatedly proven how practically
impossible it is to change entrenched
political powers controlling the game.
My view is that intellectual integrity
requires us to work on radical change,
but not expect that it will ever work.
The only way it might work is if
future stress forces people to do
and think things they refuse to,
at the present time …
I agree with Paul and Trinifar
that there is substantial hope
in the existence of:
“millions of organizations and individuals
actively working towards ecological
sustainability, economic justice, human
rights, and political accountability issues
that are systemically interconnected and intertwined”
However, my main point continues to be
that most of these groups still operate
as reactionary revolutionaries, within
the bullies’ bullshit world views based
on impossible ideals that fail to engage
the real world of huge lies & coercions.
They have their goals & the mechanisms
for change either backwards or disunited.
Scientific revolution is going to have to be
based on changing the real robbery rates.
More than anything else, the new kinds
of artificial selection solutions must be
new systems of death control, as the
most important manifestation of a
change in the real robbery rates.
The ideal goals are the end results
of changed dynamic equilibria of
the real robbery rates existing.
The ideal goals are not mechanisms
that can do anything more than be
transcendental poetry to inspire.
The entire system of civilization
already is subject to the history
of its death and debt controls.
All of the other alternatives
are already inside of those.
The theory of scientific revolution
is equally valid whether or not we
are still in the big ships, or have
been forced to abandon those,
and climb into the lifeboats.
Indeed, the only real different
is that the theory becomes a
more pressing reality when
we are in the lifeboats …
Furthermore, Spaceship Earth
should be seen a our Lifeboat.
Furthermore, any good future
for human being to survive
beyond the Earth requires
maintaining lifeboats that
could travel in space.
Human ecology and industrial ecology,
that could integrate and sustain the
natural ecology that we must have,
are already, and always going to
be controlled by the systems of
real death controls that exist.
Understanding that reality
as it exists already now is
the main way we need to
prepare for the radical
changes required …
Our artificial selection is being
instructed by natural selection.
Intensification of that process
will happen in the future, and
will catalyse these changes.
With all the talk of lifeboats versus possible solutions that would allow us to stay afloat, etc. I just want to reiterate something I often mention.
It’s vitally important to explore solutions, whether aimed at averting collapse or at dealing with it if it does happen. But it’s hard to imagine the necessary amount of work being done on any solution without much, much more public awareness of the ecological crisis we face.
It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that most people have little or no awareness that we face any really serious ecological problem. They know climate change is a problem but not how serious it is, don’t realize how connected it is to a whole array of other major issues, don’t much know what those issues are, and certainly aren’t aware of the gravity of the whole package. That has been my experience as well as that of others. Ask around. Talk with people not involved with topics like this; I think you’ll find the same thing.
There is definitely a kind of denial at work and that must be addressed. But the result is that people are unaware of this stuff.
In addition to some form of denial, I think there’s another good reason for that. When was the last time you saw an article on the front page of the New York Times or the Washington Post or some comparable outlet on the impending global ecological crisis? I believe the topic is just beginning to emerge into the mainstream media, usually on the back pages. (I couldn’t think otherwise without denying the existence of my own recent BBC piece. And now here’s an article in a major Canadian paper: http://www.thestar.com/Article/297574 )
So there are good signs, but much further to go. Let’s not ignore the importance of basic awareness of the problem. We’re not going to get very far without it!
I was thinking about this too, John, although mostly in the context wondering why I had such an emotional reaction to Ken’s essay. Here’s where I’m at now:
Your blog has I think two separate audiences or two goals (at least two, there are likely many more). Correct me if I’m wrong, but you’d like to wake up people who are not aware that growth is madness as well as engage in a more sophisticated dialog with those who are. To me, Ken’s essay clearly falls into the latter group. It’s not what you’d use to wake naive people up (with apologies for the condescending adjective) .
How to wake people is such an individual thing, I’m much more comfortable in face-to-face situations attempting that, where you can gage what context a person is starting from and work from there in a dialog. In a blog post, all you can do is what you did here, put some explanatory material at the front (and even then have somebody who’s supposedly “in the know” rip into it anyway — yes, I feel a bit quilty for doing that).
Certaintly, though, raising awareness of those who are not awake to the “growth is madness” meme has to engage most of us most of the time. We need numbers if we are to influence politics and business in time to do the most good for people and the rest of the planet’s biomass.
I’d say my top priority here is just raising awareness. But in working in that direction I’d get too bored if I didn’t post some things that would be of interest mostly to folks already very aware, or things that just strike me as interesting in some way as I continue on my own journey of learning.
Ken’s article probably overlapped all those areas. Clearly, it might be of interest to someone who’s looked into these issues and is just curious what future actions would be in mind for someone who’s concluded collapse is highly likely. That’s the way I was interested in it. But for someone less informed, it might have value in nudging them to think, “Whoa, there are people seriously saying we’re headed toward a total societal collapse as a result of ecological problems? I better look into this stuff. It must be a lot worse than I thought.”
I can’t see it causing the latter person to give up or causing some sort of paralysis. That person isn’t going to go from uninformed to resigned to collapse as a result of one essay (especially one that starts from the conclusion of inevitable collapse rather from the case for it). But that essay might prod more investigation.
I would hope a reader would consider the whole body of work here, most of which reflects the hope that there’s still time to avert the more dire collapse scenarios. But it’s important and interesting to know what others who do see the seriousness of the ecological crisis are thinking, so…
Similarly, as I mentioned on Trinifar, an area in which I’m becoming more interested is the anthropological perspective on the advent of agriculture and how some argue it led inevitably to the ecological problems we have today. No doubt I’ll be posting some material on that in the future, and probably on the “rewilding” response to it.
Maybe in a few years all of this will be clearer and it will be easier to choose a camp and just go with it. Until then… it’s a fascinating exploration.
For the last two years I have taught a Global Honors class at UWT entitled “Global Challenges” ( http://faculty.washington.edu/gmobus/Academics/GH303/ follow the Schedule link to see the course content). In this course I introduce many of the global issues facing humanity without suggesting that we are in dire straits. Indeed the point of the course is that systemic problems require systemic thinking to solve.
While not emphasizing the potential for collapse it doesn’t take the students long to figure out the implications (now these are honors students so they are pretty sharp). By mid course some of them are taking things a bit hard, but my approach is to show them how systems science can attack the problems. We do exercises in systems analysis which helps them to understand that we do have tools to analyze and understand these problems as a whole process. By the end of the course they have, without exception, felt much better and, I think, confident that the problems are solvable – if we actually get to work on it systemically.
A few of them have gone on to do projects related to systems analysis of issues. So at least some of them feel some empowerment through knowledge and understanding. The last week we discuss education and its role in raising awareness and spurring research. They walk out feeling a responsibility to educate others.
I must admit, I’m kind of proud of that result. Now whether it would extend to the general population, I don’t know. But I think some version of education and awareness raising (perhaps like what Paul is doing) will help a lot.
So I stick to the saying, plan for the worst, but act as if the best will come.
PS. John, does wordpress allow html formating and image uploading in comments?
Yeah, I do think raising awareness is key, There’s still a whole lot of room for more in that area. I think sometimes it’s enough just to spell out the nature of the problem, but discussion of possible solutions is clearly important too.
Because this blog is on a shared platform at WordPress.com (rather than downloaded from WordPress.org and hosted somewhere else) it limits the number of things you can do in comments. You can use a few basic html tags. I think it’s just italics, bold, strikethrough, blockquote, links, smilies, and
code. “Code” is for writing code, I guess? I think all other tags get stripped out.
It is plainly obvious that solutions require sufficiently greater use of information, which must include far more of the public than at present.
George Mobus’ “Global Challenges” course puts bright students through an interesting series of psychological stages of adapting to information that they may have never thought deeply about before.
However, those are bright, motivated, young people.
For the general public, all of the tricks of advertising would have to be used, but for very different purposes than those tricks are being used for currently.
I can not imagine any practical way that the mass media, that are brainwashing people to be consumers, could be reformed to better educate citizens. It is theoretically possible that things like the TV could do as much good and it does evil now. But, at present, the vast majority of communication resources are devoted to cynical manipulation of people’s weaknesses, for the short-term benefit the communicator. We are on the edge of a preposterous precipice when we try to imagine any future world where more of the mass media stopped being so extremely hypocritical, and instead became more consistent. It is theoretically possible that all the advertising tricks could be used for different purposes. However, they are hardly being used that way now.
When one is attempting to raise public consciousness about these issues, I think that the most relevant perspective is Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
The nature of the real problems make reforms within the dominant paradigms be dead ends.
Nothing less than radically different new paradigms are enough. That kind of paradigm shift will follow the pattern outlined by Kuhn. Namely, it will likely only be young people who will be able and willing to make it. Therefore, it will take generations to accomplish.
That is the main reason why we hope that we have more time, which we fear that we might not have, for those processes to work.
In my opinion, what most needs to happen is an arms race between the triumph of old lies and people ceasing to believe in those old lies.
After my studies of general systems theory, and history, I am sure that society is controlled by dishonesty backed up with violence.
Furthermore, that is inherent in these systems, and can not be stopped, only changed in the way it was done.
What is possible is for there to be an arms race evolution between the ability of different lies to continue to fool people.
Ultimately, what we need is the paradoxical education that teaches students to be aware of the social facts that they were subjected to the bullies’ bullshit world view, and that the political system they were born into is the result of the triumphs of sets of lies, backed up with coercions, in the past.
Any such education would be extremely paradoxical, because it would try to teach open-ended critical thinking, rather than blind belief.
That kind of paradoxical learning tends toward recursion, or reiteration, of rediscovering layers of lies within lies. Such self-reference takes us through a tunnel of the infinite. There is a profound spiritual enlightenment and wisdom that is worked through that process.
There is no doubt that the top priority is raising awareness. However, I think that the way that must be done requires an arms race between different world views, presenting different sets of lies.
We already have human ecologies and political economies that are systems that emerged from the past, which are operating almost automatically as sets of social habits.
Those systems were already made, and are still being maintained, by dishonesty, backed up with violence, operating organized systems of fraud and robbery.
Radical raising of awareness is to take several steps forward in facing those facts, and facing why those facts exist.
The systematic solutions emerge from struggles between established systems of social stories and habits, in conflict with possible alternatives.
Superficial solution sets are reforms within the dominant paradigms, to try to tinker with modifications.
Deeper solution sets are radical paradigm shifts.
The deeper paradigm shifts do not change what already exists. However, such radical ideas could change how what exists might evolve.
Pumping more information into society is like pumping more energy into a system.
For a long while, things may change linearly. However, eventually a change of state can occur instead, with relative alacrity, compared with the previous time-frame.
More and more growth of what already exists, channelled into making more of what was already there, has limits. The system has to go through radical changes of states at some point.
Put energy into water, and the temperature goes up, until it starts to boil and turns to steam. The energy that was increasing the temperature of the water has changed to turning the water into steam.
The social storms that are coming are like that.
We are seeing growth as madness based on the idea that we can pump more and more and more into the established systems, without them going through radical transformations.
Eventually, more information gets reorganized into a radical paradigm shift. This will happen to both our real behaviour, and our mental models that we use to think about that. There will be hyper-complicated feedback between how we can continue to behave, and how we can continue to think about that.
Raising public awareness of the fact that the idea of endless growth is total madness must necessarily be based on radical paradigm shifts.
Such paradigm shifts shall be breakthroughs in the evolving arms races between different systems of lies.
I think that the general public has already gone a long way towards that point. However, they do not yet fully understand what they are doing when they are becoming more and more cynical, and less and less trust the huge lies that surround them, which control the society that they were born into, and tended to take for granted.
The progress coming from post-modernizing sciences is coming from understanding unitary mechanisms that do not use false fundamental dichotomies to explain things.
What more members of society have to do is learn that their governments are the best organized gangs of criminals, and that governments can never be anything else. In that context, citizens have an unavoidable responsibility to be members of that gang that can both be robbers and resist being robbed.
The big paradigm shift is to see the bullies and their bullshit for what it is, while also accepting why that is the way it must be.
We need a political science that is consistent with physics and biology.
There are no fundamental dichotomies between people.
Governments are always going to be the best organized gangs of robbers and terrorists.
Teaching students those facts, and therefore, how they should participate as citizens and consumers inside of those systems, are the kind of paradigm shifts in education that we need.
No puzzle solving within the mainstream paradigms is enough to deal with the way the idea of endless growth is insane.
The kind of social psychiatry that we need to survive requires radically non-linear paradigm shifts.
Those are changes of state that will occur during social storms.
At the present time, we are rapidly headed towards the breakdown of the old systems of dishonesty backed up with violence.
We are seeing the end-game approaching where the failures of the ability of coercions to make the lies appear as the truth will reveal more of their final consequences.
I am extremely worried about the magnitude of how awful that could get, given that we have weapons of mass destruction backing up massive social lies.
However, there is no way to do anything else than go through those transitions.
We can only have a perhaps vain hope that we could facilitate those transformations in public opinion, by assisting more people to understand what is really going on.
Have any of you been following the interesting blog/commentary at the Oil Drum? Some serious questions about growth/no-growth. In an article by Stuart Staniford, “Powering Civilization to 2050” the idea that the global economy will grow to “several hundred trillion dollars by 2050”, drew considerable debate.
Also I learned of a new web site: http://www.steadystate.org/ for the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy. Have yet to plunge in but it certainly looks interesting.
Sorry. Forgot the URL for the Oil Drum:
Yes I’ve been following Stuart’s thread. I like most of his articles, I’m in awe of some of them (the combined work he and half a dozen others did in deconstructing the current state of the Ghawar oil field was breathtaking). That said, I’m hugely disappointed in this piece.
I’ve been watching Stuart’s thread with utter disbelief. It’s hard to understand why he’s taken the position he has. He’s exhibiting a complete lack of system understanding, an inability to think holistically. It’s an example of reductionism gone wild, IMO. On an engineering-oriented board it’s hard to argue against that from a holistic perspective though, as Matt Savinar is finding out. Still, Stuart is getting at least as much criticism as I did for my early asserion-filled dieoff population piece on TOD, so that’s comforting. There are a lot of readers who understand that the limits we face aren’t just technical, they’re ecological, social, political and economic, and come as much from our evolved neuropsychology as from the physical world.
Stuart’s premise seems to be a variant of the classic economist’s assumptions: assume there are no limits and everything is fungible. I don’t see how that advances the debate, so I’m staying out of it.
John: – I would hope a reader would consider the whole body of work here, most of which reflects the hope that there’s still time to avert the more dire collapse scenarios. But it’s important and interesting to know what others who do see the seriousness of the ecological crisis are thinking, so…
Well, John, as you are well aware, I’ve been with you here on this blog since the very beginning. I stumbled across it in January 2007, although not solely by chance, as I googled for ecology blogs with at least some kind of economic take on the overall situation we’re all plunged into here. Now considering that your first blog entry was out in the middle of December 2016, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve been watching this space all the way since this blog was in its early infancy.
Now, I too believe — and hope — that a lot more readers are going to invest the time that it takes to study the whole body of work here.
As a matter of sad fact, it feels to me as if there is not much more you, nor anyone, can do in terms of mapping and laying out the situation. The big picture is becoming easier and easier to see; not only on this blog but on a handful of other blogs as well. What remains now, is figuring out what it really takes to make westernized (americanized) humanity wake up and accept the challenges that are laid before us here, as this species seems to be speeding up the processes of environmental degradation, destruction, devastation, when as a matter of commonsensical fact we should all be so adviced as to slowing it down, and give these endangered ecosystems of ours a chance to take a rest and recuperate after a couple of centuries of human industrial pollution madness.
But the opposite is happening. The building and construction boom, taking place everywhere at this very moment in time, is a sure sign that the species is going to heed no warmings. If ever its ruling class of entrepeneurs, economists, lawyers and politicians — plus the ever-present military generals, admirals and other people who murder other people for a living — if ever some of these people are alarmed by the developments down here, on ground level and under the sun, they’ll just decide to start another sace program, build a few new luxury hotels, construct a few more an effort to postponing the time to panic, which will come eventually, let’s just wait a little longer, eh? All right.
Now, in a little while we are going to have to talk about the international 2012 paranoia which has everything to do with the Maya calendar which just stopped, right there, in the year 2012, and that is interesting really, especially when we take the works of Nostradamus into account; there’s a lot of superstition going on around here. Just do some little googling, will you? — many people are showing every kind of panic reactions to the rest of the world on blogs and discussion forums all over the place. Now, is this interesting? I think it is. People are struggling with premonitions here, all sensing that tomorrowland is not a good place to be. For God’s sake! These are spiritual times. I’m seriously affected. The same goes for a lot of other people who are busy posting comments on this blog. Oh yes, it’s not difficult to see that a lot of us are struggling here. If not all the time, then at least from time to time and some of the time. It’s all just a matter of being honest with oneself. And if you are that, honest with yourself, please do take your spiritual self seriously as you think about all these problems that are pertained to the soul. We’re six and a half billion human beings on this planet. All thinking, all feeling, all sensing a whole lot of very strange things. Believe me.
That would be December 2006, okay. And not sixteen. – 😀
Oh, how I wish you had a preview function on the blog!
“… if ever some of [the members the ruling class] are alarmed by the developments down here, on ground level and under the sun, they’ll just decide to start another space program, build a few new luxury hotels, construct a few more shopping malls complete with parking lots and flyovers on the adjointed highway beside it, and then convince the public that the economy is so good, we’ve never seen anything like this, ever, in history, and all of these things in an effort to postponing the time to panic, which will come eventually, let’s just wait a little longer, eh? All right.”
And so on.
Without a doubt, we need new thinking and new leadership and, yes, we need both now.
Hmmm…… ok…… for just a moment let us consider that at least one way to realistically address the challenges posed by global warming and climate change could be by limiting the rate of increase in the unbridled growth of the global economy.
Perhaps we could follow what we already know from good science, sound reasoning and common sense. We can choose to respond ably and differently, in a more reality-oriented way, to the emergent global challenges looming before humanity, the ones that we can certainly manage because these challenges can be seen so clearly now to be spectacularly induced by the unrestrained global growth of human overconsumption, overproduction and overpopulation activities now threatening to ravage the Earth.
Of course, it is fair to ask what the family of humanity could choose to do “ably and differently, in a more reality-oriented way.” Here are several ideas that come to mind.
1. Implement a universal, voluntary, humane program of family planning and health education that teaches people the need for setting a limit on the number of offspring at one child per family.
2. Establish an upper limit on the growth of the individual human footprint.
3. Restrict the reckless dissipation of limited natural resources so that the Earth is given time to replenish them for human benefit.
4. Substitute clean, renewable sources of energy, through the use of substantial economic incentives, for the fossil fuels we rely upon now.
5. Recognize that everything human beings do on the surface of our planetary home utterly depends on the finite resources and frangible ecosystem services of Earth. Perhaps the time is nearly at hand when an endlessly expanding, gigantesque global economy on a relatively small planet of the size and make-up of Earth becomes patently unsustainable.
I’m reading as fast as I can. Fascinating post and discussion, yes!
“Four years ago, a Nobel-prize winning scientist, Paul Crutzen, first proposed the notion that we have entered a new geological era on the planet, that humans have so altered the physical processes and chemical make-up of the Earth that we are no longer in the 10,000 year epoch called the Holocene; rather, we have already entered a new epoch that he calls, the Anthropocene, to reflect this human impact.”
– Margaret Swedish
By coincidence, a reader sent me this link today:
Thank you, Trinifar.
That’s a very good article. I should have found it myself, in the beginning of December, when the ugly combination of the UN’s Climate Change Conference on Bali and the joint awarding of the Noble Peace Price, in Oslo, to Al Gore and the IPCC took place. If I had found it myself at the time of publishing (December 5, 2007), I would certainly not have felt so utterly alone in realizing that the gloves were off, and that the free market’s slave drivers’ really enjoyed their first serious outing. No more of the nodding, smiling, and secret chuckling which has so often been been observed previously; in Rio de Janeiro and Kyoto. This time around, on Bali, the financial, political, and industrial elites of “the over-developed world” did something very strange, I think. They were actually being almost deadly honest about their ambitions and their world view.
The reason behind this hard ball honesty, I believe is the urgency of the situation, as felt today, in 2007 and 2008, in ways that it wasn’t as intensely felt, or sensed, some ten or twenty years ago. Also, there can be no doubt that there is a lot more scientific evidence available now, with research organisations like IPCC, UNDP, WWF, IARC, Friends Of The Earth and a whole lot of others have produced a lot of most interesting scientific results and new evidence of the strictly human drivers of global warming, climate change, and other forms of destruction and degradation of environments of the world, including most problematic topics of concern, such as deforestation, desertification, polluted harbours and ocean dead zones, overfishing, invasive species, species extinction and species extermination, over-fertilizing agricultural lands, etc., etc., etc. … the list may seem to be endless, and that is not a good reason to simply panic for a while, recover, get on with your life and go to sleep, never thinking about these issues again, as you get the feeling that gut reactions are a bit too heart-felt, so …
I remember feeling especially baffled by the patently un-soft words made public by the American, the Canadian, and the Japanese delegations, who formed an alliance of three very important nations, making it crystal clear that, in the shady realms of business and diplomacy, pleasure and war, which is supposed to be “the real world”, economic interests takes preference over all environmental concerns.
I don’t know exactly which kind of people I am talking about here. I certainly do not move in any of their circles. But I am talking about people who the governments of the capitalist nation states of this world trust to be thinking and talking in the best interest of the people of these nations. Also, I think I must be talking about people who are working as lobbyists for the all-important multinational business corporations of this world; most of whom do not leave an extra dime to the protection of the local environments in which they operate, and nor to the protection of the ecosystems of this planet. I am thinking of business people who have always considered the natural world as not-much-else than one plentiful pool of natural resources on which to capitalize and make a good profit. All “coontrolled” by the free market. But hey?!! Which kind of “control” would that be???!! Anarchic business plans, chaotic business alliances, and total war (hot, cold, ice cold, or stinking rotten) over the control over the same resources as mentioned above: the natural environment of this planet as such. And that’s a fact. In reality: who are the owners of this world? No, it ain’t me, it ain’t you, and it definitely isn’t our children.
As I said: I don’t know for certain which kind of people I’m referring to here, but they all travelled to Bali in order to engage in some very important discussions over the nature of big business, the importance of indefinate status quo, and that other problem: the sorry needs and pleads of the environment.
They were talking about a world in which everything and everyone is for sale; a world in which everything of interest is buyable, sellable, and ready to be consumed; a world in which economic growth is the one and only factor of “real life” importance; a world in which … if I should go ahead and put it this strongly, and just leave the blame on Marilyn Manson for spreading these words in the place … I am talking about a world in which “everybody’s someone else’s nigger”, and … hard facts to be digested: a world in which the most important three commodities are firearms and other weapons, narcotic drugs like cocaine, heroin, and amphetamin, and actual human beings (oh yes! let’s talk about human trafficking and illegal immigration!) … let’s take a moment and think about the smuggling of poor people (at the poor people’s own expence) from the poorer regions to the richer, where the poor bastards are made to work for wages that are just a little smaller than what is ordinarily needed in order to make a living … that would be a new one, don’t you think?! …
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A short cut from Jonathan Freedland’s Guardian Unlimited article follows:
One could go further, arguing that it is not just excessive consumerism but capitalism’s very nature that makes it incompatible with the survival of our planet. For capitalism requires constant economic growth, yet the Earth’s resources are finite. Capitalist logic says we must buy, sell and consume more and more each year. Nature’s logic says we can’t.
Two possible political consequences flow from this, pointing in opposite directions. One scenario would see a reopening of an ideological debate that has remained all but dormant, at least in the west, for nearly two decades. Since the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, the prevailing assumption has been that capitalism faces no serious rival; no viable alternative system is on offer. Even self-described progressives have been wary of challenging the core tenets of free market economics for fear of looking like outdated leftovers from the socialist past. But now, armed with a plea not only to combat grotesque inequality but to save the human race’s only home, progressives could start making the fundamental case against capitalism anew.
– — – — – — – —
Let me make one double remark here. I’m referring to the loser of the end-of-the-cold-war meetings between Ronald Reagan (famous both for his Star Wars Program and the Iran-Contras scandal) and Mikhail Gorbachew (famous for a couple of interesting political reform phrases, namely those of “Glasnost” and “Perestrojka”).
I’m referring to Mikhail Gorbachew, that’s right. One helluva loser, of course, and beaten, fairly and squarely, first by a useless Hollywood actor, and then, again, by Boris Yeltsin: one very interesting character, I might add: a revolutionary drunkard who is best remembered jumping, dancing, and groping at foreign, female politicians’ asses.
“Glasnost … is the policy of maximal publicity, openness, and transparency in the activities of all government institutions in the Soviet Union, together with freedom of information, introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev.”
“Perestroika … is the Russian term (now used in English) for the economic reforms introduced in June 1985 by the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Its literal meaning is “restructuring”, referring to the restructuring of the Soviet economy.”
Question: DON’T WE NEED BOTH THESE DAYS? Openness and transparency, and big time economic reform? One total restructuring of the global economy? Wouldn’t it be needed these days? And as soon as possible, so that we might get somewhere in the border- and boundless quest for a large-scale change? I mean: both openness, transparency, and world wide reform of the economic systems will be needed in order to even start dreaming of the fulfillment of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals; the first seven of which I positively believe to be the key to achieving the eight and most imporatant one: that of a sustainable development for all and sundry. Now PLEASE! What we are doing to this planet, but also to ourselves, is patently GROTESQUE! So why don’t you just wake up here — whoever you are and whatever you think about yourself — and face the facts?
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Those of you who are half interested in my balderdash may want to take a look at the discussions that took place while those two important events took place, on Bali and in Oslo, in the first half of December. Check out the links below. They are good reads, all of them.
Okay, so a newspaper article more than four weeks of age has me started here! How amazing. Here’s another excerpt from Jonathan Freedland’s article linked to above:
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Getting developing nations to cut back on carbon while we keep belching it out may seem like green colonialism, but Cameron believes the climate crisis allows for no such pieties: we just have to cut carbon as quickly as possible and reductions in China are the lowest-hanging fruit. Besides, European polluters will eventually have to make their own CO2 reductions, since buying allowances costs money. (Not that it’s having that effect yet: European emissions have actually risen by 0.8% since the trading scheme started.)
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I’m losing out here, and as I do so I start to wonder who — as a matter of fact — these proponents for the carbon cap-and-trade scheme think they are kidding? I mean: the idea that developing countries are supposed to accept payment in return for a domestic policy decision to refrain from what would, in the western world, be known as development and progress? I mean: grow up!
Another question is: can anyone be absolutely certain of the supposed fact that very corrupt third world politicians do not just grab the money while deciding to themselves, secretly and simultaneously, not to give a damn about the carbon cuts they’d just received payment for?
And how about those saving of the rainforest deals? Can we be sure that the governments of Suriname, Brazil, DR Congo, Burundi, and Malaysia (only to mention a few of the rainforested countries of this world), actually will conserve the promised land areas as they get paid for conserving. I mean: honestly speaking: stranger things have happened before.
And while we now think about developing countries which are urgently wanted to gladly refrain from any further CO2-producing development — as their ruling political class now has got all that fresh carbon cash safely stacked away in some Swiss bank account or another — the question is: in which direction will we consequently be faring in respect of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals?
I’m probably asking questions that noone is quite able to answer.
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P.S.: I thought I might possibly gain a bigger audience and a few more comments by posting yesterday’s stream of consciousness up on this forum as well. It is my sincere hope that I’m not only wasting people’s time here, as I believe very strongly that the twin events of the beginning of December 2007 will be remembered somewhat as a point of no return. The UN’s Climate Change Conference in Bali is certainly going to go down in history as a more important event than Kyoto. And the awarding of the Nobel Peace Price to Al Gore and the IPCC was a very strong message to the world, that climate change must be solved in peace, — and that it no plausible solution to this difficult task can be achieved in an era of war and universal mischief.
Al Gore: “I am not an official of the United States, and I am not bound by the diplomatic niceties. So, I am going to speak an inconvenient truth. My own country, the United States, is principally responsible for obstructing progress here in Bali. We all know that.”
And what a pity that is! Now that the world has reached a threshold in which it is in urgent need of American initiatives. Simply because the USA is, and has “always” been, setting the examples for every other nation to follow up on, and try to emulate: an inconvenient truth as good as any other such truths, I dare say. Especially as I am now writing for an audience primarily consisting of Nort Americans, who may not be all that able to understand the profound importance of their country, especially when it comes to the shaping of social and cultural norms elsewhere. I say, the importance of the USA, as the nation setting the social and cultural targets for every other nation to live up to, cannot be underestimated. And it is important — absolutely crucial — that Americans understand just that.
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Dear Trinifar, Magne, John and Friends All,
There is something I would like you to consider and, if it pleases you, to comment upon.
My impression is that the ‘talking heads’ in the mass media make many reports about “the world”; but these reports are as mainly organized around the artificially designed, manmade, global political economy. Afterall, “money, money, money, money makes the world go around.” Now, of course, there is nothing the matter with organizing things in this way; however, people do need to be reminded from time to time that this way of viewing “the world” fails to recognize the Earth and human beings as integral parts of that world.
The mass media appears to segregate the Earth as well as human beings from economic globalization. By so doing, we are allowed ‘to forget’ what most of us know: that human beings and the gigantic global political economy are a part of, and utterly dependent upon, the Earth. There can be no human species and no human economy without the natural resources and ecosystem services only Earth can provide, I suppose.
Sometimes, it appears to me as if the human community is once again discovering that too many of us are being mesmerized by a spectacularly successful, modern-day Tower of Babel, one that takes its colossal shape from economic globalization. That is to say, human thinking, judging and willing have become so grievously captivated by our idolatry of the global economy that our leadership will not speak openly and intelligibly about anything which serves to raise questions regarding the long-term viability of the huge scale and anticipated growth of an endlessly expanding global economy for fear of losing their positions as leaders.
Steven Earl Salmony
AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population, established 2001
As I prepare to take some time off from the on-line world, your thoughts resonate in a special way.
I just wrote a comment on Magne’s new blog Mulig which reflects on this. In short: You’re right, and we need to find a way to take back political power, that is, to move the locus of political power from large corporations and business groups back to its proper place, the citizenry. Only then can we expect to grow a new crop of responsible leaders.
At times this task seems impossible. People seem enthralled with consuming, and vast sums are spent on advertizing to enourage and feed the addiction. How does a different kind of voice get heard?
Recently I’ve been reading about past revolutions. The only kind I’m prepared to join are the nonviolent ones and there have been precious few of those. Still, the civil rights movement changed America and Gandhi helped lead India to become an independent, democratic nation.
About your hopes that a peaceful, non-violent revolution can possibly take place. There are a few more examples of this than you think. It is fair to say that the Eastern European revolution of the late 1980s and early 1990s — the political shift from communism to attempted democracy — took place in a relatively peaceful, non-violent manner. Only in Romania — which, under the leadership of Nikolai Ceaucescu, was probably the craziest of all communist regimes of the era — did the revolution take place in a violent fashion.
I would also like to mention the 1974 revolution in Portugal, where a right-wing, fascist political regime was ousted in a non-violent fashion. What happened was, of course, that the armed forces joined the people in their social up-rising aimed at political change.
Let me also mention the revolution of South Africa which, after a century of apartheid, installed Nelson Mandela and the ANC as the new political leadership of the country. Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was probably an instrument which could only be put in place in Africa: a continent on which long-standing enemies have always shook hands and become “friends” as soon as wars come to an end and conflicts are resolved.
Steve: “Afterall, “money, money, money, money makes the world go around.” Now, of course, there is nothing the matter with organizing things in this way; however, people do need to be reminded from time to time that this way of viewing “the world” fails to recognize the Earth and human beings as integral parts of that world.”
Yesterday I was blogging on Trinifar’s site, and incidentally, as you wrote this, I waded into the spiritual side of human life. I was musing about humanity’s connection to nature, as a species of mammals, and not only creatures of society and culture. As I found myself wading waist-high into these extremely troubled waters, I found that I had to ask Trinifar to erase my comments. As it is, you see, the issue of “humanity: the instinct-ridden mammal whose connection to nature is, in essence, to be likened with that of other mammal species” — is a very frightening issue. Basically, my problem is, quite frankly, that from personal experience I know way too much about this. It is a fact and an issue that I tend not to either write or speak openly about, but it is constantly on my mind. It’s just the way it is, and I can’t help it.
Not that it helps me at all, but as I’m educated as a social anthropologist, it is very easy for me to see that the philosophies of red indians and the philosophies and thought systems of many other aboriginal peoples from around the world often have a clearer understanding of humanity’s place in the big picture, which has nothing to do with local councils and the administration of nation states, but which has everything to do with the species’ intricate connection to nature; not only in the spiritual sense, but also in the physical. I think the best thing I can do, is present myself a proponent for deeply holistic modes of thinking. At worst, I can call myself a religious person and an animist. —
As a modern and well read social scientist, I am now about to commit social suicide, I know. As the spiritual aspect of human life and proposed interconnectedness with nature, simply isn’t an issue to be meddled with. Well, not from within the educational system, the university sector, and any other systems of knowledge production. What I am saying has esoteric value, at best, and this is a form of value that has nothing to do with fact heavy scientific discourse, university papers and reports made the political administration to take into account and discuss rationally.
A social scientist who admits to being a religious person had better call himself a Christian, a Jew, or a Muslim. If he is Indian or Japanese, he can feel free to calling himself Hindu or Shinto. Is it possible for a social scientist to present humself as a Buddhist? Of course it is, but it should not be an important aspect affecting his production of scientific papers.
Animism and natural religions is definitely out of place. I wonder why this is so? As usual, I think it has a lot to do with fear. Natural religions are the big unknown, and they are invariably associated with primitive, tribal people, previously known as savages and barbarians. Their philosophies, systems of thought and knowledge production, cosmologies and spirit beliefs are exclusively to be seen as examples of cultural processes which has little or nothing to do with the real world, but can, be regarded as prehistoric or prescientific.
As a matter of fact, if I wish to be taken seriously now, I had better start researching the religious ideas of the red indians. Because, in the strangest way of all, it’s true to say that most white people have just a little sympathy to afford to the almost exterminated native American (red indian) way of thinking.
Please do not be gone too long from the online world. Your attributes of intellectual honesty, moral courage and willingness to openly share a perspective on the human predicament are very much needed in our world today. Too few people are willing to acknowledge what you are seeing and to be active in the ways you are. As I see it, the work at hand is vital.
One more thing. As you know, I am one of those people who believes that human beings are capable of taking the measure of all challenges and finding solutions to their problems which are consonant with universally shared values.
Even so, it still worries me to realize that with every passing day in which the human community chooses to follow leadership that adamantly and relentlessly advocates the “primrose path” marked by the feckless over-consumption of Earth’s limited resources; the reckless degradation of global ecosystems from massive industrialization; and skyrocketing global human population numbers, we bring closer the day when some ecologic catastrophe or economic disaster could be presented to us.
My hope is that conversations like this one will encourage others in many places to share their perspectives regarding what looks to me like a formidable, distinctly human-induced predicament, one that could potentiate a clear and present danger to humankind sooner rather than later.
Very best of luck with each and every thing you choose to do,
Well. Oh well. Or well? Orwell!
I can see what is happening here, and I can sense it. Things have seriously gone awry here. Those two important events of early December 2007 — the UN’s Climate Change Conference in Bali, and the joint awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Al Gore and the IPPC, in Oslo, I can sense that we’re all going mute. Discussions just stopped here. We are, as a matter of fact, about to give up and give in here. There’s nothing I can do about this. Me, I’m just a zombie leading the zombie life of some kind of a political criminal in the Royal Kingdom of Norway. I don’t know about you guys. For all I know, you are almost ready to just wander off and head for the nearest forest, where everyone is equally free to take and eat every mushroom we can find.
So here’s the next question: “What shall we do with the drunken sailor? And what’s his identity anyway??!”
Steve, thanks for those kind and encouraging words. My wish is to come back with a clearer head.
Magne: “I can sense that we’re all going mute”
Oh, no, not for a minute. Maybe a bit of pause to search for a way to be heard through the din.
“We are, as a matter of fact, about to give up and give in here. “
I’m still at it, Magne. Just busy with various projects. 🙂
Okay, okay! Thank you! Both of you! 😆
Dear Magne, John and Trinifar,
The three of you are making what appear to me as singular contributions to the most significant work of our time. Thanks for all each of you are doing.
What follows is an email I received yesterday. I have not had a chance to respond to it and likely will not do so before next week. You and our community will appreciate the import of what follows:
To: sesalmony [at] aol.com
Sent: Wed, 13 Feb 2008 6:32 pm
Subject: recommendations for grad level articles on population and sustainable development?
Dear Dr. Almony,
This spring I am co-teaching a master’s level course with ______________________. Our course is on Sustainable Development and
Environment, offered at _______________________________.
Unfortunately the syllabus we inherited is a bit out of date.
_________________________________ recommended that I contact you to see if you (or one of your
colleagues) might recommend recent journal articles or other sources on
population and sustainable development. Topics could include: population
growth and environmental degradation, Neo-Malthusian theories, alternative
I visited the Sustainability Southeast website that you are affiliated with,
but was not able to access the full articles listed there:
*Human Carrying Capacity Is Determined by Food Availability; Hopfenberg, R.;
Population & Environment; November, 2003.
*Human Population Numbers as a Function of Food Supply; Hopfenberg, R. and
Pimentel, D.; Environment, Development and Sustainability; March, 2001.
Do you know how I can access these articles? And/or do you have additional
suggestions for articles or sources?
Some of the other articles that I am considering using are:
* Ehrlich, Paul R., Ehrlich, Anne H. and Daily, Gretchen C. “Food Security,
Population and Environment,” Population and Development Review. 19 (1):
1-32 (March 1993).
* Urdal, Henrik, 2005. “People vs. Malthus: Population Pressure,
Environmental Degradation, and Armed Conflict Revisited.” Journal of Peace
Research 42(4): 417–434. FIND PDF COPY!
* Cohen, Joel. “Human population grows up.” Scientific American 293(3):
48-55, September, 2005.
I’d appreciate any ideas that you have for articles or other sources. Thank
you very much for your time.
I am putting forward this email here and now because I would like to ask the three of you and other friends to give me your recommendations, ones which I can pass along in the email I plan to send out next week to a colleagues (and students) who could be ready to struggle with the same issues discussed here. Please send recommendations to me at
Y’all are members of a small community that can already see the need for us to shift (and do so with all deliberate speed) from material “growth madness” to sustainable non-materialism; from globalized competition to localized cooperation. What is critical is our shared appreciation for the “fact” that time is not on the side of the future wellbeing of the human community; and consequently nothing appears more important, at least to me, than spreading the word as we have been doing in different ways.
This work of ours is so vital that I have come to believe that people simply have to be awakened now to humanity’s emergent and convergent global challenges, some of which are already visible and looming ominously on the far horizon.
In closing, I want to say again to Trinifar, “Please, do not be away for too long. ” Your clarity of vision, coherence of mind and willingness to speak out loudly and clearly are rare and much needed in a time when the brightest and best among us appear thunderstruck by threats that humanity could confront soon…..perhaps much sooner than the self-serving political leaders and economic powerbrokers among us are imagining.
Always, with thanks to this wonderful, small and, yes thankfully, dedicated community of truth-tellers,
Please send recommendation to my email address show above. Thanks
It sounds as though this person has been asked to teach a course on something on which they aren’t really up to speed. If I get the chance I could round up a few articles, but for the instructor to put individual articles into perspective would require a pretty good handle on the topic as a whole. Also, as in many other fields, to focus only on recent articles would be to miss the landmark articles which have shaped the discourse.
Though it’s a masters level course, I wonder if, in this case, it might make more sense just to focus on a small number of good, reasonably recent books. Perhaps something like… Limits to Growth – The Thirty Year Update, One with Nineveh, Ecological Economics (Daley and Farley), and, though it’s not recent, Catton’s Overshoot because it will provide students with such a good grasp on the nature of the problem.
Thanks John for your email and useful suggestions.
What follows is a link to the most recent article from one of our finest colleagues, Paul R. Ehrlich.
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