Monday, March 26, 2012

Trained for Success, Bred to be Eaten


I ended my last post with a provocative question:

Why is that reasonably rational individuals who are able to follow an argument and who are unable to refute it are at the same time incapable of making the transition from thought to action? What is stopping them? Humans are clearly smarter than yeast, what does that matter if they are incapable of acting any more intelligently?

As I promised, I will attempt to address this question in this one, helped by all the comments I have received. Ugo Bardi was quick to contribute this:

People just don't care about understanding what's going on and what's going to happen. If they are rich they care about how to make money on oil; if they are poor they care about miracle devices that will save us from the brink of the cliff. Then, as we start falling, interest in understanding what's going to happen will fade even more.

Ugo also cited Too Smart for Our Own Good by Craig Dilworth, summarizing it as follows:

The gist of Dilworth's book is that we are smart, individually, but that we aren't collectively. So, we are very good at solving individual problems, but that has the cost of creating larger collective problems which, then, we can't solve.

Dilworth's own summary of his book contains this:

We are destroying our natural environment at a constantly increasing pace, and in so doing undermining the preconditions of our own existence. Why is this so? This book reveals that our ecologically disruptive behaviour is in fact rooted in our very nature as a species. Drawing on evolution theory, biology, anthropology, archaeology, economics, environmental science and history, this book explains the ecological predicament of humankind by placing it in the context of the first scientific theory of our species' development, taking over where Darwin left off. The theory presented is applied in detail to the whole of our seven-million-year history.

This provides me with as good a jumping-off point as any, so let me begin.

Do you know of any humans that are living sustainably, in complete balance with the natural world? Chances are, you don't, unless you are an anthropologist, and even then only if you are lucky. Such humans are by now quite thin on the ground. Most of them have been either murdered or herded into “civilized” (i.e., unsustainable) society. Sustainable humans are a difficult subject to study, because our history is the history of unsustainable living, and ignores long, undocumented periods of time during which nothing notable took place in a multitude of sparsely populated locations.

But had these nondescript humans been left alone, the result would have been largely the same. You see, groups that live sustainably, in balance with the natural environment, do not experience exponential population growth. And so the populations which did not exhibit the fatal traits that give rise to Dilworth's “predicament of mankind,” even if left unmolested, would have quickly found their numbers dwarfed by the initially tiny part of humanity that increased its numbers exponentially by consuming nonrenewable resources while degrading the natural environment. As with a yeast sample, population size doesn't matter; all that matters is that you have a few viable specimens of the right strain, to start a culture.

A spike and crash in human populations is not unprecedented: out of a population of humans living in homeostatic equilibrium within their constant environmental footprint a small group emerges that, through some technological development—stone-tipped spears useful for big game hunting, or a plow design useful for breaking sod for agriculture, or toxic fracking fluid cocktails useful for getting at the dregs of fossil fuel resources—gains access to a new energy resource. Made delirious by their newly-gained powers, they throw all caution to the wind. Their population soon starts to double, crowding out everyone else. In the process, they hunt the big game to extinction, turn prairie to desert and deplete reserves of fossil fuels. Once further investment of energy in exploiting their favorite resource begins to produce diminishing returns, the population dies back, and a new homeostatic equilibrium reemerges, at a lower population level than before, because of the lowered carrying capacity of the now degraded environment. What makes the current experiment in unsustainable growth different is that it has engulfed the entire planet, depleting not just some but all natural resources in tandem.

The human populations that can live in equilibrium with their environment for thousands of years, and those that destroy it in a hurry, are not different species; they are not even different subspecies. Evolution has precious little to do with their differences: it is a matter of culture, not genetics. The time scale on which these events take place is far too short for long-lived organisms like humans to evolve any traits as specific adaptations to them. There are a few adaptations that develop this quickly: darkening or lightening of skin in response to sunlight, which takes less than 10000 years; resistance to diseases, through attrition of individuals who lacked genetic resistance to specific pathogens; changes in body form, lanky and hairless to shed heat in hot climates, portly and hairy to conserve it in cold ones. Beyond that, humans exhibit remarkably little genetic variation.

Although “culture” is an easy label to apply, and although cultural differences do abound, what distinguishes a population that insists on looking seven generations back and seven generations into the future when making decisions from one that is mainly concerned about the quarterly revenue and the year-on-year growth and their effect on stock price is their different thought processes (or lack thereof), which are, in turn, determined by their different priorities. You see, the man who lives and dies by the quarterly earnings report is already living right at the brink of extinction, eating through nonrenewable resources faster and faster, riding the exponential curve on the way up. As soon as that ride stops, he might as well promptly drop dead, but he will usually want to give cannibalism a try first. Thinking about the remote future is just not an effective short-term survival strategy for him. Asking him to invest in a sustainable development strategy based on some medium to long-term projections is like asking a man who is being chased by other men armed with knives and forks—and feels that he is in immediate danger of being eaten—to stop and help you with a crossword puzzle.

And herein lies the conundrum: to preserve all that's worth preserving—which, to me, is all the culture that is actually worth the name—art, literature, music, science, philosophy and fine craftsmanship—and to carry it over into a sustainable, low-energy, low-impact way of life, requires access to resources, and that, in turn, takes substantial quantities of money. But money is controlled by people who are always busy running away from their competitors lest they be eaten, and who cannot see how investing in a scheme which will never “pay off” could possibly be to their personal advantage or benefit (which is all the poor fools seem able to think about). How can we make it so that “the fool and his money are soon parted”? I have some ideas, and I will take up this question up in the next post or two.


Anonymous said...

From a big picture perspective, it seems the cycle of life includes overshoot and crash.
On a smaller scale, individuals who have adapted most successfully to the current system are the ones least capable of adapting to another system. They are set in their ways, which have proven to be successful for them in the past.
While they may be able to follow your argument, and be unable to refute it, they can not adapt to it by changing their behavior significantly. The training of 'successful' past actions is too strong.
Witness the long term unemployed living in tents getting up each morning to send out still more resumes and pray for job interviews. They should be motivated to change their behavior, but they persist in doing what used to work for them long ago. They appear to be fully adapted.
My unemployed friends sincerely believe if they keep a positive attitude and keep trying harder they will find a great job again soon.
TPTB are getting more and more twitchy waiting for the day when the masses of unemployed people wake up to the fact that the system is at fault and must change.

R. A. Davies said...

The truth is humans evolved to be extremely short sighted. Pre-agriculture people looked to the future in two or three day long, at best, chunks when working with detailed plans and seasonally when dealing with larger plans, such as migrating for winter.

The person on the plains of the Serengeti was mostly concerned with immediate danger that could attack him or her physically within the next few seconds. We are essentially hard-wired to be unconcerned about the lion of tomorrow. That lion is easily conceptualized and put into context. Yes, we know that there are lions, that they will be there"always," and we are on the lookout constantly for them, but if we are daydreaming about tomorrow's lion, we may be eaten by today's lion.

Many would argue that we are more advanced than that, that we can plan ahead. I would argue that we have had that ability for some time including most of our existence prior to agriculture, but that sort of planning was not that important.

We can do it now, but the very strong instinctual urge to not worry about tomorrow's lion prevents us from taking immediate action.

My donkey said...

If humanity is collectively too stupid to survive, our new motto should be: "United we fall; divided we stand."

Anonymous said...

My way of answering your original question is to cite a failure of imagination and a failure of will. (There's also "failure of information propagation" a.k.a. ignorance, but that's not an issue once you've shown your graphs to the ASPO group.)

Failure of imagination: Living in any other way besides the one you grew up with is difficult to imagine. That renders about 80% of any group unable to take action.

Failure of will: Those imaginative 20% who have any success conjuring up what it might look like to live in a sustainable way, don't necessarily like what they see. For now, they are free to ignore it. That takes out another 15%.

Another let's say 4% are also unable to take action right away because even though they acknowledge what's coming, they need time to go through Kübler-Ross' 5 stages of grief, among which are bargaining (electric cars) and denial (drill baby drill).

That leaves 1% -- his name is Dmitri and he's the one standing at the front of the room!

Wally said...

Profound questions deserve profound answers. I can't do the question justice but perhaps Nietzsche can.
The link below will take you to an aphorism he composed in 1887, while he was still sane. It's entitled the "Genius of the Species", in which he discusses human consciousness and it's limits.

Puzzler said...

Ah, perhaps Spike & Collapse is inevitable. Perhaps it's even part of the master plan. Perhaps Mother Nature has a sense of humor. She has seen a lot over billions of years and humanity is but a pimple on her butt. Perhaps the current spike and collapse clears the way for Homo Nextus.

weeone said...

May I suggest that everyone purchase a copy of Craig Dilworth's book and read it. He explains perfectly well why it is most unlikely that humans are going to be able to carry forward the best parts of civilization into a future of low energy sustainability. Instead what will happen is we will fight to the death using all of our nuclear, chemical, and biological weaponry until the planet is rendered virtually radioactive and lifeless. But its in our nature to try to solve the unsolveable so lets give it our best shot.

forrest said...

The only way through is through Spirit; the human race has been reduced to this necessity through centuries of trying to do without Spirit; hence the current state of desperation.

Thought of as discrete packages of 'verbalizing consciousness', we don't have the brains to navigate a t-maze. Psychically joined at a slightly higher level, that of a lynch mob or a war-bound nationstate-- we're just about capable of following one another over a cliff. (Lemmings, I understand, don't really do this. Those who hesitate are pushed, by lemmings behind with dreams of getting elsewhere.)

We've always had 'mystics', people who could tune into the Spirit that unites humankind on a more universal level. Societies where the mystics are the population, where each person can rule himself via his connection to The Big Itall... are capable of contentment and sustainability. Any other arrangement is, as you say, prone to cancerous growth and subsequent collapse.

A soft landing (like a sleeping cat rolling out a second-story window, breath knocked out upon impact ("mrrrrowf!") but able to walk away afterwards) can't be achieved

by the forms of thinking that have gotten us into this mess!

And as that becomes increasingly clear to all, no matter how little they want to see it-- What next?

Cynthia Q said...

Contrarian as usual. I'll argue against Dmitry’s wish that we preserve "the culture” (“that is worth the name”).

First, what culture would that be? I'm not just talking NASCAR, but the (gorgeous in aesthetic terms, but socially toxic) culture of the Catholic church? African or Amerindian cultures? As the natural extension of the maintenance costs you point out, cultures with money for their preservation will disproportionately determine what gets preserved.

Much of philosophy is narrowly theistic and solipsistic. Music is hard to pass on in a fashion other than personal; though systems of notation as various as languages allow it, the majority of music that man has played has not been heard, I would wager, by more than a few dozen people.

Art is enjoyable, but who'll be the arbiter of which art is worth preserving? Damien Hirst's works require -and obtain- six-figure maintenance fees to replace decaying sharks: this, while the ruins of Pompeii along with innumerable other artworks are suffering fatally from a lack of funds to keep them from deterioration.

At some point, hungry people will trump both ancient and contemporary artworks. Folks had no compunction about ransacking the Coliseum for raw materials, and that could just as easily happen to St. Peter’s, the Met, or the Guggenheim. Some Iraqis looted museums in Baghdad, and the Hermitage sold off its most valuable works to fund the Soviet state.

I also think you haven't explored the extent to which it’s desirable to enshrine past cultures, as museums do, at the expense of contemporary cultures (museums themselves seem to be a pretty modern phenomena borne of energy surplus). The Mona Lisa could be a masterpiece, or, from another p.o.v., just a decaying shark. Traveling through southern Italy, it's alarming the number of statues and frescoes one encounters with heads chopped off or faces gouged out—the legacy of Ottoman invaders seeking to obliterate representations their culture considered blasphemous. What would we have paid as a global society, to the Taliban, to spare the “idolatrous” images in their country which they destroyed, most notably in Bamiyan? Would any price have been enough?

A darker and more unanswerable question is whether they were right to obliterate cultural messages which they felt were toxic. Would it be right for enlightened modern environmentalists to destroy the Museum of Broadcasting, Disney World, the Creation Museum, or Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas?

As you point out, "sustainable" cultures leave the least trace, and the most UNsustainable ones are those wherein elites transform surplus production (extraction) into artworks and into sophisticated, recorded and credentialized fields of study. What you note at the end is indeed a challenge; how might it be possible to sustain a society while requiring excess production from the current culture in order to dedicate resources to maintaining past and foreign cultures in addition to its own?

Our current culture will be hard enough to maintain on its own: I’m planning to move to a New England town with its requisite late-19th-century music hall/opera house. It’s enough to look at the origins of these structures—which we take for granted—to see whether they can truly survive as nodes of cultural exchange or whether, due to the renewed expenses of travel, they’ll be stripped, abandoned, or—in the best case—modified where possible to exhibit predominantly local talent.

I think a narcissistic (genetic? biologically-driven?) need to preserve something of "ourselves" and project it forward into the future contributes to our ongoing predicament, frankly, and I strain to identify creations without which we'd be less than human. My Yankee mother's mantra is "you don't need that".

When the photos or drawings of the now-destroyed Bamiyan Buddhas also cease to exist, will anyone know what these statues looked like? Will it matter?

My first instinct says, “Yes”, but my second instinct asks, “Why”?

James said...

Consciousness, even with the facility of mathematics is an approximation and reductionist in nature. The mind must think in discrete quanta as our language must be produced in discrete quanta and delivered to the tongue and lips for formation and expression. Our 3D vision is superb for discerning the shapes and volumes of things in space but fails to see other things like heat moving through objects or density. Most people aren't aware of Wernicke's area, Broca's area, or the inferior parietal lobule, why their lips move and they hear words when they read, or why their hands are animated with speech. Try to pat you head and rub your belly and experience the confounding of the cerebral hemispheres as the corpus callosum reconciles bilateral symmetry.

People are awake and interacting with their environments, but are they conscious? Can they imagine the feedback from calling an alpha-male an impotent and smelly beast? Probably so, but their consciousness probably doesn't extend much beyond the social theater. To be conscious, the analog mind must first be nourished and grown with education and experience. Only then can the inquisitor inside trim away the overgrowth of fallacies, dismantle the emotionally derived constructions, and develop a closely matching facsimile of the world. Even then, with a lifetime of intellectual pursuit, only a partially decorated framework is extant, but enough to foreclose upon most absurdities of the imagination. It's no accident that sports, gossip and politics occupy most of humanity's time, just as it likely did in the small hunting tribes from which we emerged. Many people are willfully blind and have genetic tendencies that do not lend themselves to a full understanding of their predicament. Those that do understand must convince ravenous dogs not to eat the delicious steaks dropped in their bowls. This is a dangerous task.

Wally, the Nietzsche passage was great. Thanks.

Terrace said...

Despite their endangered species status, sustainable humans (i.e., "indigenous peoples" or "tribals") have not actually been made extinct yet. Although the numbers dwindle, these lifestyles do endure, although these people are seen by the Unsustainables as being primitive, dying out or in dire need of "help."

James Scott's "The Art of Not Being Governed" is a worthwhile read, as it juxtaposes the strategies of the Sustainables vs. the strategies of the Unsustainables. The Unsustainables will increase rapidly like a pimple and then pop, no doubt spraying a lot of foul-smelling stuff around, but they are the outliers in the system. Their complex civilizations always collapse in the end, while the folkways of the Sustainables endure. Yes, when the Unsustainables pop, a lot of their art, literature and worthwhile culture will go dark. But the folkways of the Sustainables probably contain the seeds of the next great complex civilization.

Repent said...

Change does occur. We are not the same society of 10, 20 or 50 years ago. It's just that the pace of change is far, far too slow to adapt to the hockey stick curve of exponential growth. We're not wired to deal with the 'externalities' of others actions on the other side of the planet.

Today for example my wife bought in a toilet cleaner tablet that cleans the toilet but turns the water bright blue. I said to her, well what happens when that blue water enters the river system and ecology? She looked at me in disbelief and said 'well we have to have a clean toilet'. I'm becoming more enviromentally aware of my personal impact on the ecosystem, but at the same time I can do nothing about the millions of others literialy turning water blue for athestic purposes.

The scale of problems is far to vast to solve on a personal level. (Nature will solve them, we won't like most of the results though).

Lance M. Foster said...

Dmitri and all, this documentary is about such a group that lives in balance with nature, and also has a severe warning to the rest of the world that does not live in such balance. And yes, I'm an anthropologist. It is a most profound program, "From the Heart of the World":

Anonymous said...

Thanks D.O. for raising these crucial questions. I've long been interested in the philosophical question of the freedom of our wills and your points are important considerations in that debate. I say these questions are crucial because they will help those of us who are seriously concerned about this grim knot of problems we are facing understand exactly how alone we are. Also, as your friend Ugo points out, as things get worse the majority of people will believe it less, accelerting the decline. At least for a while, that is.
We should be scared, frankly we should be physically organizing ourselves into a community of some sort to make a go of surviving. I'll be honest, if I thought there were a group of such people I'd probably be headed out of NYC within the month.

In regards to why people cannot alter their behavior in the face of information that demands it, I think a few more points should be mentioned. The discussion so far as tended to focus on a kind of meta-picture of evolutionary adaptation, of humans being wired for this sort of boom and bust behavior. I tend agree with the points made so far. I'm talking here though about the cultural constraints that will help distract large numbers of people from even considering action,speaking only of the United States to be clear.

Religious belief will provide a huge wooby blanket for many to pull over their heads, one that will eventually suffocate them but they won't poke their heads out, even to take a breath, to avoid the Boogeyman of a universe whose Driver has apparently dozed off at the wheel. Broadly, the reactions will take the form of either "God will get us out of this!" or "God is doing this because we deserve it!" Neither idea will result in large numbers of people preparing for collapse of one kind or another, because the common reaction is going to continue to do what one has been taught is the good and the right. The same shit that has helped bring us to these rocky straits, bullshit consumption and mindless obedience to some imagined set of norms. After the fall, the first Messiah type figure I encounter is going to get bludgeoned with a lead pipe, pronto.

Our mainstream media will do it's stalwart duty of lying, comforting, and selectively agitating us until the bitter end. If you think the press fell into the official line for the Gulf wars, embedding "objective" journalists and clearing press releases with the DoD, wait till you see how our media elites react to hungry mobs tearing apart the Whole Foods in the Financial District. A fog of finger pointing, moralising, and hate mongering will issue forth from such events that can only accelerate the social decay, distracting and dividing people who should be banding together.

Finally, the Cult of That Special Nation, the belief that the Eagle will despite all odds rise again from it's filthy nest littered with dead children, torture wracked lives, and it's own shit to score more glorious touchdowns in the Big Game. I'm truly terrified of the kind of militant fascistic formations that are lying dormant, waiting for the right mix of toxins to leach into the soil so as to throw roots and sprout. These groups will not be interested in preparing for the onset of these problems in a realistic manner but rather will continue to bleat about the renewal and recharging of the horrid old ways.

All of these things will change dramatically >after< a serious collapse, the religious, political, and social landscape will give rise to new arguments and rationalizations, probably most will be unhelpful and retrograde in terms of rebuilding.

Robin Datta said...

Thank you for this fresh perspective on the human predicament. Intelligence does not equate to wisdom.

Cynthia Q said...

@Repent, my particular bugaboo with toilets is the plastic toilet brush. Especially in Europe, toilets are designed such that material must be dealt with each time, with the toilet brush, which one then has to replace at decent intervals so as not to cause scandal. But you can never replace just the head: you have to replace the whole thing, and sometimes even the container jobbie that it sits in because you can't find a brush head that fits into the handle/container pair.

In my new house, humanure will be the practice. I will be so glad to never have to buy another plastic toilet brush or worry about how it looks, nor will I have to buy any more of those toxic bowl cleaners.

forrest said...

Clarification: This civilization is terminal. But in one of Gabor Mate's books, he talks about terminal patients who tell him things like "This cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me." Sometimes they recover; sometimes they die on schedule.

But if you're terminal, a faith cure is in order.

Not that old "faith" scam! Seeking what deserves true faith.

"If you bring forth what is within you; it will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, it will destroy you."

Most all vertebrates (that we've studied for this) turn out to have specialized brain hemispheres: one side for routine feeding and habitual behavior, another for the kind of wide-angle scanning-for-incoming-predator sort of consciousness you're calling for. But it's that routine, keep-on-chomping side that handles the verbalizing. So that's the side that gets to call itself "conscious" in (for example) that Nietzsche passage, but it isn't what does emergency thinking!

When 'primitive' people get hungry; they fast. By necessity. And/or they eat odd plants they normally wouldn't. Strange Things happen in their minds... Vision sharpens, imagination (of true conditions and of illusions) becomes more powerful. Familiar ways not working, they start to follow their intuitions.

The sixties being a mixed example, a chaotic mix of some actual high-level consciousness together with utterly-stereotyped reflex behavior on all sides of the cultural conflicts... may offer hints of what we'll be in for. The propaganda system wasn't as well-developed; but fewer people were truly desperate-- and, I suspect, the number of people with "education" and no socially-approved scope for its application is actually larger. Isn't it nice to live in "interesting times"?!

Jeff said...

In the Matrix movie, of all things, Agent Smith sums it up: 'Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus."

Yes, pretty grim. But it is really quote hopeless to expect people to care about future people. We don't even care about people alive right now who exist outside our immediate family. Poor people in other countries? Don't make me laugh. We don't even care about poor people in our own town.

yvesT said...

Hello, this comment to mention a"tribune"/"adress to the French presidential candidates about peakoil" published
Also published on below site with the ability to sign online :
Direct link to google translation :

Note : title should be more something like : "let's mobilize society towards peakoil"
We are working on a proper English translation, signatures and messages in English welcomed !!

We also expect to publish in more papers.

Unknown said...

Nietzsche assumes a world where communication is both necessary and welcomed. It is neither. In the real world, communication between mankind and master is silenced, mainly in that all communication between mankind and master is met with silence. Here there are no responsible parties go to. And the common response by those that mankind might appeal to for relief – from the burdens on injustice, crime, all criminal business activity that which routinely takes place between the employee and manager, slave and master; between citizen and politician, and between the citizen and their government – serves only to pass the man along from the first responsible party to the last, from one authority to the final authority. And if mankind interprets their actions morally, as some form of progress, or simply as an action of communication in of itself, they ultimately find themselves where they started, a helpless supplicant before silence.

Even between one person and another, communication never really takes place, except as an acknowledgement of a weakness to be exploited (usually in silence, like a plot carried out successfully against another, a scheme, another bubble), as a timeless expression between the "all time winner" and the "all time loser." The kind of communication that Nietzsche says takes place between two parties is a fiction, and an impolite fiction at best. The philosophy espoused by Nietzsche is an argument devoid of reality and the ways of the world, where communication is repressed timelessly – "especially between those commanding and those obeying."

What first manifested itself as the horrors inherent in all bureaucracy and all bureaucrats has now taken on a sullenness, an intractability, a malediction, new levels of soundlessness where answers are simply the sounds of silence turned up or down. If there was to be a response it would be a revolution by revolutionaries against silence, except that the oppressed masses have no way of organizing among themselves, just as the "Occupy" movement elected never to have a leader. In today's world the individual is not even unique in their isolation. Speech then, instead of being some kind of basis for communication, is rather a defense mechanism against communication; true communication in this case being the first form of futility. Just as the telephone might be expressed as a "modern representation for conversations that never take place," so might the internet be another instrument designed to further distance of groups of individuals from talking about what is important, like how propaganda reinforces itself with an insistence upon being accepted for the dogma of technology.

This is why nothing ever gets done.

Unknown said...

In 12 step recovery it is a given that you have to be defeated thoroughly by your addiction, be aware that it was your addiction that brought you to this defeat and that you are helpless to defeat this addiction by yourself. This process can not be forced on you from the outside and be effective. It has to arise from within you courtesy of the extreme discomfort that the self-induced defeat hands out to you.
It is also recognized that few (5-15%, a guesstimate) of true addicts/alcoholics ever have long term sobriety/clean time even with this self-knowledge, such is the power of addiction.
So, what Orlov described seems similar to the addiction process and I don't think the "recovery" rate will be much better than with alcoholic/addicts. What does tip addicts into recovery many times is an example of a recovered addict that the addict knows of who is there when help/proof of concept is needed.
Perhaps what would work for collapse recovery is not wholesale education/powerful arguments/mass media/pleading with government etc. but rather individuals who bicycle, grow their own vegetables, live simply etc., are engaged with others in a community doing the same and most importantly of all, feel good and are at peace with themselves.
There are already hundreds of thousands of discarded people here for whom we can be models/mentors for and help some of them and that is enough.

projectpeace said...

Just because that's the way it was yesterday, doesn't mean that it has to be that way today...

...occupy evolution.

The evolution of revolution is revaluation. When mankind comes to realize the true value of Cannabis , the most nutritious and useful, potentially abundant and globally distributed "herb bearing seed" on Earth, then we will have a chance to rebalance our economic and environmental existence within a functional Natural Order.

void_genesis said...

I suspect the notion that the behavior of a species can be categorized as "stable/sustainable" or "unstable/unsustainable" is a bit simplistic.

All species are unstable, and all life on Earth is unsustainable, if you observe it on a long enough time scale.

It makes me think of the human notions of waste and efficiency. Think of a tree producing thousands of seeds, only to see 99.999% of them fail to grow. Surely this is an extravagant waste of resources.

Except all this waste and instability is the engine of evolution. Perhaps all the waste and suffering of human culture is the engine of cultural evolution as well. Think about the link between science/technology and warfare for example.

Out of the chaos of a fall from high industrial society all sort of unexpected developments and changes could arise. My guess is that genetic engineering is the key to a new form of organising the world...

Atif said...

In nutshell, the problem is preference of short-term thinking over long-term thinking.

People weren't like that a few hundred or thousands of years. We humans are capable of making sustainable civilizations, see for example history of babylon, india, china, japan, even rome to some extent. What happened then that changed humans so abruptly, so fast?

Its markup, markup on money. This is the base of almost all economic problems of today. When you ASSUME that money has a time-value, you by definition shift towards short-term thinking. This is the root of almost all economic problems. You cannot expect to have a sustainable economy in a system where a dollar today is worth a hundred dollars 25 years later.

RanDomino said...

You don't need money- you need social organization. Allies, groups, projects. Money is secondary to that. In fact if you find that you have a lot of financial support, it's probably a sign something is going wrong.

Cynthia Q said...

@Unknown, I think your addiction analogy has some validity. Recidivism is high for some addictions, bu others (like our addiction to oil) are mostly mental. I quit smoking after 20 years of it, and I actually found that it was pretty easy: one phrase from Alan Carr's book stuck with me, to the effect that I didn't need to smoke while I was asleep, so I didn't really need to smoke.

The bulk of modern consumption is due to habit and social conventions.

I agree with void_genesis about the big picture, but a tree's "waste" seeds are part of a wholistic cycle. They are eaten by other animals and microbes. They decay and create fertilized soil for the tree itself.

I don't see future ranks of humans being nourished by castoff plastic junk, pharmaceutical-laced sludge, and radioactive waste, but who am I to say?

Did you know that penguins in the Artic test positively for Zoloft?

Eventually, the world will assimilate our poisons in some way or other, but the process is unlikely to shake out all that well for ourselves.

While I don't personally ascribe to notions of human progress, you might be interested in Charles Eisenstein's "Ascent of Humanity" series. He posits a human transition from selfish, needy children to mature adults, in collective comportment. I certainly hope he is right.

In terms of words ceasing to have meaning and communication becoming impossible, let me offer a sad example. In my sister's pricey CT suburb, her grade-school kids are being asked for the antonym of "attitude" and of "barbecue". This is not a joke.

Their report card had definitions for how to interpret it: "below grade level": the student is working below grade level; "grade level": the student is working at grade level. This was under a "rubric", which seems to be this school's warped word usage for "glossary", a rubric being a heading (come from the usage in monastic libraries of using red (rubine) ink to mark topics), not a series of definitions.

For this, my sister pays property taxes of over $10k year on a normal suburban house.

James said...

It is possible to alter the behavior of rats by gene therapy, injecting bits of DNA using a viral vector. If they could target the medial prefrontal cortex, perhaps we could all become helpless sycophant slaves ruled by the unaltered Alpha race. I'm sorry to hear rumors that the RQ-170 drone has a sophisticated aerosol spraying system, but this is a difficult thing to verify. Well, accessing and targeting a specific area in your brain with a virus is technologically challenging, but I wouldn't doubt they're perfecting it, for purposes of national security. If gene therapy doesn't work, there's the old standby of accessing your brain with a bullet. Technology, I guess we have to take the good with the bad, right? They're sure learning that the hard way in Japan right now.

Lucas Durand said...

Thanks for carrying on this investigation into territory that is so difficult to navigate.

I have often attributed our civilization's failings to the failings of the dominant culture... A culture so steeped in hubris that sweeps up all other cultures, and cannot conceive that it may in fact just be the fastest means down the road to extinction. But who really knows?

I agree with an earlier poster that pervasive short-sightedness (not only at the top of our cultural shit-heap but at all levels) is possibly human kind's greatest failing... As "evolved" as our brains may be, maybe they just aren't "evolved" enough...

In the "Dune" series by Frank Herbert, the character Leto II accepts mutation into a god-like worm being that lives for thousands of years. He accepts this fate because his oracular powers allow him to see that without the ability to plot a course through thousands of years worth of future history, humans wiould be doomed to self-destruction from short-sightedness - not being able to foresee or appreciate the consequences of their actions in the present.

I can't help but think Frank Herbert put his finger on something... Already, the world we've created for ourselves is so complex that it seems that only some type of "god-like" awareness could "solve" the problem of choosing which path does NOT lead to self-destruction.

Looking forward to your next installment.


weedananda said...

I'm reminded of a humorous poster I once came across. The image is of a bunch of arms from elbow to hand clad in business attire. They're 'all in' like a sports team huddle and dutifully represent both genders and a range of skin colors. The caption reads: MEETINGS - None of us individually is as dumb as all of us together! Then Kafka's words come to mind: "There's plenty of hope...just not for us." Cheers.

Jeff said...


If you seperate the store of value from tranaction function of money, your problem is solved. Gold, as store of value, has an infinite time value. An ounce of gold is an ounce of gold forever.

And yet, collapse continues. In fact populations which have no money concept at all (animals, dinosaurs, etc.)collapse.

So really you have two problems, one of which we can solve (tranactional currency as money) and one which we can't solve (collapse). The money problem has been solved as you will see very soon, so be somewhat cheered.

Terrace said...

As far as I'm concerned, Joseph Tainter explained pretty much everything - to the point where he even seemed hesitant to accept his own final conclusions. His only final words were basically a shrug and "Oh well, we'd best keep paddling."

But his physics-based theories of the inexorable processes of collapse do not allow for very much (if any) meaningful human intervention, so it's no wonder his work is rarely discussed (and when it is, it's usually misinterpreted). We like to believe we're running the show and are the authors of History, even though we're not.

Not only will History have done with America, it will one day have done with humanity, and one day will have done with Life itself, and then Matter itself.

Have a nice day :-)

Anonymous said...

I saw this and thought you and your readership would find it interesting.

Unknown said...

pThere are many virtues that Americans lack- the first being humilty.

Becoming sustainable requires a great deal of humility that most Americans are incapable of or unable to adapt to. Yet, it is the first step towards true sustainability, towards living humbly within our means and consciously with regard to ALL our actions/words/thoughts and the consequences of these actions/words/thoughts. When you become humble you realize that you don't need so much, that you can live better traveling by bike or walking, that you can compost your own poop, that don't need the new phone or one at all, that you can farm with a stick and a few seasonal storms (as the Hopi in Arizona do.)

Modern people are not short sighted. They are just greedy and lazy. And efficient at it. We want it all now for free.

Anonymous said...

An unknown person on this thread said
“Modern people are not short sighted. They are just greedy and lazy. And efficient at it. We want it all now for free.”
Based on your definition, I am not of the “modern” people.
Perhaps I should define myself as advanced?
I am greedy - but not for money, and lazy if such a tag includes the idea that I should conserve energy and make sound investments of my time and resources.
Meanwhile back at the ranch, I will contemplate my multi millennial strategy for world conquest and domination. So much for us modern Neanderthals being out of tune with the long view.
It’s Friday night here and we have to have some fun!
Thanks for sharing your knowledge and perspectives.
These are the lustful things I’m greedy for…

pansceptic said...

A few years ago, someone on the LATOC forum posted a link to a version of Meyers-Briggs ( a test that reports personality types with a 4-letter designation), asked folks to take it, and collated the reported results. The outcome? 70% of respondents had a personality type that represents 3% of the general population! Another approximately 20% differed by one letter only. It appears that people on that Peak Oil site were a self-selected unrepresentative sample of the general population.

To me, this implies that people who are willing to think at length about longer timeframes and less-than-sunny subjects are a distinct personality type, evolutionarily conserved but in small numbers. I'll conjecture they are not needed during steady-state periods, but occassionally their advice regarding possible future occurrences saves much or most of the tribe.

Many indigenous cultures have a character who is not chief (and won't ever be), but is consulted by the chief in some decisions. This person is the shaman, and is widely regarded as "different" from birth. Maybe many folks in this forum also qualify as one of Greer's "Green Wizards"?

vera said...

Great topic. IMO, the reason we are collectively stupid has to do with civilization, not evolution.

Collective intelligence is commonly seen among social insects and other social animals. Why not humans?

Because collective intelligence requires agent autonomy. As soon as a boss rises, collective stupidity is the norm hereafter.