How to Save the Human Genus

Off the keyboard of George Mobus

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Published on Question Everything on January 24, 2015


Discuss this article at the Environment Table inside the Diner

What Can be Saved?

I am on record as saying I doubted that humanity as a global population could be saved from certain destruction. I have also stated that the species, Homo sapiens is probably not salvageable in its current form. However, I have also suggested that the salvation of the genus, Homo is both feasible and desirable. Let me briefly recount.

There is at this point, in my opinion, nothing that can be done to save the vast majority of humans alive today from a catastrophic demise. I am sorry. And below I will summarize my findings. The simple truth, as I see it, is that humanity has set itself on an irreversible course of destruction that is equivalent to the impact on the Ecos that the meteor or comet that crashed into the Yucatan peninsula had on the dinosaurian Ecos 65 million years ago. That is, by our activities we have brought about a geologically recognizable age called the Anthropocene in which we are the agents of the extinction of vast numbers of species, including, possibly, our own. Whenever such die-off events have happened in the past the Ecos shifted its characteristics and dynamics such that the extant species either went extinct or gave rise to new species of the same genus that were better adapted to the new Ecos. I fully expect the same kind of thing to happen in the future.

In any case the populations of critters and plants were decimated or severely reduced in number and that is what I suspect will happen to our populations. Homo sapiens must, of necessity, go extinct simply because the future environment will be extraordinarily hostile to human life. The real question is whether the genus might give rise to a new species that is better fit for the new Ecos before the very last member of the tribe extinguishes.

Proscription of Business as Usual

We are in the process of killing ourselves by engaging in an economic model based on ideas that just about everybody accepts as valid and good. What irony. The model that has been held responsible for producing abundant wealth for humankind is also responsible for destroying the life support systems upon which we depend. The problem is one of scale. When there were relatively few humans on the planet their economic activities were not as damaging. They could harvest slowly renewing resources like trees without threatening the forests. They could dump their sewage into rivers that would quickly dilute the toxins to low enough levels that they would not threaten other living things. It was a good model to establish a level of comfort in living that would not do more harm as long as the population numbers did not get out of hand. The problem is that those numbers did get out of hand. The improvements in living standards due to technological innovation made it seem feasible that more and more people could live on the land, but in truth, the extraction rates and pollution rates were accelerating beyond the capacity of the land to sustain us. So now, what was once the source of human success has become the cause of human demise. And very many people do not want to believe that because they have enjoyed benefits from BAU and want to continue to do so. See what I mean by irony?

What I want to do here is summarize the systemic relations that I see as causal factors relevant to the near future dynamics of human existence. I present a series of arguments, somewhat in the form of mathematical or logical propositions that provide “proofs” of the veracity of the arguments, that provide a chain of reasoning leading to this conclusion. These are presented in a way that suggests what might actually be done to maximize the salvation of our kind. But I have no illusions at this point that any of the actions suggested here will be undertaken. As I have written repeatedly (and will be presenting more definitively in an upcoming book) my firm belief is that humanity is not sufficiently sapient (that is the average of sapience is not sufficient) to change its behavior and set of beliefs such that it would actually adopt any of these prescriptions. Yet in the spirit of undaunted hope it can’t hurt to at least state the possibilities even if they are unlikely to be regarded. One never knows. I certainly would not claim to know. Maybe something like a miracle will happen!

Propositions Regarding the Salvaging of the Genus

1. The vast majority of people will have to stop having children. The population cannot grow when the wealth production rate goes to zero and must decline when the rate goes negative, as it must.

The operative variable is a measure of wealth per capita. There exists some lower bound value of wealth per capita that can be defined as necessary for every human being to live at some level of comfort above subsistence (let’s call that the “adequate” level). I base this level on the needs for food, shelter, clothing, companionship, and other factors that allow individuals to achieve a modest level of ‘self-actualization’, a condition I believe was part of the Paleolithic condition of humans when sapiens became a dominant species. Assuming a fair distribution such that each person possesses exactly their per capita share of wealth, then the number of people on the planet is limited to the amount of wealth that can be produced.

Claim: Wealth is produced by physical work and requires energy flow (free energy) to accomplish. The amount of wealth produced is proportional to the amount of energy available to do useful work and the amount of raw resources available for extraction.

The total wealth of the world is based on the accumulated wealth produced over the history of the work done less the drain on wealth due to consumption (active degradation of physical objects) and entropic decay (passive degradation) over the same time frame. Growth in wealth is defined as the positive increase in wealth or net wealth of production less degradation per unit of time. In order to maintain a steady state condition the amount of wealth growth must be exactly what is needed to accommodate the population growth over the same time frame.

Wealth derives from work done on natural resources, converting them to usable objects, including food. Among the mix of natural resources used there are those that are finite in availability. Among those most are extracted with greater effort as the supply is depleted (extraction is always per the “best first” principle). Fossil fuels are special cases of energy resources. They are finite in quantity and obey the same diminishing return laws such that the net energy available for work declines as the resource is depleted. That is, it takes more energy per unit of energy extracted and the net energy return declines over time.

Thus the growth of wealth is limited by the marginal cost of extracting resources and the marginal net energy available for extraction and conversion to human use. For example the extraction of iron ore and its conversion to steel is limited by both the depletion of ore and of fossil fuels (usually coal).

There is an upper bound on the total wealth that can ever be produced but no bound on the degradation of wealth. Since the production of wealth will ultimately decline (growth will go to zero) due to the depletion limits a point will be reached when no new wealth can be produced and only degradation will take place.

If the population continues to grow[1] then it is clear that the wealth per capita must decline and do so precipitously when wealth production rates fall below degradation rates.

The current evidence strongly supports the claim that wealth production is now in decline, yet population growth continues. The global economic situation today is a symptom of this decline. It is true that the decline is unevenly distributed throughout the world, giving rise to the illusion that, for example, isolated pockets such as the US economy, are on the mend from the longest and deepest global recession in history. Aside from the fact that most of this illusion is produced by erroneous economic models and government statistics that are biased, the US economy is temporarily seeming to be regaining strength (that is starting to grow!) but the ground truth for millions of households is quite different from the reports trumpeted by the media.

ERGO: The wealth per capita is also in decline and that needed to sustain the adequate level of life support for every individual is already below its lower bound.

This dynamic explains the vast numbers of poor people in the world. There simply isn’t enough wealth to go around. Even if we were to redistribute the existing wealth of the world (a Robin Hood action) there would not be enough to support the adequate level of living (or we could redefine adequate to be closer to and approaching subsistence rather than providing some level of comfort and joy). If the population were to continue to grow as projected, say, by the UN demographers, leading to some nine billion individuals by the end of this century, and no energy miracle emerged to compensate for the reduction in fossil fuel availability, then the per capita wealth would likely fall below subsistence. Since distribution is unequal this translates into billions of people starving to death or dying of rampant diseases (not even considering natural disasters).

2. Neoliberal[2], free-market, profit-driven capitalism (NL-FM-PD-C) can no longer be the operating model of economic life.

Claim: This model requires continual growth of wealth production over time. Even if it were to support the objective of providing a fair distribution of wealth (which it doesn’t) it is physically impossible by proposition 1 to sustain this model. The attempt to try to maintain the model under current conditions of depleted resources will cause a cataclysmic collapse of global civilization. Moreover, however, it can be shown that each of the main components of the NL-FM-PD-C model is fundamentally flawed. It is possible that if only one or two were so flawed that the others might contribute to a new economic model that would work. But all of them are flawed and demonstration of this supports proposition 2.

Neoliberal ideology. Humans are supposed to conquer nature and convert the “abundance” of the planet to their uses. Only human satisfaction counts on this planet and that should be maximized. However, not all humans are created equal. Only the worthy elite are entitled to aggregate larger proportions of wealth as long as the working masses have adequate wealth to sustain their lesser lives. Worthiness is based on attributes such as cleverness, ambition, and drive, which are ingredients in producing wealth. Those that are responsible for wealth production are entitled to a larger share of the rewards.

These sentiments favor individualism and ignore contributions from groups or collectivism (the sentiment that the group is the unit of interest). Science, particularly evolutionary psychology and sociology now tell us this is not correct at all. Group selection played a major role in making humans what we are and group efforts and collective decisions are known to be superior to individual efforts and judgments. We humans evolved to be eusocial creatures who are able through interpersonal communications and visibility into one another’s minds (our ability to model other’s intentions known as ‘Theory of Mind’) is the very thing that make our species fit and produced our superior (biologically speaking) capacity to adapt. We do so in groups not as individuals.

The objectives of neoliberalism based on these sentiments are just plain wrong. However, we should note that humans are not yet evolved to perfect eusociality. Each individual, remaining a biological agent, retains remnants of individualism when pressed and under stress. Capacities for selfishness and even narcissistic tendencies are still part of the human psyche. Amplified by the culture of greed that neoliberal objectives entail, it is possible for observers of human behavior (in economic matters) to wrongly conclude that these qualities are dominant. Indeed some have argued from a misreading of evolution theory that these qualities are what made us successful (e.g. Social Darwinism’s reliance on competition and survival of the fittest). Since greed and selfishness play into the neoliberal agenda and became a self-fulfilling prophesy of success in wealth production the narrative of NL-FM-PD-C has become generally accepted and is all too believable for naive minds. Yet it is counter to what science shows us is true for human evolution and the success of human enterprise. It is a myth that is self-reinforcing because it suggests to those who believe it that they have the right (and by implication the prospects) to become rich by virtue of their cleverness and efforts[3].

Free-market assumptions. Core to the idea of market-based economies is the dictum of laissez faire economic activities, or non-intervention by a higher authority (governments) in economic affairs. It is related to Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ metaphor in that individuals guided by self-interests will, nevertheless, cooperate in trade so that everyone is better off. Thus there is no need for governments to regulate those activities. The neoliberal extension holds that if governments do intervene it will distort market information and create biases that will interfere with maximizing wealth.

It should be granted that in historical and contemporary cases where governments have interfered with market mechanisms they have a mixed record of success at best, and too often abject failures. The failures of the communist planned economies are cited by nearly everyone as examples of government ineptitude in meddling in economic activities. And the criticisms are valid up to a point. Those particular experiments in collectivism were based on ignorance and bad judgement. What you cannot conclude from their failures, however, is that markets are totally capable of self-regulation. It simply does not follow from the failures that the NL-FM-PD-C model is therefore the best (and as some claim the only) one for the economy.

In fact I have already delved into the question of whether free markets are really that efficacious in solving all economic problems as is touted by neoclassical economics and neoliberal fundamentalists. Taking the systems perspective and analyzing market mechanisms I concluded in Could Free Markets Solve All Economic Problems that they really can’t. There are too many flaws in the conception of free markets to cover here (please read the above post), but basically it comes down to a few basic principles. First exchange markets depend on veridical information in order to balance true costs with prices. Nothing like that exists in the neoliberal version of markets. Their version depends on competition and, therefore, proprietary knowledge that obfuscates true costs. Prices do not necessarily reflect costs (see my comments below re: profits) and therefore the equations of wealth are never balanced realistically.

In neoclassical economics trading decisions are made by rational self-interested agents. Once again science has demonstrated that this assumption is simply not met in the real world[4]. The models of markets foisted by neoclassical economists (and that includes the so-called liberal economists like Paul Krugman) are invalid even before other assumptions are included.

Finally, and as I covered in my blog post linked to above, markets deteriorate with scales of distance and time. They degrade with complexity. Simple network models of market message flows through unreliable (human decision making) nodes clearly demonstrate that the supposed information needed for markets to “clear” declines non-linearly as the number of ‘hops’ through the network increase linearly. Information is supposedly conveyed through prices established by the decisions of buyers and sellers. When these agents are non-rational, non-privileged regarding true cost information, and are at great distances from nodes that are relevant to the value of the good being bought or sold, there is no way that the market can perform magic and get everything right.

These theoretical considerations should be sufficient to put neoliberal, neoclassical thoughts about free markets to rest once and for all. Of course we now know that science will never trump religious beliefs among low sapient individuals, which is what these ideologies are. But what about the actual experience, the evidence from daily life? Shouldn’t that count for something? Consider all of the various “bubbles” and scams that have been experienced in virtually every market framework. How could such things happen if markets were truly capable of solving economic problems? Think of Alan Greespan’s infamous admission that what he believed about the market place turned out to be wrong[5]. Even with these humble pie crumbs still on his lips, he still persists in asserting that the free market is the solution to all problems. Religious beliefs are very hard to nullify even with clear evidence of contrary reality.

Profit-driven Capitalism assumptions.

Possibly the single biggest fallacy perpetrated by all economic theories (neoclassical or heterodoxical) is that of “profit”. Not that profits don’t actually exist, of course, but that profits need to be made continually over the long run. Profits, in natural systems, are the episodic accumulation of product in excess of production costs that occur because of unusually favorable conditions that do not represent the norm. For example when a wheat farmer has a bumper crop he can readily store the excess (over his use) against a time when crop production is sub-par. Profits can be used in this manner to smooth out the rough spots in the long run in what is otherwise a steady-state dynamic[6]. Up until recently the primary drive for continual profit increases came from business expansion due to the growth of populations and increasing market sizes. More recently that growth has been replaced by the so-called globalization phenomenon that replaces expansion within a region with expansion to other continents; made possible by the use of transportation and fossil fuels. But the real source of profit has always been the increase in energy availability.

Human cultural evolution included the discovery of various energy flow enhancing means, either new sources of more powerful fuels or new tool technologies that increased the efficiency of both energy extraction (e.g. the water wheel) and production (e.g. the belt-driven loom). With these advantages the production of profits seemed to be perpetual. We humans seemed to have transcended the laws of nature and could generally count of making more wealth than we used up or fell apart. Thus we came to believe that profits are always feasible and became a normal part of economic theory. Unfortunately this was a misconception about how nature works. It depended entirely on the growth of energy flow, most recently from fossil fuel sources, to sustain. And energy flows, up until now, were generally always increasing. We humans came to believe deeply that profit making was the normal mode of living and something to be pursued. After all, this is how one gets rich!

But now those pesky laws of nature, in particular the first and second laws of thermodynamics, are demonstrating to us that in the very long run, it all balances out. Profit making is always temporary even if the time scale runs over many generations. We have plenty of historical evidence that is now being more correctly interpreted regarding the collapse of past societies[7]. Namely civilizations, particularly empires, collapsed because they ran out of energy. They could no longer make profits but the momentum of continued expansion (and population growth) required that they did so. All such societies eventually turned to debt-based financing, that is borrowing against future profits when none were going to be made. Essentially they consumed their previously accumulated wealth and the people in the working classes in a desperate attempt to keep the society going. It was always a futile attempt.

Capitalism started out innocently enough. Suppose an enterprising individual (say in the Bronze age) saw a way to possibly make a profit from some new endeavor. He (historically they were generally he’s) had to gather together enough resource wealth (capital) to pay for the construction of whatever production facility was needed, and to initially pay the labor. There are any number of ways to get others who have saved some of their prior profits to invest (or loan) the resources needed with the promise that there will be a profit return. They will make more wealth from such a venture than they could have done with any other use of that wealth. In other words, in order to attract capital the entrepreneur had to promise superior profits. Sometimes this didn’t work out and people lost their investments. But during the rise of increasing energy flow (which meant the energy input was really cheap and almost not worth considering) and opportunities to freely dump waste products into nature’s lap, more often than not, they succeeded.

But as our energy resources now begin to shrink and the pollution of our dumping is overwhelming us it should be clear that the idea of capitalism based on making superior profits was just plain ignorant. It was literally too good to be true.

Technology Salvation Assumptions

There is one more assumption that is often closely associated with the whole model and that is that technology will always come to our rescue. Fundamentally this seems true on the face of it. We have always managed to invent our way out of binds in the past, so naturally we assume that we shall be able to do so in the future. Nowhere is this more the case than with energy supply, and in particular, replacing dirty carbon-based fuels with “clean” alternative energy sources such as solar PV and wind power.

The impetus to believe that these technologies are ramping up and are capable of providing sufficient power to society such that it might get along as before (as promulgated in the popular media) is generated by several factors. One is that, as I stated, throughout history we have witnessed inventions transforming our world so have come to expect that will continue to be the case. In particular we witnessed the incredible phenomenon of microelectronics revolutionizing the field of computing and communications, with costs plummeting down as the scales of components shrank (Moore’s Law). There is a natural tendency to transfer the ideas of what we’ve seen in computing to the production of energy. That is, we imagine a technology that will allow us to generate abundant low-cost energy (high power) that will lead to a brighter future. Right now the focus is on solar and wind. Another factor driving our belief is that most of us simply cannot imagine the contrapositive. We cannot believe that all of this magic is going to come to an end. Many of us (actually most of us) are polyannish optimists and absolutely NEED to believe a solution will be found.

But the ability to hold onto such beliefs stems from a basic lack of knowledge regarding, mostly, thermodynamics (the physics of energy) and a deeper understanding of the history of technology and invention. Space doesn’t permit a full explanation of why these alternative energy sources are not likely to provide what we are looking for. They may provide a small fraction of power to buy us a bit of time. But eventually when the carbon-sources are no longer viable these technologies will have to be self-sustaining, that is they will have to provide all of the power to rebuild and repair themselves. Not all the data is in, but to date that likelihood is slim. Even if they could, they would still have to produce an excess of power that would be used by the economy for other work. The current belief that efficiencies (for example) will be improving to a point where one day these technologies will provide the power fail to notice the trends in technological innovations, particularly with respect to energy. Most of our past successes have been with increasing efficiencies because the starting points for our machines were so low. Over the past few decades many technologies have been experiencing decreasing rates of improvement. We are approaching the limits of efficiency increases and even where such increases are happening it is with the inclusion of materials that are rare or expensive to make. And that is because it takes significant energy to make or extract them.

Profit desires drove us to increase efficiencies or productivity (the human equivalent) and now profit desire persists even when the possibility of increasing these is declining. Part of the economic system’s shift to debt financing is because we still believe that efficiencies must increase and therefore we need to continue to invest in pursuing that agenda. But the reality is that they will not. There will be no great increase in the flow of high-power energy in the future due to technological innovation. There will be no magical increases in efficiencies that defy the laws of physics. Wishes do not make reality. Only nature does that.

ERGO: Profit making will have to go, and with it the notion of free-market capitalism. This is especially the case for rentier profits and investment profits, i.e. making money on money. But all enterprise must convert to non-profit operations. Companies that make useful things or provide necessary services will need to be taken over by employee collectives. The revenues obtained should be just enough to cover costs, including, of course, employees’ salaries. Management of such companies would be in the hands of employees and no manager would make a salary much greater than the average worker’s.

Such an economy is inconceivable to most people but in truth that is because they have never known any other way and the myth of profit-motivated self-interest has been the societal norm for so long it is hard for anyone to imagine that it could be different. But a non-profit based society is the evolutionary norm for Homo sapiens and under declining energy flows it will be absolutely essential. There is no profit possible other than under conditions of short-term energy surpluses. With those a thing of the past, only non-profit activities can be sustained. And then only if the activity produces something that contributes to productive lives.

3. Replace Globalized NL-FM-PD-C with Localized Collectivist Economies based on Sharing.

Claim: There is a more viable alternative to the current model of socio-economics based on selfishness and self-interest-based decisions. The new model is actually the old model for humans. It is based on cooperation, empathy, and sharing resources and wealth. It is the kind of economy that existed for many millennia before the advent of agriculture. We might call it the “Tribal” model. The model depends on tribes that are fairly local and limited in spatial scope, and therefore manageable. That is they are localized and essentially self-sufficient within their locales. This will be a necessary model.

Scale Considerations. Transportation will be limited in both rate and distance due to the declining availability of long-range fossil fuel vehicles. Machinery power will also be limited. Local production of power (most likely from hydroelectric or alternative energies if they can be shown to be self-sustaining) and limited storage capacities will necessarily limit transportation of goods. Therefore economies localized to regions, defined by the limits of transportation, will need to be crafted. The basics of life, food, shelter, water, etc. will be the main focus of the economy. Clothing, furniture, and other such personal belongings will need to be constructed from locally grown plants and trees. In most respects the only kind of lifestyle that can be supported in a low energy world will resemble small village/town assemblies of the late 1700’s and into the 1800’s.

Manufacturing and service providing companies will have to be employee-owned and run collectives (as above). All markets will be local. With more people having greater insight into what it takes to build something or provide a service, the value/price setting will be based on costs, including personal labor, rather than merely a market-set one based on whatever that market will bear.

Value Assessment Considerations. A new kind of accounting (or actually a very old kind) that measures value added based on energy used plus a factor for skill[8] would be the basis for setting prices. Markets for goods and services in a localized economy would resemble the old farmer’s markets and their scale would be manageable. In such a market buyers and sellers will have adequate knowledge and be able to agree prices more readily.

Cooperativity Considerations. Human beings, when not stressed by over population (density stresses) are more open and empathetic than when they feel they must compete to make ends meet. Cooperation and agreements are much more viable under a localized economic system. However, that economy must be capable of meeting all of the needs of the members. This means settlements, villages, or other living arrangements will need to be situated in habitable locations. Food production must be possible and climate cannot be too severe. It is very likely that there will be very limited choices of locations in the near future. In keeping with the idea that population size will start to shrink, and rapidly, it may be possible to find enough of these locations to satisfy supporting a breeding population in a steady-state condition. That will take permaculture engineering[9] to work out the requirements and design the systems.

Ecos Damage Considerations. The NL-FM-PD-C model is destroying our Ecos. Coupled with the drive to consume, desire for convenience, and power/speed pursuits, we dump CO2 into the atmosphere and oceans causing global warming and ocean acidification that is disrupting the very basis of our ecosystems. The quest for profits drive all manner of chemical pollution and soil deterioration. This alone should condemn the model. Unfortunately there are stubborn minds who’s livelihood depends on the extractive and polluting industries for their wealth and who, buying into the model’s justification, that it produces wealth, refuse to believe the evidence. Those same minds have gained influence over the governance system so as to prevent any rational response to this situation. But the degree and rate of degradation of our Ecos is directly due to the expansion of the NL-FM-PD-C model over the globe. Moreover, the evidence that we have reached and possibly already exceeded the limits beyond which permanent damage is done has mounted. By some reckoning we have at best a few years to completely reverse our course or drive our planet into another regime, one completely hostile to our existence[10].

Ergo: There is a better way to live than the global NL-FM-PD-C model. That better way restores the more ancient human traits that emerged when we became sapiens and allows us to live in a cooperative, small scale community. Living in small local communities does not necessarily mean we have to live like cave dwellers with only stone axes and animal skins. It does mean that we will abandon much of the current high-tech material wealth that many consider essential, like iPhonesTM. Our societies may be able to retain some forms of technology that are essential to supporting life, such as water-driven generators for limited electricity. But I suspect when the choice between TV and food is to be made most of us will choose correctly. Wise choices about what technology to maintain and what to give up will need to be made.

4. Reduce Consumption and Production of Non-Essential Goods and Services.

Claim: The only way a new (old) socio-economic system can work is to walk away from the current NL-FM-PD-C one that depends on constant and increasing consumption. What is produced and used should contribute to sustaining the steady-state tribal economy.

By all the arguments given above it should be clear that there is no physical way to sustain a NL-FM-PD-C system. And if you can’t you can’t. The alternative is to radically reduce our consumption (for those who are consuming) as well as stop growing our population. We will have to give up producing worthless goods or providing worthless services. My guess is that something like 80% of the population will need to be engaged in food growing, processing, and transportation since food is the number one stuff that will be needed. With a declining population there will be no need for new building construction. More work will be put to repairing existing housing or converting some formerly commercial properties into housing for workers.

Clearly this is a bleak picture compared with the ordinary vision we have of a bright tomorrow where we have even more stuff. Basically it probably exceeds your worst dystopian nightmares. Governance will need to be autocratic and organized along the hierarchical control theoretic lines. One would hope that those taking decision-making roles would be wise, but given the likelihood of finding such people is very low, it is more likely they will be despotic. At least one might hope they would have the objective of saving the genus in mind. That would mean they would recognize the need to reduce the population and consumption with emphasis on the use of energy to produce useful goods (food, clothing, tools, etc.)

Bear in mind, however, we are talking not about some monolithic state or government. The only practical way that humans will live in the future is in those localized and limited scale tribes. My speculation is that resources will become so scarce and energy to extract any that might still exist so unavailable that no one group will be able to gain any particular advantage over others. They simply would not be able to manage in the old fashion of expanding empires, and it wouldn’t matter how ruthless their leaders might be. No basic (seed) resources, no capacity to wage war and take over others who are, themselves, living in subsistence conditions. This leads to a further speculation that there will be a few of these tribes that are fortunate enough to be led by truly wise individuals. Those few may enjoy higher than average cooperativity internally and thus be more fit as a group to survive the changes that will be in store.

Perhaps for the next several hundred thousand years these tribal humans will be tested by a whole new Ecos. They will live low tech, though not necessarily stone-age, lives. We have learned a lot of science and with the right combination of cleverness and wisdom should be able to live comfortably within nature’s limits. As long as we pay careful attention to how the Ecos is changing.

5. Focus on Adaptation to Climate Variations.

Claim: Dramatic, possibly catastrophic, climate change is now baked into the cake and will impact every region to one degree or another. Some areas, like the higher latitudes, will be affected more than others in terms of extreme conditions. But all will suffer climate shifts that lead to more severe storms and changes in rainfall patterns. Humans are going to need every bit of adaptive capability to live under these conditions.

Above all else future humans will need to continually adapt to changing and possibly violent climates. Not unlike the impact of the glaciation periods followed by receding glaciers in the Northern Hemisphere, climate changes are going to significantly stress the biosphere. More so than the Ice Ages, the climate changes our progeny will experience will come more rapidly and be more extreme than our ancestors experienced. Surviving and thriving under these conditions will take every ounce of wisdom that tribes can muster. They are likely to have to be semi-nomadic as growing conditions in an area change. They will have to be super observant of plant characteristics that enable them to grow under otherwise stressful conditions and select those that can be relied upon for food for planting.

Most paleoanthropologists now believe that climate changes due to the Ice Ages were responsible for driving the evolution of hominins in Africa, by changing the local conditions over thousands of years. What now appears to be a large speciation of a number of hominins, especially those events that led to the emergence of our genus, Homo was, to a large degree, driven by these climate impacts. It is conceivable that future climate changes will once again drive the evolution of the genus.

No one can predict evolution’s results. However, I think it is possible to observe the major transition patterns that have occurred in prior evolutionary trajectories and make reasonable suppositions about what might come about in the future[11]. Those transitions demonstrate that biology has always found ways for cooperation to emerge and trump mere competition. Our very bodies, as multicellular organisms, are the result of such a transition. Group selection is now favored as an explanation for the evolution of human sociality and I also add to that the evolution of sapience (the two phenomenon are tightly linked, in my view). Tribes were evolving toward stronger eusociality (hyper-sociality) prior to the advent of agriculture and the requisite need for more top-down command and control style management systems with emphasis on logistical and tactical management (and less on strategic management which is the basis of sapient cooperativity). We traded off selection for greater wisdom capacity for food security. It was a reasonable trade off given the state of scientific ignorance we lived in. But it did dampen our potential increase in sapience over the last ten millennia or so.

If it was climate adaptation that drove hominin evolution to the point of producing this emergent new psyche based on sapience, then it might be reasonable to expect that selection based on climate change could once again drive that in the direction of a new transition — human societies based on hyper-social individuals cooperating in an economic system that is not based on profit, competition, etc.

Of course none of us will ever know what will play out. We will all be dead by the time the trends are more evident. My reason for considering these issues is that part of wisdom is using our knowledge, both tacit and explicit, to shape our world as best we can given the circumstances. That is what we have always done with our quest for more energy and our inventiveness. But what we did before we did in ignorance of the consequences. Now we see what those consequences of unfettered growth and profit-taking are. If a few surviving tribes are wise enough they might use that knowledge to reshape our social structures so as to avoid the mistakes we have made along the pathway to our current condition. It is still possible that the changes in climate will be so severe that no humans will survive and our species and genus, the whole Hominini experiment will fail. We will suffer extinction as a whole tribe. Indeed the likelihood of survival of any of the still extant hominin, the great apes, is negligible, so that the planet may end up with no very smart primates at all. But I hope that is not going to be the case.

The Likelihood

The solution to Fermi’s Paradox may be very simple. The reason that no sentient beings are flitting about Earth in flying saucers is that all such beings reach a point in technological development where their wisdom is insufficient to squelch the advent of the NL-FM-PD-C economic paradigm! The latter takes hold of the minds (like memes) and dooms the species to extinction. They can then never get outside their own star systems to explore their galaxies. If we had to extrapolate from our own experience that certainly looks to be a likely scenario.

A more likely scenario is that all such beings simply exploit their energy reserves before they achieve interstellar propulsion capabilities (assuming such is even possible). It might be because of the NL-FM-PD-C meme taking over or it could be that it simply takes almost all energy just to get to the technological point of getting off the planet and further technological advancement becomes too expensive[12].

Regardless, I think it is extremely likely that our genus, if it manages to survive the next ten thousand years, will be a long time getting back to a technological level close to what we have today. We won’t be exploring the galaxy any time soon. We will be taking a giant leap backwards, resetting our evolutionary progression. And it will be quite a while before a wiser, perhaps smarter, species derived from Homo sapiens will be looking into leaving Earth again.


[1] Actually the relevant measure is not body counts but biomass increase per unit time. The resource consumption rate is dependent on this factor which takes into account things like demographic distribution of ages.

[2] The term is being used here in its ideological sense. The new “liberals” believe in the supremacy of the free-market and capitalism as the very best economic model insofar as it produces enormous wealth. See the Wikipedia article for more details and read Naomi Kline’s The Shock Doctrine.

[3] Interestingly luck is never mentioned in this narrative. Yet if you read the biographies of so-called self-made people (mostly white males) you cannot help but note the significance of being in the right place at the right time and meeting the right people had on so many stories. Granted being prepared to take advantage of luck was important, but the luck itself was far more significant than the neoliberal narrative lets on.

[4] The work of psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (see: Heuristics and biases) and many experimental economists have decidedly demonstrated that humans, even corporate captains, are far from rational decision makers when it comes to economics.

[5] From the Wikipedia article on Greespan:

In Congressional testimony on October 23, 2008, Greenspan finally conceded error on regulation. The New York Times wrote, “a humbled Mr. Greenspan admitted that he had put too much faith in the self-correcting power of free markets and had failed to anticipate the self-destructive power of wanton mortgage lending. … Mr. Greenspan refused to accept blame for the crisis but acknowledged that his belief in deregulation had been shaken.”

[6] By steady-state I mean a system that is in the very long run receiving an average influx of energy that is used to produce exactly the amount of wealth that is needed to balance that degraded by consumption and entropy. This would have been the case for the earliest human tribes whether hunter-gatherers or early farmers.

[7] My favorite analyses of civilization collapses include Joseph Tainter‘s The Collapse of Complex Societies and Thomas Homer-Dixon’s The Upside of Down.

[8] An unskilled worker will tend to use more energy for the same output delivered so the final price has to be adjusted accordingly. The energy being used for measurement purposes is net ‘free’, in the thermodynamic sense, which takes this into account.

[9] I recently became aware of another “flavor” of systems based agriculture called agro-ecology. Though I have only just started investigating this concept it appears to be mostly about food production whereas permaculture addresses more holistic community living.

[10] If you only read one book on any of the issues related to Ecos damage and its relation to the NL-FM-PD-C model I strongly recommend This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein. She has done her homework. I disagree with some of her characterizations of alternative energy being ready to take over from fossil fuels; she has cited a few engineers who produced a grand scheme several years back, reported in Scientific American, that I have already critiqued and has been criticised by a number of other energy researchers. Nevertheless, her ability to connect the dots of finance, ideologies, politics, governance failures, and geophysical realities is in the best tradition of systems thinking.

[11] See: Maynard Smith, John & Szathmáry, Eörs (1995). The Major Transitions in Evolution, Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. Several other books on this topic have been written in the past few years. The field of group-based evolutionary selection is now fairly well established even if there remain some significant questions about the implications.

[12] My own preferred explanation is that they simply don’t want to be detected. If they had at all monitored activity on Earth they would more or less likely not want to get involved with such primitive beings as ourselves.

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