George Mobus

Happy Vernal Equinox – 2020: A Black Swan Trigger for the Collapse

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Published on the Question Everything on March 19, 2020

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Happy Vernal Equinox – 2020: A Black Swan Trigger for the Collapse

Might the SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus be the black swan event that puts us past the tipping point? The virus itself, and the disease it causes, Covid-19, is certainly dangerous in its own right (though the actual death rate is not really known because we don't have accurate data on the actual number of cases) I wouldn't worry about it decimating the population. Rather what concerns me is the so-called 'knock-on' effects or the cascade of disruptions to our very brittle economic (and political) systems. Yesterday I went to Costco for some supplies (not toilet paper thank you) and was a little taken aback at the empty shelves where some of my favorite items could generally be found. Our global economy and distributed production/supply chains are vulnerable to disruptions. Like people not working in order to avoid contacting those with the virus. As we have seen over the past week, whole countries and most of the states in the US are ordering lock-downs and self-isolation to "flatten the curve", i.e. prevent the kind of spikes seen in China and now Italy. If people don't work, the work doesn't get done. If the work doesn't get done many people don't get paid, and then they don't buy stuff or pay their rents. The economy comes to a grinding halt.

Unfortunately the way our global means of production and distribution are so strongly interdependent, and thus brittle, if you break anything you break everything. Once this virus begins to subside you cannot just restart everything. We will be lucky if this ends in a 'simple' depression.  But I really don't think that is going to be the playbook. The Great Depression was ended not so much by the onset of WWII but by the fact that we had access to cheap oil and coal to power the reconstruction of industry. WWII just provided the impetus to reconstruct industry rapidly and at the scale that took place. We do not have the luxury of having access to cheap energy now.

Watching Evolution in Real-time

Humans have, for a very long time, been able to subvert the processes of natural selection that have keep all prior animal populations in check. We have occasionally met with a plague disease that had a temporary impact on the population counts but all of these experiences occurred when populations were separated by distances that kept the diseases from spreading as a global pandemic. Today, globalization and extreme personal mobility has eliminated that checkpoint. We're now learning that the coronavirus is likely to have been transmitted widely before the outbreak in Wuhan, China. The virus has been incubating for a time longer than usual for the flu. And the symptoms of Covid-19 for most people look like colds of mild flu. Thus even when it was starting to show itself we were already behind the eight-ball. The experts are still trying to understand the epidemiological dynamics but one thing is clear, it will take extreme measures to get people to change their behaviors to provide the needed isolation. Just this morning Governor Jay Inslee announced restrictions on large assemblies which will kill a lot of concerts, ComiCon, and other events.

Which leads to another, even less well understood, phenomena that will put severe pressure on even the uninfected. The response to coronavirus is almost certainly going to drag the economic system into depression as mentioned. There is likely to be a complete collapse of the financial system since most businesses as well as most households, and the governments of the world are now deeply in unsustainable debt. Capitalism, even the Chinese version, cannot survive for long without the artificial monetary support having been given by the credit markets. Look at what has been happening to the smaller oil and gas fracking operators who have been depending on debt to keep going. Many (and by the time this is published, perhaps most) will fold for lack of cash. Their operating costs far exceed the price they get for the oil they pump. Say goodbye to the American energy self-sufficiency.

The global, capitalistic economy is an entangled mess of supply chains and labor services. As such it is primed for a domino take-down. It is brittle and resilience or adaptation to the new economic realities would come at a great price for energy, just when we have entered the peak of global production.

And then, on a slightly longer time scale (but within the lifetime of young adults living now) there is the spectre of radical climate chaos. Note that in spite of all of the talk of the last two decades, the greens claiming the potential of transitioning to renewable energy, and the UN insisting that all we need to do is reduce our carbon emissions, neither the energy production of so-called renewables, nor the reductions in carbon emissions have even begun to meet the promise.

These three forces, along with a host of consequent sub-forces will provide the selection that will check human growth and consumption. And that is a good thing in my opinion.

It looks like humanity might have reached the point at which the Earth will finally reign us in.

Human Nature

I must confess I have been very disappointed in Homo sapiens. We don't deserve the species name, sapiens. We are not very sapient [A Theory of Sapience] (perhaps we should have the species name, 'pre-sapiens' or even 'pseudo-sapiens'). Except for a very few people we could consider as 'wise,' the vast majority of human beings have proven to be quite foolish, and there is evidence that human intelligence and ability to learn and reason about complex issues has actually declined over the past 5,000 to 10,000 years (average braincase sizes have declined by several hundred cubic centimeters – our brains are smaller than our ancestors'). The choices we make on average have been inexorably leading us collectively down a path of increasing over complexity and increasing dysfunction in all of our major (and many minor) institutions.

We are now witness to the rise of truly massive selection forces and seeing natural selection in real-time.

I don't hate humanity. The species evolved as circumstances dictated. We became sentient, then established a foothold on the shore of sapience. We evolved tremendous intelligence and creativity. But we failed to evolve the full promise of sapience which would have provided a self-monitoring (for individuals and societies) and regulating capabilities to keep us from making the choices that led to over-consumption and unrestricted growth. While there have always been a few wise people who have observed and warned us of the dangers of our hubris, since the vast majority of humans were not sufficiently minimally sapient they did not pay attention or heed the warning. And here we are today.


I still won't try to predict what will happen exactly; after all a black swan, by definition, is unpredictable. But, I am confident this doesn't end well for most of us. Some of us, including me likely at this point, in the pandemic. But many more are going to face conflict, expulsion from homelands due to climate changes, starvation (same cause), increasingly destructive weather events, and the list goes on. In the end, only a small population of either lucky or wise enough humans will survive. There is still the full cataclysmic scenario of complete extinction, say if the methane bomb goes off (or nuclear bombs). I still don't think it will get to that. My sense of timing tells me that this coronavirus and its demolition of the global capitalist, consumerist economy has come just in time to provide the necessary negative feedback to prevent a full on cataclysm. Of course, for those of us who will face which ever scenario it will certainly seem cataclysmic. But, this is just nature restoring balance so life can get a fresh start, with or without a species of Homo.

In the meantime, try to enjoy the springing forth of life this Vernal Equinox. What else is there to do?

I appeared on a couple of podcasts on this particular subject this last week: Collapse Chronicles at and the Doomstead Dinner at






Winter Solstice 2019

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Published on the Question Everything on December 21, 2019

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I hope this finds you well and, at least for now, safe.

When I sat down a few weeks ago to start sketching what I would write about for this post, and after several false starts it dawned on me that there really is nothing much more to say! At least there is nothing really new to say. It seems that all of the kinds of global dangers I have been concerned about for all these years are now sufficiently advanced to be visible to all but the most stubborn willfully ignorant. And there are certainly many of those. Nevertheless, we now have growing movements such as behind Greta and Extinction Rebellion re: climate chaos. There have been a steadily growing number of economists who are starting to question the conventional wisdom regarding capitalism and free markets, if not the conventional theories behind the quasi-science. The public is still being hoodwinked by the oil and gas industries regarding the future of fossil fuel energy production; they have hyped the fracking revolution and American energy independence and the majority of people do not have the physics needed to understand the consequences of fracked well dynamics. So they don't realize that the current abundance of oil and gas is going to be short-lived. But many more people are listening to the experts (some of the same peak oil guys who went underground when fracking started taking hold) and realizing that there are problems afoot. And then there are those who strongly believe that solar and wind are going to save our civilization. If they are willing to look there are a growing number of analyses and reports that provide strong evidence that the economic power production potential for these technologies is just insufficient to run an industrial (even a so-called post-industrial) society that is dependent on the kind of power you get with fossil fuels or nuclear.

Not the kind of person who says 'I told you so, but…' Ok, so I am. But now many-many more voices have been added to the growing cacophony of doomsayers. I expect more people will start taking notice.

Still the majority hold out that some kind of techno-miracle will save our society, pretty much in its current form. Again its a question of pure physics. Stated simply, the kind of society we have right now is not in any way sustainable.

I've just finished a year-long quest for applying systems analysis to a human social system (HSS) design that would be sustainable but organized very differently from what we've grown used to as "normal." The outlines will be the last chapter in my forthcoming book. The last part of the book is devoted to design and engineering of complex adaptive and evolvable systems. So I thought, why not apply it to the HSS? I have written several papers about it for both Russian and Western systems researchers. Guess where the ideas were best relieved.

There is no way we can transition our current society to this more systemic form. We don't have the time even if the general population accepted the idea. So my prediction is still that civilization as we know it will crash (hard). You can already see the dynamics playing out. We're likely just past the peak point in Ugo Bardi's Seneca's Cliff scenario. You know, the Wiley Coyote moment! I hope to get the book out before everything goes to hell, and a few more papers published with the hopes that some remnant of the notion that a systems approach to designing and constructing a viable human society will somehow survive. Some day in the distant future, perhaps a thousand years after the collapse, some survivors in small pockets of relatively stable climate might have the opportunity to do it right the second time around. One thing for sure, they won't be in a position to exploit the kind of power sources we've had. The coal, oil, and natural gas will effectively be gone. And if my theory of evolving sapience holds any water, some of those future beings will be a little bit wiser than the current species.

Enjoy while you can, being mindful to not increase your contributions to the problems (e.g. consumerist living). If you are so inclined (and young enough) join Extinction Rebellion, go out and shut down traffic, get arrested at a protest. It might be fun.

Summer Solstice – Peak Light, Maximum Darkness

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Published on the Question Everything on June 21, 2018

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If you feel as if chaos is accelerating you are not alone. I'm sure that most still reading this blog are completely aware of what I mean.

The irony to me is that Trump is right to call out the major institutions of our world as being dysfunctional. Yet his 'fix' is not really a fix, it is an acceleration of destruction. Perhaps, in the long run, that is actually a good thing. Perhaps humanity needs a major reset. But my fear is that it won't necessarily lead to a better path. The problem is that we humans seem incapable of learning from our past mistakes, even when we acknowledge them as mistakes and vociferously claim we will do better. We will not make the same mistakes again in the future.

I remember growing up reading about the rise of Nazism and Hitler and the Holocaust and wondering how on earth that could ever have gotten traction. The story line goes that the Germans were in a world of hurt after WWI and were ripe for his kind of 'leadership.' People needed to blame someone and the Jews were a convenient target with historical precedence. But I took great solace in the fact that knowing how that scenario played out, we human beings would never allow ourselves to go down that road again. At least not in the United States of America! As our role in WWII showed, we were the good guys.

What happened?

My theory is that we human beings are caught in an evolutionary purgatory, between our experience of self- and future consciousness that is just nascent and wisdom that uses that consciousness to project long-term consequences of our decisions. We evolved the beginnings of sapience but are not fully sapient in our current species. And like the old saying goes: "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing."

Back in 2009 I put forth a theory of the state of human evolution and of our capacity for wisdom that suggested we were not yet capable of true wisdom (sapience) for a number of reasons having to do with our brain's limitations. You can find the start of a series of posts on the subject at: This will actually take you to my personal repository where the whole series is stored and give you links to the later posts in the series. I have since expanded these posts into a full-blown book but it remains unpublished for the simple reason that, by definition, there is no audience for it. Who among the merely pseudo-sapient beings on this planet wished to know they are kind of defective? The publishers I approached, including my own for the systems science books, were loathe to publish something that basically concludes there is no hope for you mere mortals and here is why!

Honestly I think my message is more positive than that. I do believe there are true sapient individuals in our populations, though they are probably quite rare. I have been trying to convey the idea that the rest of us could take the brave stand of supporting them (if we knew who they were) and seeing to it that they would be able to survive the collapse of our civilization (an absolute certainty in my mind) and provide the seed stock of a new species of Homo. I have dedicated my efforts to encapsulating and codifying systems science as a seed knowledge bank that could be used to guide future populations of eusapients and provide the basis for a future science (e.g. systems biology) so they would not have to start from scratch. Thus far my efforts have gone well. My first book, with Mike Kalton, is very well received in the systems science and engineering communities and my second book, still in process, has received rave advanced reviews from many in those communities. I'm trying to fulfill my commitment.

How about you the reader? Know anyone who you think is eusapient and of breeding age???? Somehow, we need to find these people and get them together. That problem eludes me so far. If you have any thoughts let me know.

Meanwhile the day will be the longest of the year (in the Northern Hemisphere) and tomorrow we start the long descent into winter (passing Fall along the way). It is hard to grasp that with so much light from the Sun we are mired in deep darkness of understanding. Well, we are only human.

Winter Solstice 2017 – Cycles

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Published on the Question Everything on December 21, 2017

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The occasion of the Winter Solstice has me thinking about a major fundamental aspect of all system processes. They all involve cycles (which include quasi-cycles or quasiperiodicity, hypercycles, and other variations on the theme of cyclic or almost cyclic behavior). In nature as well as human-designed systems cycling between multiple states is the rule without exceptions. Mountains are built up only to be weathered away into sand that then turns eventually into sedimentary rock in preparation for the next round of mountain building. Living organisms are propagated, develop, reproduce, go into senescence and die. Economies emerge, grow, develop, run out of adequate resources, and collapse. Out of the left-overs of prior societies, new ones emerge, generally because of newer technologies that allow extraction of previously unexploited resources. And the cycle starts over. Most cyclic behaviors in nature are non-periodic, not like a sinusoidal. But the systems pass through states that resemble one another again and again. Another kind of cycle that is often found in systems where energy is gradually declining is the spiral. Each time around the cycle the states come closer and closer to maximum entropy.

Some are tempted to think that the current world civilization will not run out of resources because the emergence of new technologies has seemingly always allowed a new spurt of economic growth and development. But writers like Robert J. Gordon (The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War (The Princeton Economic History of the Western World)), and James Howard Kunstler (The Long Emergency), have identified trends in the invention and development of new technologies suggesting that the economic impacts of the most modern ones are relatively small. Gordon analyzed the phenomenal growth in American productivity and growth of the national wealth and income during the period post-WWII through the 1980s (his total analysis went from the end of the Civil War to the present) and found a strong argument that that growth was anomalous in the long-run, and largely due to the introduction, starting in pre-WWI years, of the most impactful technologies, i.e. communications, air transport, trains, etc. Even the Internet does not have as strong an influence on growth as did these 'seminal' technologies. Similarly, and deeply connected the advent of the age of oil was responsible for tremendous growth once the infrastructure for massive extraction and refining was in place, stimulated mainly by the needs of fuels for WWII. Now that the cost of extraction and refining are climbing relative to the energy supplied to society, the net access to high-power energy is declining at an accelerating pace. That trend does not bode well for our civilization. [Those still insisting that alternative energy sources will permit continuing business as usual should really try to wake up from your dream. A society that might be powered by alternatives would have to necessarily be a much-reduced version of today in the developed world.

The current news about how the economy (of the US anyway) is improving and growing at an increasingly "healthy" pace is based on faulty analysis and deeply flawed theory. It is propelled into the discourse by wishful thinking more than carefully reasoned arguments based on facts and sound theory. The situation is not dissimilar to conditions in 1929.

But just on the principle of cycling in systems dynamics we can confidently predict that the current world economy will collapse. We don't know when precisely, though some trends are starting to emerge that imply it won't be long. This is the way the Universe works. Whether or not a new, very different kind of society will emerge from the ashes is impossible to predict except to suggest that it is a reasonable expectation. This is the way evolution seems to work. The collapse of global civilization may provide a powerful selection pressure on survivors that favor the wise over the foolish (which I suspect represent the vast majority of the population at present). I suspect (and hope) that severe climate change will require extreme wisdom in order to survive and procreate. For better or worse, the core theme of human evolution has been based on cooperation (group selection) and that seems like the path that will most likely succeed for future generations.

Of course, systems do go extinct. Stars may explode sending their elemental components into space for recycling. Planets can enter runaway feedbacks that lead to unlivable conditions (like Venus, perhaps). Dinosaurs (except Aves) no longer roam the planet. Runaway positive feedback in cycles lead to total disruption of the system. In a few of these cases the systems simply disintegrate into simple component parts that might get recycled in new systems (a meta-cycle). In others the parts are just randomly distributed through maximizing entropy. What will the fate of humanity and societies be is anybody's guess. I'd like to believe there is a future for our distant future progeny. But who knows?

The current political situation in the US is a portend of what is to come. But it is also a measure of what processes are playing out. It gives us insight into what happens when a system runs out of energy and internal regulation. Our political process is so completely and unrecoverably broken that it is hard to imagine anything other than some kind of revolution (possibly preceded by another civil war) tearing down the last remnants of a government. None of the branches of government in the US are functional anymore, except of course to serve the interests of the super-rich.

For the Northern Hemisphere the days are going to start getting longer. We will have more light by which to witness the continuing degradation of societies. I don't think the drive toward Spring will bring renewal of the social system. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if this Spring Equinox shows us the cycle of despair.

Nevertheless, rejoice in the change of seasons.

Winter Solstice 2016 to Spring Equinox 2017

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Published on the Question Everything on December 21, 2016 & March 20, 2017

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Some Thoughts on the Winter Solstice 2016

Opening on a Hopeful Note

I have been named Editor in Chief for the International Federation for Systems Research (Vienna Austria) book series, published by Springer, “Systems Science & Engineering”, previously managed by George Klir. I am deeply honoured to have been asked by the IFSR to head up the re-launch of their book series. My hope is to guide the series in the direction of opening up access to systems science and engineering to a much wider audience by making sure that the books published include sufficient prose, along with their mathematics, so that non-mathematically inclined people may also see the insights that systems science has to offer.

SS was developed as a subject during an era when scientists, especially in the various domains of physics, were overcome with pride and zealousness over their mastery of advanced mathematics. The early thinking was that mathematics was a completely adequate language for describing systems concepts. Many books and journal articles, thus, focused on mathematics at the expense of prose. The result was to put off a large audience of people who, nevertheless, intuitively grasped the ideas of systemness but were left without a lot of intellectual material from which to draw. The major exception was a group of people who bridged the worlds of verbal and mathematical description and realized that systems thinking would be valuable in management science but only if ideas could be expressed with a minimal amount of arcane mathematics. They called this track “Soft Systems Thinking.” To their credit they were fairly successful in expressing most of the principles of systemness in plain language using mathematics (usually nothing more complicated than basic algebra and set theory) only to add some amount of preciseness to their ideas.

Today there is a growing understanding that mathematics' proper role in describing the world is as just such an addendum. My work on human thinking, especially in the area of the internal language of thought (LoT) that I have proposed is actually the language of systemness – what I am calling “systemese,” and this language is comprised of four mental modules (actually five modules including the affect, emotional, influence on decision making as I reported in my Sapience book). The first module is the linguistic (verbalization) module responsible for encoding and using names of objects (nouns), relations (prepositions and many modifiers), and actions (verbs), plus the grammatical formation of sentences. This is the language facility most researchers and linguists focus on. However we also have names for quantity, measures (units), and calibrations (comparisons between two or more quantities, for example). These words can be conveniently represented by more terse symbols (signs) such as the numeral, '1' symbol representing the verbal symbol “one” and a built-in sense of counting. Measuring, involving comparison of sensory data from one object, for example, with another object, and calibration (e.g. making sure an arrow head was not too heavy for the arrow) led to various arithmetic capabilities. Math today is the result of an on-going evolution of abstraction of patterns of relations and using those abstractions, along with rules for deriving them, to multiple situations.


The third module in human thinking is strongly related to the mathematics module but was first evolved with the linguistic module and that is the logic module that is used to construct rational arguments. Early humans, as they were evolving language facility needed to use that language to confer on group decisions about future actions (e.g. when to go hunting next). These kinds of discussions required the discussants to put forth veridical arguments for their positions when there was a disagreement about conclusions. Facts and logic were needed to ferret out the proper course of action.


The fifth module concerns itself with visual interpretations. A picture is said to be worth a thousand words. And this has some basis in psychology. Our brains are evolved to use all four of these modules in order to have successful intra-specific communications take place. Successful here means that the results of communications increase the fitness of the species, by increasing the fitness of the tribe (and by doing so the fitness of individuals). The verbal facility acts as an integrating nexus between all of them. We have words and sentences to describe what we see, how we reason, and how big or small things are and how they compare to one another.

It takes all four of these competencies in order to describe the world (it takes the emotional module as well in order to communicate knowledge about individuals' states of feeling, e.g. desires, but so far as scientific descriptions are concerned we try hard to eliminate the effects of emotions). No one is sufficient by itself. It is somewhat possible to translate any of the three extra language facilities into verbal descriptions, but often at the risk of losing some precision or context. A well balanced use of all four is what makes the sciences so successful in producing increasingly veridical descriptions of the world and how it works. The reason mathematics has tended to dominate, especially at the lower levels of organization (e.g. physics), is that the various specializations in the sciences means that those who work in a particular field become deeply antiquated with the subject and the math used to model systems within that field. They can talk mathematics to one another and feel like they have done an adequate job of communicating with their tribe. However two factors are intervening in this comfort zone. The first is that systems science deals with systems in general, regardless of medium (physical, biological, social, etc.) The second is that the problems that the sciences are tackling are increasingly involving complex systems and require transdisciplinary approaches. Meaning that scientists must communicate with other tribes, often speaking different languages.

I will be developing my system language more thoroughly in the new book. My hope is that understanding better how our internal language of systemness works (with all modules) will provide us with a universal way to achieve transdisciplinarity and communications between all of the science disciplines. My object with the IFSR/Springer book series is to similarly guide the whole field toward a more balanced approach to communicating systems science to everyone.

And Now Some Not So Hopeful Observations

This year has demonstrated to us that nothing is permanent, not even democracy!

The evidence that the world as a whole is coming undone is abundant. The circuitous manner in which Trump arrives at the White House shows us that institutions meant to ensure the proper working of democratic governance have broken down, failed. Unless there is some revolution in the electoral college that denies Trump the presidency (and we will know shortly) the fact that a sufficient number of people in the US voted for him, sufficient to bring him close even if losing the popular vote, is, to me, adequate evidence to show how incredibly pathetic our education system has gotten. People (and not just Trump supporters) are generally abysmally ignorant. They are, I am starting to think, equally stupid. Even PhD-educated people are showing signs of a lack of any intellectual capacity, a dismal lack of any kind of understanding about matters outside their particular profession, and certainly no ability to exercise critical thinking skills. Even if the electoral college denies Trump the office, there is likely to be a revolution since his supporters are so emotionally broken that many of them have already shown violent tendencies.

The next few years are going to be especially difficult for the world and I think it is safe to say the rivets are already starting to burst from the boiler. From this point expect the chaos to simply increase and likely at an exponential rate. People, both republicans and democrats alike, voted for change. They wanted to eliminate the status quo and they will get their wishes. But given what I said above about the level of ignorance and stupidity that seems so prevalent in the population, even the so-called educated population, the kind of change they wanted isn't even feasible in the current state of the biophysical economy. So the changes they will get will be quite different from what they expect.

Democracy is a nice-sounding idea. As a form of governance it has appeal because it addresses a basic human desire to be autonomous, translated into the concepts of freedom and liberal human rights. It conveys some sense of equality and opportunity to participate in the decision processes of managing the economic, ethical, educational, and cultural subsystems of the human social system. Democratic governance has evolved over many generations to the kind we witness in the US and many western nations. Coupled with economic freedom, in the form of neoliberal capitalism, it has seemed to everyone that mankind had finally found the right formula for managing our affairs with equity and dignity. But…

A representative democracy is supposed to compensate for the little problem that most people have very limited memory and understanding capacity relative to the complexities of governing large social systems like a country. Even at the founding of the United States of America, the complexities of state and internal affairs were such that the Founding Fathers realized that the common person would be unable to know everything needed to participate fully in the governance process. Ergo, the representation in congress and the electoral college creation for the election of the executive. Even at that, the people being elected to represent the rest are tending of late to the stupid and ignorant side of the mental distribution. I think of someone like James Inhofe (R. OK.) and simply hang my head and cry. Of course stupid people are getting into elected office because the voters are even more stupid and ignorant and are even resentful of anyone who is clearly more knowledgeable and intellectual than they are. They vote with their emotions and a feeling that such people will understand their problems. It hasn't helped that the occasionally smart politician has used those smarts mostly for personal gain — influence, power, and riches. There seem to be as many selfish democrats as there are selfish republicans. And so the common person is left feeling like no one is really looking out for their interests.

A big part of the problem, however, is the difference between what they believe their interests are or should be, versus reality. Americans in particular have been sold on the concept of the “American Dream.” But so have so many other people around the world, pursuing material wealth in the belief that it brings happiness. It has simply never occurred to most people that wealth comes from converting natural resources into goods and services and that those come in limited supply. Thus, now that we have reached the limits imposed by reality, they simply cannot understand why they are denied the American dream. Worse yet in places like Syria and the whole MENA region, they cannot understand why they can't even try to attain something like the American dream. Not even their governments can tell them the truth. Mostly they themselves don't understand the situation. It has taken something like global warming to start physically changing the climate and weather patterns to finally get some leaders to recognize a little piece of the puzzle.

Democracy in any form suffers from this one fundamental flaw. It depends entirely on the mentality of the populace — the whole populace. It depends on people being sufficiently smart that they can use critical thinking and logical reasoning along with possessing adequate knowledge about how reality works to be able to make informed decisions. There are likely to always be differences of opinion because of emotional attachments to world views that vary from culture to culture and ideology to ideology. As long as there is a forum (the political process) for working out differences amenably, and an intent on all parties' parts to do so in a peaceful manner, then democratic process has a chance to work. But as you think about it, when has that description of people ever been true?

Closing on a Hopeful Note (somewhat)

I strongly believe that systems science can provide guidance toward creating a form of governance that would succeed in terms of providing for an acceptable level of welfare for the citizens. That welfare would be considerably less oriented toward physical wealth as we understand it today. But every citizen would have an opportunity to participate in meaningful work, helping to secure the social milieu against disturbing forces from outside, and being supported by the society in terms of assurance of physical needs and comfort.

Problem one is that this is only feasible for a significantly smaller population, one that is not depleting natural resources faster than the renewable ones can be renewed and the non-renewable ones can be recycled. The current population of 7+ billion people on the planet is not just non-sustainable, it alone (never mind continued growth) will kill the planet's ability to supply resources to humans and to most other members of the biosphere. How we get down to a sustainable population is the continuing problem being discussed in population overload circles. To date, no clear consensus has emerged, except that the likelihood of supporting 7-10 billion people is understood to be irrational. The most likely scenario for humanity in the near term is a planet-wide population crash and an evolutionary bottleneck event. This would be a self-correcting aspect of the population problem. But obviously a very brutal solution.

Problem number two is that even if we could get the population down to a supportable number, the physical environment, in particular the availability of more natural resources and the dramatic changes in climate, are going to provide significant hurdles to get over. Future human beings are going to face incredible obstacles in forming any kind of reasonable civilization, even at a tribal level. They will not have the resources, especially high power energy, to do the work needed to build and sustain civilized living conditions.

Problem number three involves preserving all or most of the hard-won knowledge about the world that science has accumulated to date. Not all of this knowledge would be immediately useful to future humans but it would serve as a reminder of the mistakes our current species have made (I imagine preserving the parable of the iPhone as a cautionary tale warning of overzealous technology advances). It might also serve as inspiration for eventually building a reasonable civilization. My own thoughts along these lines is that what will be needed is a way to encode knowledge into a preservable medium, but essentially compressing the expanded knowledge in all fields into a form (message) that could be transmitted through the ages and used to recover all of the detailed knowledge when it becomes possible (and I have to believe it will in some distant future time). I believe that knowledge of systems science is exactly that compressed form of knowledge for everything. If systemness is the fundamental organizing principle of the Universe, then it should be possible to rebuild the specific sciences by applying systems thinking to the phenomena that future humans will certainly witness.

Problem number four, then, is simply providing strategies, tactics, and logistics to people who grasp reality well enough to follow through so they can survive in the future drastically different world they will occupy.

Over the years that I have been writing this blog I have tried, in some small way, to provide some pointers in the directions of, first, understanding these problems, and second, offering some suggested ways to address them. Of course, over that time my own thinking has been evolving and continues to do so today. My involvement with the book series project mentioned above is part of my work on hopefully solving problem number three. I am counting on a wider dissemination of systems science knowledge and thinking to help ensure some preservation. Even if no more than by word of mouth as a kind of oral tradition.

Over the last few months I have turned my attention to ideas about systems based governance of human social systems. Owing to the capricious nature of human emotions, human agents make lousy decision makers on their own recognizance. So the question of designing an architecture that can overcome the weakness of human beings acting as decision agents has begun occupying more of my time. I will be outlining my findings in the new book but also plan to write about them here as they evolve. The good news (of sorts) is that after studying natural governance in living systems I think I can see where our evolved ideas about governance took a wrong turn (as with the evolution of deepening sapience the turning point appears to be around the advent of agriculture!) Moreover, I think I can see how we can learn from natural governance and apply those ideas to create a better form of human governance that will meet the criteria of welfare for all citizens. I can promise it will be nothing like we have now nor particularly like we had back in the tribal days more than 10,000 years ago, though it will incorporate the human meaning that was the basis of tribal cultures. It will describe a system that is in balance with the whole Ecos owing to internal regulation that keep it from growing beyond realistic boundaries or using resources unrealistically fast.

I realize it is too late for our current populations to adopt such a governance system. They can't even understand it or why it is needed. But I hope that as part of the knowledgebase of systems science the ideas will be available to some future society for adoption.

Happy Solstice.


Spring Equinox – 2017: The End of the Beginning of the End

The elections are over. The new president is installed and has already brought chaos to the world, not just the US. History may not repeat itself exactly, but it does prove we humans have gotten into cycles of the same stupid mistakes and for all of history since the first civilizations of Mesopotamia, and, indeed, all other parts of the world where civilizations arose, humans have been repeating the same pattern of expansion, complexification, and resource depletion to the point of exhausting their source of wealth. And the rulers invariably respond to the unrest in the ways we are seeing today. Some, like Assad, who were already in power when the s**t hit the fan, respond with brutal crackdowns on rebelling populations. Others like Trump are put in power by promises to fix what is wrong with the status quo, but turn very quickly to trying (and most often succeeding) to subdue the potential unruly crowds by continuing promises to fix their lives, all the while undercutting their meager sources of income or wealth. Look at the repeal of Obamacare and replacement with a plan that is widely recognized as greatly inferior – except for the already rich.

The old saying goes, "the people get the government they deserve." And I think there is a great deal of truth to this. We have become a nation of profoundly ignorant people – ignorant, tending toward stupid, and incredibly selfish, narcissistic. When somebody pops up and promises to make the world the way it was when they were "happy", well this is what we get.

As the days get longer the pressure will be building toward an all out breakdown in civil society. As millions lose their healthcare, or unemployment (the real unemployment) rises when good jobs were supposed to be increasing, somebody is going to wise up and call bulls**t on the current government. I expect the same to happen when Brexit produces more hardships or when the far right parties in Europe gain control and proceed to screw up royally.

The problem is that even if some of, say for example, Trumps prescriptions were correct with respect to the intended, and promised outcomes, he would still fail because his predecessors (and at all levels of government and business) have left an unfixable system. The sheer complexity of the modern state, along with the sheer lack of consciousness and knowledge of the general governor, ensures massive failures as have happened so many times throughout history. Nothing fundamental has changed in this pattern since the days of old. Only now the collapse of civilization is global. And there is no sanctuary for those who seek to flee. Look at the plight of the Syrian refugees as they struggle to find places in countries that are on the brink of collapse themselves (hint: Greece).

Several thoughtful people I know who have been concerned about the future are now voicing a kind of despair for the future. The evidence for the build up to collapse is now so evident that anyone with half a brain and a bit of knowledge about the history of civilizations can see the end in sight.

On the other hand, and to leave you on a high note, the collapse of the current cultural system (neoliberal capitalism, profit maximization, revolving debt financing, the impacts on the education system, etc.) is a good thing. When I say unfixable, I mean just that. Some systems are fixable, or adjustable so that they work better in time. This one we live in is neither. It is so full of positive feedback loops that reinforce destructive behaviors that there is very little that can be done to break out without that very act destroying the interlocking processes and thus, itself bringing about collapse. What we need to do is see the bright side of this. For one, it will significantly slow down the human-caused forcing of the climate (other natural feedbacks aside this will be a very positive development.)

Once the rotten old system is debris it will be possible to reset human values (many of which are learned) and start fresh. We won't have the high tech gadgets to help us back to the kind of life many of us live now. But, so what. We will get a chance to start over, and hopefully do it better next time. At least that is my hope on this day of turning.

Celebrating the Darkness of Winter Solstice

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Published on the Question Everything on December 21, 2015


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Happy solstice to all. This is usually a happy day for me because I know that every day after will get longer compared to night time. The proportion of light to dark gets more favorable with each passing day. While the summer solstice, you would think, should make me sad because the days will get shorter (and I do contemplate that) still the days are long and light is bright so there is not quite a symmetrical relation in moods.

This year my mood seems to more closely match the darkness of the season, I'm afraid. I look about at what is happening all over the world and suspect the darkness of thought and knowledge is increasing even while we will see longer days ahead.

Are We Entering a New Age of Darkness?

So is this what a global civilization collapse looks like? Or am I the only one who sees the world crumbling at a seemingly accelerating rate? I am open to the possibility that I am suffering from confirmation bias since I have been a commentator on this subject for many years now. But as I continue to survey the dynamics of things like the refugee crises, the growing spread of terrorist acts, and American politics, among others, I am more convinced than ever that we are sliding into a serious decline of civilization on a global scale.

Recently I have read and heard a number of analyses of the political phenomenon of the Republican party's fiasco over the last several weeks. The general consensus seems to be that the average Republican voter feels completely alienated and angry with the party regulars. This, the writers and talking heads seem to feel, is the basis for the fact that Trump is leading in the polls. Trump? Really? Unfortunately I don't think he is just an anomaly. Most of the field of candidates appear to have some really wacko ideas. Ted Cruz continues to deny global warming, for instance.

And in truth are the Democrats really any better? They might not be wackos but they still hold ideological beliefs that are at odds with reality. There is not a single mainstream politician out there who is calling for an end to growth (let alone de-growth) even though it is growth that has been the cause of the systemic problems, such as global warming and resource depletion, that are at the root of all other social discord. This is the main reason no political process can fix anything. All of the players fail to recognize the real problems. At best they, like Obama, put bandaids on the wounds that are continually showing up (e.g. the bailout of to-big-to-fail banks and automobile manufacturers). They simply react to events. They have not been able to connect the dots and realize that there is a fundamental disease that needs treatment. They can't see it as a disease because they all deeply believe it is the solution to all problems. Neoliberal capitalism is the real cancer in society. And the belief that it somehow is the saviour of humanity is mental illness in human beings.

False Hopes

The climate talks in Paris have ended with a major breakthrough in agreement among the parties, which is generally viewed as a good thing. But those who are deeply familiar with the numbers are a little less impressed since it has been twenty one years since the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 after which nothing really happened. And now they point out that what has been agreed in Paris is about half of what would be needed to make a substantive difference is putting the brakes on carbon emissions. While everyone is hopeful it will be several years before we have any idea if the “transparency” provisions are going to work. It is a step in the right direction but I must admit to remaining skeptical that the world will be able to accelerate its movement in that direction to catch up with what we really need to be doing to actually decrease the carbon dioxide concentrations in air and oceans in time to make a difference. I am on record as predicting that almost no matter what we do the rate of climate change is much faster than our response capabilities and, hence, we will be overtaken by extreme weather anomalies and sea level rise with a diminishing ability to adapt due to a lack of energy resources.

The low prices of fossil fuels and other commodities are being taken as a good sign for “consumers” and as evidence that we don't have a fuel/energy problem, except for the carbon dioxide part. But the story is much more nuanced than most commentators realize. The reason that prices are so low is a basic economic phenomenon — supply exceeds demand. But most commentators and economists have attributed the situation to an over-supply due to the seeming abundance of oil and natural gas in North America and the Saudis continuing to produce at a rate that is designed to drive the oil producers in North America out of business. It is true that the latter group has been hurt badly by the low prices. But more so because of the extreme debt that many of them built up trying to finance a rapid extraction industry in the tar sands in Alberta and the tight oil/gas in North Dakota and Texas (and other shale formations). Everyone had really high expectations for the wealth that would come gushing out of the ground (even if the costs of extraction and production of products were much higher than conventional oil and gas). And they had high expectations about the total volumes that would be recovered. As it has turned out those expectations were way too high. The return on investments in drilling and pumping have not materialized because the wells have largely not produced the volumes they were supposed to. Not enough cash flow to service the debt let alone make a profit and sooner or later you close the business down.

So for a while there was a huge bulge in production that flooded the markets and helped to drive prices south. But the real story is the demand side. What is keeping prices down is that there are fewer customers overall and what customers there are are not consuming at the rates that existed pre-2009. Too many people who had been driving gas guzzlers have been switching to economy class cars, all with higher mileage ratings. But that is only a small part of the story. There has been a reduction in almost all of the fuel product categories. People are cutting back their consumption of heating oil. Businesses are shutting down. While the official jobless rate seems to be improving, the labor participation numbers continue to grow which is a huge part of the explanation for the jobless rate numbers. The real story in the USA is how the former middle class is gradually slipping into poverty. Way too many people in the middle class went heavily into debt as they tried to maintain a lifestyle they have become convinced they were entitled to. Debt seemed like a perfect solution to the wage stagnation problem (actually it turned out to be wage decline). It certainly made the bankers happy since they made substantial profits from loaning money. We all know where that went with the implosion of the financial sector triggered in part by sub-prime mortgages and other financial shams.

The same goes for businesses and whole countries. Look for more attempts at mergers that are followed by massive consolidations. China was supposed to be the global engine for economic growth. Of course they too over did it. One thing is clear, that China is not soaking up the products or resources of other countries the way it had been envisioned.

What is really happening is that a growing majority of people, businesses, and countries are growing poorer, while a few people and some companies are capitalizing as long as they can. There are always winners and losers in any major economic or technological transition. Only this time there are just a few winners and mostly losers. The latter are giving up their attempts to keep living the good life. Most people in so-called developing countries (which are de-developing as we speak) are struggling just to put food or water on the table. And too many, as in many parts of Africa, are failing. Hence the turmoil in those countries and the subsequent refugees.

The Macro and the Micro

All of this decline is amplified by the already-here effects of climate change. Droughts and higher temperatures have already led to state failures in many North African countries (and is starting to be felt in sub-Saharan Africa as well). That has led to revolts, people still cling to the idea that their governments should be able to do something to fix things, but, of course, they are powerless to do anything meaningful. When they fail to do so, there is revolution and in a region rich in cultural diversity, episodes of ethnic cleansing ensue. Who wouldn't want to get out by any means possible.

All of our major institutions are in some degree of failure or at least dysfunction. I've reported on the latter going on in public education in the US (and increasingly being copied in other countries where they thought we in the US were doing such a good job). What I have been seeing in higher education turns my stomach and pushed me to the decision to retire, even though I feel capable of teaching for several years more. I just can no longer be a party to the ruination of young peoples' abilities to think and create meaningful artifacts for society. I've also drawn attention to the massive failures in the science and engineering fields where money (grants) has trumped the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Scientists are caught in a trap. Most, I think, want to pursue knowledge but they can't do it without financial support. They can't get the latter unless they are doing something that someone else thinks is useful. And young budding scientists in universities can't hope to get tenure unless they publish in volume rather than quality.

Government and the political processes that put politicians into governing jobs have been failing around the world. Even western so-called democratic nations are showing increasing signs of dysfunction. Watch carefully what unfolds in Europe as more and more immigrants settle into ghettos, are unable to find work, and their young men and women become radicalized to violence. The recent Paris attacks are just the tip of an iceberg. Nor are the US and Canada immune. The conservatives' calls for immigration limits or even bans, while seemingly morally repugnant to the liberal sensibilities, are actually honest emotional responses to a perceived (and not made up) threat to the future. Conservatives have a mind set that works that way. But they are not necessarily wrong about the future threats. Curbing carbon emissions will hurt the economy (the one they think is a good one). Unlimited immigration will hurt what they perceive as the rightful American culture. Of course they react with fear. And the politicians in the Republican party are just reacting to that fear with fear mongering to win support among the growing cadre of the fearful.

Its the little things that I am noticing that are telling the story. I've decided to abandon riding a motorcycle to work because I am seeing more and more incidence of sheer aggression in some drivers and thoughtlessness in most others. I've been cut off, edged aside, and pushed from behind by drivers who are not just not seeing me, but are actually trying to force their advantage. People are becoming increasingly rude, not allowing safe merging, trying to get in front of everyone else, as if they are especially privileged and owed to be at the head of the line. I still see it from my perspective in an automobile but I feel safer than when on my motorcycle. I had a great perspective from my bike of people texting and talking on their cell phones as they drove and ignored traffic conditions. In short the freeways are becoming a free-for-all and drivers are showing an increasing lack of respect for other drivers. It has become a me-first climate out there. Road etiquette is a thing of the past.

In one sense it has always been a dog-eat-dog world for humans ever since the agricultural revolution. As long as populations increased (and in particular population densities) while resource bases remained relatively fixed or grew only slowly (e.g. a forest producing wood) there has been competition driving sentiments. People became a commodity and the value of human life, if they were strangers, tended toward zero. For a while competition seemed to have a good side effect in driving innovation as well. Necessity is the mother of invention after all. But today we have probably innovated all of the really useful tools that eased the competition for resources (e.g the Green Revolution). A restaurant-finding app on a smart phone, while seemingly innovative, is just serving personal desires. But that is where the innovation is today. The Ubers and AirBnB's of the world are not really serving to reduce competitive pressures. If anything they are helping increase the perception of those pressures. Hence people seem even more inclined to look out for number 1 even at the expense of others in the crowd. Think 'Black Friday' writ large, everywhere, every day.

The frenzy over professional and college sports events on TV seems to me to be way overboard, reflecting yet more alienation from civil discourse and intellectual pursuits. I cannot help but be reminded of the way Roman citizens, at the end, were said to be fixated on gladiator events. Football and all sports that involve some level of physical contact seem to be gaining in popularity (and intense emotional focus), while sports of sheer talent, like swimming are falling out of favor. Fans are becoming increasingly fanatical, they go crazy when their home town team is playing in a big game. They have nothing else in their lives to capture their attention. Their work lives are mundane and worthless. Their social lives need some kind of focus like sports so that they can have some reason for caring.

Walking down the street in front of the main entrance to our campus is also telling. Our campus was built in a part of Tacoma that used to be derelict. Indeed one of the reasons for building it there, and refurbishing some of the existing warehouses into classrooms and offices was to bring revitalization to that part of town. And it worked. What it meant was the indigents were pushed out and up the hill a bit. The main street became safer for pedestrian traffic to visit shops without panhandlers asking for change at every street corner. Only an occasional bolder beggar would come down to the main street to work the more well-off shoppers.

But over the last ten years that has begun to change. It isn't so much that panhandling has increased as it is that clearly homeless people are settling in the neighborhoods right around the campus and are much more frequently seen on the main street. As I understand it homelessness has increased especially since the 2009 crash and home foreclosures. It is another sign of a declining economic situation. But there is also the subtle change in perceptions that seems to be taking place for everyone. For a while a homeless person walking down the street with their possessions in a shopping cart was reasonably rare. Now it is becoming common and everyone seems to be accepting it as a new normal. It is that latter idea that haunts me. People just don't see the problem in terms of scale and rate of increase. They have become conditioned to accepting the situation as just the way it is. Even many of the would-be panhandlers no longer ask for change (though one hit me up the other day for a “spare twenty”!) It is as if they don't bother because they know that the people with a little money in their pockets are loath to dole out change. If they did they would have empty pockets after a couple of blocks.


The reality I see is accelerating decay and dissolution of social norms and cultural institutions. I have not seen any improvements anywhere. Of course one can readily argue that maybe some of those institutions and norms needed to change or go away just like slavery and treating women like second class citizens mostly disappeared or at least softened by mid twentieth century. Those were also institutions and norms at one time. We certainly wouldn't want to have preserved them, knowing what we know now. But isn't there a difference between those kinds of institutions and norms and something like education and science or courtesy and compassion? Shouldn't we value the latter such that we would have them repair and go forward for all of our benefits?

Not only do I see decay in some pretty important institutions and norms, I see no signs of possible repair in sight. Quite the opposite, in fact. The more these institutions fail at their social functions, the more we do the the very things that are responsible for their dysfunction. In education, the more people perceive it as failing to prepare kids to become working adults, the more we hunker down of force feed them “facts” to the exclusion of teaching them to use their minds for thinking and not just memorization (for the tests). The more people are feeling afraid of the future and of terrorists the more some politicians are fomenting the ideas of looming threats. Some of those threats are real — like climate change — and some are imagined — like the utter destruction of Christian culture, e.g., the “War on Christmas” because of the flood of Muslim immigrants and multiculturalism. Regardless, no politician is yet saying to people something like: “Yes we face challenges that will be hard to meet, but meet them we must. And we must do it for all mankind. I want to help us all find ways to do so so that one day our descendants will not have to deal with the consequences of our failures.” No one who wants to get elected will ask people to sacrifice their comforts to fight battles against subtle and ephemeral enemies. When you are in a war against a foreign tyrannical threat, that is something tangible for which you are probably willing to fight and sacrifice. But when you are at war with totally unknown forces, especially if they are cryptic, like global warming or neoliberal capitalism, that is an entirely different thing.

And if you come to realize you are really at war with your own beliefs, that is harder still. It seems to me I have reasonably good reasons for being pessimistic about stopping or even impeding the slide into darkness. One might maintain hope (e.g. the Paris climate accord) but it would be best to be prepared to adapt, if that is even possible.




What is Really Behind the Refugee Crisis in Europe?

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Published on Question Everything on September 11, 2015


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The Resource Crisis and Climate Change

Back in July, 2013 I wrote this post, MENA – A Model of the Future? in which I dug deeper into the then crisis transpiring in Egypt where a revolt against the Morsi government was being spurred by the fact that the dwindling natural resources per capita (especially energy) were fundamentally unsolvable by any government. The people were unhappy because they thought that by voting in a new government democratically they would solve their problems (jobs, food, water, fuel, etc.) But it didn't happen for the simple reason that the resource pie was shrinking faster than any government actions (say attracting some kind of investment in the country) could counter. Things got worse and people once again took to the streets. Today, two years later, things have gotten considerably worse under the military regime that kicked out Morsi and took over. As I claimed then and reiterate, it is a matter of plain and simple physics, not politics. You cannot legislate resources into existence.

People have gotten used to thinking that solutions come from politics – having the right officials in place means that they will solve the problems. People everywhere pretty much assume this is the case, even in the US where the freak show called the presidential campaign is off and running. No doubt many republicans in the US sincerely believe that Donald Trump will solve all the problems and everything will be right as rain once again ("Make America great again").

But politicians are not miracle workers. They cannot feed the multitudes from a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. What they have become, however, right along side their neoclassical economics allies, are fair magicians — prestidigitators. They know how to manipulate smoke and mirrors and conjure economic spells. They are nothing more than snake oil con men (and women). The irony is that they actually believe what they say and are convinced they know how to really make good stuff happen. They are a testament to the capacity of the less-than-sapient mind's ability to double think.

The simple truth is that when you find yourself in deep resource depletion and high population no amount of financial hocus pocus or political posturing or brute force can fix anything. The Morsi government nor the military junta before and after could ever possibly satisfy the needs of the people. No government could. Nor could there be massive aid influx to ease the situation. The other nations of the world are all much poorer than they will admit. They cannot pump enough resources into the region to solve the problems. There is no scenario in which this comes out well.

Our talking heads continue to evaluate the “causes” of the mass exodus from the MENA region as due to the political unrest growing more violent by the day. For example they look at Syria and blame the problems, initially, on Asad and the rebellion/civil war that threatens so many civilians. Then the US government focuses on the ISIS threat as causing so many people to want to leave. These destructive acts are merely proximate causes. The rebels against Asad are basically repeating the story in Egypt. They claim that bad government (Asad) is the cause of the problems experienced by the people. Replace the government and problem solved! Right? Much the same story is being repeated through out the other failed states in the region.

The civil wars and lawlessness (e.g. Boko Haram) are driven by the rapid decline of resources compounded now by climate consequences, drought and severe temperatures. People are fighting for dwindling resources in increasingly unlivable conditions. The citizens of these states are responding most immediately to the violence, and claiming political asylum on that basis. But make no mistake. They are ultimately climate and resource refugees. And there is no policy or plan that will correct the situation. The lucky ones will escape (if they don't die on the journey) to Europe and possibly to the US. But that will simply cause resource strains in those areas where they settle. Nor will the flood taper off until the region is mostly emptied.

MENA is just the first example of what is happening in the world. As the climate situation worsens, and we now know that it is and will further, affecting every continent on the planet, and as resource depletions grow acute in various focused locations, we will see this same scenario played out again and again. Political upheaval based on the belief that the government's ineptitude, or corruption, or whatever, is responsible for the problems that ensue (food shortages, fuel shortages, unemployment, etc.) will give over to violence. Regimes will change, but the problems will just grow worse.

Perhaps the US and some of the remaining western “rich” nations will try to help, intervene to reduce violence, or attempt to aid relocations. But their capacity to afford such actions are growing weaker with every day that passes. At some point the wealthy nations will no longer be truly wealthy and will decline to try to help. They will, in fact, be starting to feel the same effects themselves. Already we see the discord and extreme polarizations taking place in many western polities. In the US we tend to blame the congress for its deadlocked inability to pass laws that will effect economic change (and assumed progress). Neither side gets a thumbs-up on its economic ideas. In any case both sides firmly believe that economic growth is the solution to all problems and neither recognizes that we've used up all of the resources that we need to do so. They are so blind to reality that all they can really do from now on is exacerbate the problems. In the US we are in a situation that only the most blind persons even seek political position. They are so stupid and ignorant that they cannot even conceive that problems have real physical roots. Pity.

All over the world, right now, you can find cases of pockets of affected areas where people are starting to move out seeking somewhere where they can find work and resources. Within nations like Brazil, China, Russia, and even the United States there are instances of people becoming refugees. The Dust Bowl events in the US are another model for what is happening. Right now, in each of these countries the migrations are within the borders (except in Mexico and other Latin American countries) and so don't show up in “official” statistics.

Certainly there have been relocation migrations throughout humankind's history. We've always managed to deplete local resources forcing people to abandon a region, for example areas in the Middle East were once far more productive than in recent history before ungulate grazing changed the region's climate. And there have been many cases of people simply seeking better conditions (e.g. the American West promised great possibilities, especially during the Gold Rush). What is different about the current situation is that we are looking at a global phenomenon. Resources have been depleted just about everywhere. Climate is changing everywhere and at a breath-taking rate. The regions that are experiencing the worst effects are now quite obvious. The MENA region is probably the most dramatic. For example, by contrast, island nations being threatened by sea level rise and Arctic regions being impacted by loss of ice have fewer people affected and so do not rise to the level of global-level stress. Nevertheless the people effected in these regions are beginning to plan their escapes from their situations.

Right now in China there are many local emigrations taking place due to combinations of insufficient resources and climate change consequences. There is also a fair amount of unrest brewing in various areas. These are not as dramatic (yet) as the case in the MENA region. And internal migrations, as I said, are not depicted in the same manner as the refugee flood from the MENA to Europe. In fact it might be even worse in China than we know. The country is so much larger, the populations involved so much larger, and the information flow coming out of the country is subject to so much filtering that we might not get a good idea of what is happening there until significant violence breaks out that can't be hidden. But based on China's geographical conditions, and its potential susceptibility to climate disruptions, and the distributions of its huge population, I expect to soon see a situation similar to the MENA refugees become obvious in China.

India might erupt before China. The Indian subcontinent's orientation (North-South axis), its reliance on the snow falls and ice reservoirs in the Himalayas and its proximity to the equator make it a candidate for significant climate disruptions. It is already suffering changes in its monsoon patterns at the same time the huge population is withdrawing more water from its limited resources. However, in India I would not be surprised to see a somewhat different response from the populace. The vast majority of people in the country do not have mobility resources in the same way many Chinese do. It would not surprise me if a significant portion of the Indian population simply succumbed in place rather than trying to trek out. The distances are too great and the conditions along the way are likely to not provide support. There is no other large body of land nearby for those in the costal regions to escape to.

As the MENA refugee crisis unfolds this fall we will have a good view of what to expect world-wide. Right now a fair amount of European sentiment is in support of the migrants (I know there is a technical difference between a migrant and a refugee, but as I claimed above, these refugees are really climate-escape migrants). As more and more pour into the continent we will see how long this sentiment carries. There are many anti-migrant advocates already making noises and trying to get more political purchase. A lot will depend on the economic strength of the countries taking in the migrants — will the local natives be able to get jobs? — and the behavior of the immigrants. There is a real danger of culture clash based on the religious backgrounds of Muslim immigrants and secular (or Christian) natives. I refuse to predict anything on this count. The situation is too chaotic.

What I will predict is that the phenomenon will grow and worsen over the next decade. This is a one-way street we are on and no U-turns are possible. You can't un-deplete resources, especially fossil fuel energy. Readers of my biophysical economics writings will know how dim a view I have of the prospects of alternative energies replacing fossil fuels even if we were to undertake a huge reduction in net energy use. Alternatives might ease the pain a bit, for a while, but they cannot provide the long term flows of high power energy that it takes to drive our modern technologies. Magical and wishful thinking cannot change that fact. Alternative energy capture and conversion equipment (i.e. wind towers and solar arrays) are still built, installed, and maintained using fossil fuel power. It is quite doubtful that they will ever be self-sustaining to the extent of providing adequate net energy for economic uses.

If you want to consider your own future, imagine yourself in the shoes of one of the MENA refugees right now. Many of the ones who are making the trip had some basic monetary resources to afford the passage. But look at what they were reduced to in doing so. Imagine yourself now in a situation where the local stores are no longer stocked with food and other necessaries. Imagine your electricity being intermittent, maybe only on ten percent of the day. Imagine transportation breakdowns, perhaps gas is no longer delivered to your gas station. Imagine communications breakdowns. No Internet. No telephones (cell or land lines). What will you do?

But more than that, imagine that you decide to escape. Where will you go. The MENA refugees have Europe, ostensibly, to escape to. They expect their problems to be greatly reduced in these new lands. After all, the North is rich. Where will you go? What country will you escape to? Maybe some Americans are thinking they will go to Canada! But do they actually understand what the climate changes are going to mean for all of North America?

I doubt there will be any real escape. The best a sapient being can do is find a location that looks like it will be least impacted by climate, get situated and hunker down. With luck, you might just make it.

What is Learning?

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Published on Question Everything on August 21, 2015

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High Anxiety over Education

education_race_to_nowhereJudging by the number of comments that education blogs seem to get, relative to other subjects, and the number of e-mails I receive after posting something on the topic, it seems that there is a high level of interest in the area. And, judging by some of the things people tell me in those e-mails, there is a fair amount of anxiety accompanying the topic as well. My blog post of Aug. 12, 2014, a little over a year ago, titled What is Teaching? just officially became my most read of all of my posts. It still gets about ten to fifteen hits a day, even after one year. Most of them come from search engine results, people searching for an answer. Indeed, a Google search on that title (exact phrase) has my blog as the number three item! [I shouldn’t brag but a search for “Question Everything” brings me up in the number one slot!]

In that post I had a lot of not-so-good things to say about the No Child Left Behind law and the explosion of high stakes standardized testing regime that has effectively gutted our public school system of any real learning of how to think. I lamented the fact that my classes are increasingly filled with students who have been so conditioned by this regime that they are distraught by the encounter with the teaching I offer which definitely does not include teaching to the test.

Subsequently I have received over a hundred e-mails from disgruntled current and former K-12 teachers who pretty much expressed the same basic sentiments. They were either ready to get out of the profession, or had already done so, or were just hanging on till they could retire. But all of them told me the same basic story. Teaching has become a worthless profession in the public schools and they are no longer inspired to work at this faux-education process that the schools have become. How utterly sad. And how completely damning it is for the United States of America's future. Just imagine what the citizens will be like in ten to twenty years from now. Its bad enough now with a citizenry that elects an idiot like George W. Bush into the highest office in the land, but also fills the Congress with more idiots that thought that law was a great idea.

One e-mail, however, stood out for an interesting insight and I have been thinking about it. From someone named Connie:

… but as much as I am pained by the current situation, I am still somewhat hopeful. There are still a few kids I've seen who seem to be able to call bullshit what it is and get on with their own learning. Whether they do well on the tests or not doesn't seem to matter to them. They are curious and follow their own interests in subjects. More than that, I still think all of these kids still have a basic instinct to learn and will do well once they are out of high school. I just hope the colleges can give them a better learning environment than they got from here.

I think Connie is right to believe that some kids will survive the system in spite of its crushing tendency to kill learning. And I suspect she is right that most kids will eventually figure it out and get on with learning what they need to thrive in whatever world they enter. The reason is very simple. Learning is what we humans do, naturally and without imposed incentives. You can't stop kids or adults from learning because the incentives to do so are built right into our psyches. Our evolution equipped us with the ability and desire to learn whatever we needed to know to thrive in whatever environment we found ourselves in. The big problem with our public education system is that we think it is teaching kids the job skills they need for our current economic system that is what we are supposed to be doing. But schools even fail to do that. Instead, what schools are teaching our kids is how to ignore bullshit and get on with what they care about.


Of course I still lament the fact that schools are not places for learning about how the world works in the large. Nor does it instil a love of learning and intellectual pursuits. But I suppose we must take heart in understanding that learning is still happening, it is just not the learning of subjects we have historically thought were important. The kids today are learning techno-social networking and communications skills on their own and constructing a new kind of culture and attitudes of disconnection from the mainstream culture of the older generation. They know how to text, for example, and there is a huge volume of text messages flying through the Internet as they hone their skills while sitting in class and ignoring the teacher. That is, they ignore her until she has something worthwhile to say, such as, “OK, this is going to be on the test…” at which point they listen and repeat what she says in a text to their friends who skipped class so they would know what was going to be on the test too.


Does the Education System Support Human Learning?

The fact is our education system was never really designed to support the learning of intellectual understanding in the first place. No matter what the rhetoric has been regarding learning critical thinking skills and a substantial body of knowledge about how the world works (e.g. taking biology, history, civics, etc.) the fact is that school has always really been about one basic thing, making good workers out of us. A good worker does what they are told to do and still deeply believe in the myths of individualism and the promise of upward social mobility. That has been the domain of the K-12 system from early in this country's history. Colleges, on the other hand, were reserved for the few who would become elites and needed at least a modicum of intellectual prowess to serve as administrators of the proles or professionals such as doctors and lawyers who specialized to the point of losing perspective of the larger political framework. Only a small handful of elites would get the kind of education that would truly prepare them for grasping the bigger picture of how to run a culture that was already committed to specific values, such as capitalism as the supreme economic system.

An even smaller group of super-elite intellectuals have received an education based on knowing just for the sake of understanding. They have been interested not in the knowledge needed to control a social order (that has fallen mostly to the lawyers who become politicians) but to a grander understanding of how the universe works. These are the scientists and mathematicians who pursue knowledge that may or may not have any practical application. They, by their nature, see such knowledge as intrinsically valuable and there is a long history of pure science producing knowledge that does, eventually, generate practical usage. This is an extremely small group. They are motivated by internal needs to understand and are conscious of the need to eschew ideologically based investigations as well as maintain an honest realization that knowledge itself is provisional, ambiguous, and uncertain. This is the crowd that do the esoteric intellectual work for society. Today we expect everyone to take algebra, one or two natural sciences, and a few social sciences in their schooling. These courses are taught as if the students are intending to become scientists. They are taught about the scientific method and reams of facts and figures from the disciplines as if they need these in order to be productive members of society. And, of course, they don't. Moreover, most students are actually aware of the fact that they will not need to know what a valence electron is and wonder why the ideas are being shoved down their throats — and wasting their time.

Humans evolved brains designed to learn a culture, to adopt the ways of their tribes, and to become functioning members of their societies. They had to learn the way their world worked, the knowledge of how to survive in a wild environment, because that was linked inextricably to how people made a living, and kept living. Our brains are designed by evolution for that purpose. So it is altogether natural that that is exactly what we do now, even in our technological culture. And the simple truth is that most people do not need to really know biology or calculus for the most part. We just need to know how to fill in forms and follow procedures. Only a small number of people actually ever use even algebra in their daily lives. They may use some aspects of algebraic thinking, like knowing how to double a recipe for cooking. But they do not need to use most of what is taught officially in schools to sell insurance or write commercial jingles. Those subjects are “taught” as a front to hide the real purpose of education; students need to be acculturated as efficiently and as quickly as possible.

Schooling through high school solves another major problem for society, namely the fact that since we decided children should not be factory laborers, and the majority of families are no longer involved in farming, we have to have something seemingly productive for our children to do while parents work at the office. Schools have become a way to corral the young, sequester them for a significant portion of the day, and keep them largely out of trouble. At least that was part of the motivation and the early belief. If kids were engaged in learning about the world in a controlled environment they would not be getting into trouble. And if the subjects were important, they would end up with a wealth of knowledge they would use in their work lives. As with so many of our social engineering ideas that look good on paper, this one has been a miserable failure as well.

There is a horrible mismatch between the way human beings learn and the way schools are designed and operate. There is a terrible myth about what children should be taught in order to become worthy members of society. The latter is largely the result of deep ignorance of the actual nature of the various subjects that are dictated to be taught by the very politicians and corporate overlords who determine what we are all supposed to believe about school curriculum. Most politicians know no more about physics or biology than they themselves were taught in high school. And in most cases they have forgotten how bored they were themselves, and how much of the subject they have actually forgotten. All they know is that they were taught those subjects when they went to school so assume they must be important and so, by god, every student needs to learn them. This, more than anything, provides stark evidence that no one is learning critical thinking in school. If they had (and this applies to all members of society since they buy the story and reinforce the politicians) they would be able to examine their own experience and realize that they did not really learn anything useful in those courses. They would then be willing to question why we force all of our children to take courses that will never help them live meaningful lives.

Instead they invent new myths such as if we don't “train” our students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math) subjects, the country (the US) will lose its leadership role in technology and its global competitive advantage. Actually the US, while having been an economic engine supporting innovation in the past, has always depended on a very few brilliant people (the super elite intellects mentioned above), many of whom came from abroad, and received their formal educations elsewhere. In fact, if you look at the educational histories of many of our brilliant scientists and mathematicians you will discover the role of self-education in their lives. Today the innovation still comes from a remarkably few people. Even the claim that the workers of today need to be highly educated (meaning having BS degrees or better in some STEM subjects) is a myth. The Googles and Microsofts of the world need a few really creative and knowledgeable people to come up with the innovations. But the army of programmers and engineers that produce the resulting products are really not much more than technicians who know how to push the right menu selections on an array of “tools” and let the computer do the hard work. Programming languages like Java, for instance, have evolved to a point where the programmer need only know a menu of options and design patterns. In their day-to-day work they do not need to know computer science at all! The students are smart enough to realize this and literally rebel at our efforts to teach them computer science as an intellectual topic.

School curricula, including, increasingly, higher education, are based on a fundamental fallacy. Society believes that everyone needs to know STEM subjects (as well as US history and a few other subjects that are difficult to connect to everyday living) and students know that these subjects are largely irrelevant to their lives. The whole accountability philosophy applied to K-12 and looming large over higher education institutions as well, is the result of the mistaken beliefs we harbor about what is important for students to learn. And those beliefs are retained even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Indeed as the damage caused by teaching to the test, an outcome of No Child Left Behind and high stakes standardized testing, takes hold on student learning outcomes, instead of diagnosing the problem correctly, society doubles down on more accountability based on metrics that people terribly ignorant of human learning invent. It is a positive feedback loop that is taking the American education system down.

How Humans Learn

The key to getting out of this conundrum is to grasp the way in which human beings learn. That way was evolved over millions of years of hominid evolution and deeply refined during the cognitive explosion that turned the Homo predecessor into Homo sapiens. All animal learning is based on constructing neural circuits that correspond to perceived systems in the world and how they work. These circuits are the conceptual models that the brain encodes and uses to anticipate the future. In the case of humans we can build incredibly complex conceptual models that also allow us to anticipate far futures. But all such concept construction is based on associations with a priori meaningful concepts or physiological mandates. Ultimately all learning is for the support of living in the world (the extant environment). This is natural learning. We do it without really trying, without hard mental effort, because it is important for our survival and the overall fitness of the species.

Human children are endowed with extraordinary curiosity. They want to know and understand everything because evolution programmed them to learn about their world. We are not born with a lot of knowledge pre-programmed by our genes. We need to build those mental models that allow us to succeed as adults in our complex social and physical world. Parents and caregivers are able to channel where children focus their attention mostly by providing role models and occasional explanations. Children in the Pleistocene, and up to today, learn extremely quickly when an adult produces something useful and then shows the child how it is done. The adult need not lecture the child. They merely have to provide some guidance when the child gets off course. All of the motivation for learning comes from within.

At first, when a child is young, this involves fundamental things that are characterized as “play.” Building towers with blocks is fun, but it is also preparing the child to build real structures with real materials for real purposes. As children age their attentions naturally turn to more practical knowledge. A young boy goes hunting with the men to learn how. A young girl follows her mother on a foraging expedition to learn where the best roots are to be found. Nobody has to lecture these children on the importance of learning these skills and the knowledge of how things work that supports them using the skills. They are tied to the very act of living and the motivation for learning is built into the brain from billions of years of evolution. Contrast this as I stand in front of a class of blank faces trying to explain to them why it is important for them to learn how logic gates can be configured to wonderfully do arithmetic. Such attempts at motivation do not really work. They know they will never need to know that to put food on the table. What they need to know is how to write a program in the latest language so they can get a job that will put food on the table. How can I get them to see that their ability to write programs well does depend on their subtle understanding of logic when they know very well that they just have to choose the right method (a program function already available in a library of such functions) from a menu of options and never have to worry about how it works?!

So, though the number of people who really need a deep grounding in STEP subjects is actually quite small, they still do need to have an intellectual base from which to operate. And the average worker/citizen needs to have a better understanding of what they do for work and why they are doing it. They require more than just a cursory knowledge of which button to push. So the real conundrum for society is how to develop an education system that achieves deep learning. Clearly the design of education that matches the way people actually learn would seem to be the answer. But immediately we run into a fundamental problem. The current education system is based on mass production – the assembly line process of moving students in lock step through the manufacturing plant, adding modules of knowledge to their brains with each step. It is done for economic reasons. The industrial model of production is the most efficient way to move large volumes through the system.

An education process based on how humans actually learn, on the other hand, would be the antithesis of what we have now. The kind of process that is best matched with learning has already been prototyped in the Montessori schools. The mechanics of classrooms and developmentally-based learning with hands-on active learning a core part of the program are much better matches for how kids learn a variety of subjects. These schools still adhere to the curriculum ideas of traditional education, for the most part, but have a much better set of practices with respect to pedagogy. An even better matching would be achieved if a Montessori-like school were combined with a permaculture-based curriculum (application of systems science principles to designing and operating living and sustainable communities). Students would be immersed from an early age in the skills and knowledge needed to live successfully and in harmony with the natural world but also have access to the underlying and intellectually stimulating principles of systems. Those who have a natural bent for exploring the intellectual areas or want to go deeper into design principles will be motivated to learn math and science as it pertains to these living systems. When a curious child ask grandmother what makes the plants grow the opportunity to teach biology is at hand. At the time an inquisitive youth asks father why the arrows need feathers the chance to teach physics is realized. These questions have deep meaning to children who grasp that those subjects are truly important for life. The gaining of knowledge of biology or physics follows from the desire to understand why the world works the way it does. Moreover, when the child asks if larger feathers would make the arrow go further or faster or straighter, the advent of learning science and invention is reached.

The Sad Reality

Unhappily our society is locked into mass production of know-nothing education. We will not reform schools in any meaningful way. It would be too costly. We would have to sacrifice a lot of consumption of luxury to support such an endeavor. And with the attitudes expressed by the majority of people in this country (and many abroad) that is not going to happen.

So we will continue to force kids to sit in dull classes memorizing just enough facts from dull subjects to pass tests (and then promptly forget what they memorized). We will stunt their development. We will erect barriers to progress for those kids who are exceptional. We will drive our future generations into the depths of ignorance as we tell ourselves that with just the right amount of testing we will have a perfected education system. And a decade from now we will be complaining even more.

As with all of the foibles of human behavior of which I have written over these years, this example reinforces my thesis that the human species is deficient in the one thing that would help us achieve better decisions in life. As I have said so many times, we are clever but we are not wise. Cleverness gave us calculus but it didn't tell us where best to apply it. Cleverness doesn't give us the understanding that just because we have calculus (which is very useful for a number of applications!) doesn't automatically mean every human being needs to learn it. Let those who are curious learn it and those who are adept at its uses use it. For the rest all that is needed is a basic understanding of what its uses produce and appreciation for what it does for humanity. Appreciation for is more important than having any facility for using when you don't really have an interest or a need. I am perfectly happy knowing that there are quantum physicists in this world who are exploring the basis of physical reality. I appreciate their capabilities and their findings without having to know the kind of math they use to do their work. We don't need many such physicists to explore that world. But it is nice if everyone else can grasp the significance of what the work produces.

There are many different kinds of cleverness (intelligences and creative capabilities) and not everyone fits the STEM model, or the humanities model, or the social sciences model. But we all need to have some basic appreciation for the variety of capabilities that exist and contribute to our lives. Each individual will learn what seems important. Wisdom would help individuals decide what to pursue. Wisdom would help us collectively not try to force everyone into the same mold (or at the same rate). But this world we have created has no place for wisdom. It is too costly. It does not make profits in the current quarter. We will continue to batter our children with one-size-fits-all education based on the belief that the curriculum we teach is what students need to know to thrive in this world. And our delivery system (schools) will continue to crush curiosity so as to get conformity from all. At least we can say that we did successfully acculturate out children — if you call this a worthy culture.

Education: A Ph.D. calls it Quits in the Race to Nowhere

Off the keyboard of George Mobus

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Published on Question Everything on June 6, 2015

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Time to Retire (from Education)?

The Hopeless State of Education

education_race_to_nowhereIf you have been reading QE for a while you know that I have a pretty dim view of the education system in this country and increasingly being adopted around the world. The colonization of education by the same neoliberal corporate (modern capitalism) practices that have destroyed an economic system that promoted the idea of a strong middle class as a worthy goal (though why there should be any classes is my question) and hence provided jobs for the majority is destroying the very soul of education. The main themes today are 1) education is just to get people ready for the marketplace; 2) everyone needs a college-level education; and 3) teaching should be accountable. Education has always been about getting young people ready to be effective members of societies but that has meant more than just being ready to follow a particular profession. There is that whole thing that Thomas Jefferson thought was important about being informed (educated) about everything needed to be a thoughtful, knowledgeable citizen. He felt that was a prerequisite for the proper operation of democracy. In his day (and thinking) while all men might be created equal, only some men attained sufficient education to be full participants in the democratic process. Today we assert that all men and women have an equal right to participate. But, of course, the modern political process assures the new elites that that won't be the case.

My first inkling that our education system was not working as advertised came to me early when I compared my own experiences with what was being claimed about education (teaching critical thinking and all of that good-sounding stuff). Being unstoppably curious about how the world worked I launched off on my own quest for knowledge early in my school life and followed my intuitions about what sort of knowledge was really useful. That is how I ended up constructing my own curriculum in systems science since it didn't actually exist officially in schools. Fortunately, having a love of biology served me well there since most of the really interesting systems science (e.g. cybernetics) was being explicated in that realm.,cs_srgb,dpr_1.0,q_80,w_620/MTI3NTgyNTY0MDIxMDk0NDEw.jpgThe second hint I got that something was fundamentally wrong with education came when as an engineering manager, and then later as the CEO, I discovered that entry level embedded systems developers were ill-prepared for doing any actual engineering. I won't bore you with details but the problem came down to several employees that had graduated from pretty well thought of programs could not actually solve engineering problems. They had done well in school (grades) and interviewed well regarding some technical issues, but when it came to delivering the goods they simply could not synthesize their disparate pieces of knowledge or even analyze the problem to formulate a solution. I ended up finishing their projects for them and they ultimately ended up on the street. I was curious as to why a couple of young, and seemingly intelligent, engineers, with official degrees were so incapable of basic skills (including communications with other engineers and supervisors). I took a quick survey of the histories of my older engineers who were doing well at those tasks. It turned out that of all four of the other design engineers, only one had an "official" degree in electrical engineering and the other three were, like me, self-taught on embedded systems, control theory, filtering theory, etc. I can't generalize to all engineering schools on the basis of my own sample, of course, but it did make me aware that anomalies were possible.

Once I became part of the professoriate I began to see more clearly where at least one problem lay. As I have railed on about before, I repeatedly witnessed PhDs who were supposed to be among the smartest people on the planet and who, I presume, when working on problems strictly within their silos could exercise critical thinking and investigate the backgrounds of those problems, when faced with other issues, such as university governance, seemed to more often than not fall back on emotion-based opinions. Professors will be the first to tell you that they teach students critical thinking skills. Yet they failed many times to exercises such skills outside of their specialties. This observation is based on having interacted on more than several occasions with committees that were dealing with more global problems in education, such as governance and especially strategic management, areas where I had developed a good deal of background knowledge (e.g. I did my homework to make sure I knew something about the subject), and witnessed first hand people offering opinions and making various claims that I knew to be bogus. I wondered often how they had developed their opinions. And when I asked for evidence I got push back. One of the prime tenants of critical thinking is that it involves the use of unbiased evidence.

Recent studies of critical thinking capacity of college graduates have produced the shocking (to the professoriate) results that graduates show almost no improvement over their capacities when entering school. There was a flurry of discussion on various academia venues when the results were first published, but the cacophony has died down to a barely audible whimper now. The professoriate will go on with their practices and basically ignore those results. Don't look for much in the way of reform anytime soon.

I have also railed on about the problems with professional administration. This has been the single biggest point of contact between neoliberal corporatism and education. Professional administrators have no choice but to act like corporate managers in their methods. To have any “career” potential they have to do what corporate bosses have done throughout history — they have to expand their fiefdoms in order to look important and fluff their resumes in preparation for moving to the next position. Professional academic administrators (those who left teaching to take on “important” jobs as deans (and their many associates) or provosts (and their many associates)) are faced with the same situation. Google “high cost of education” and “administration” and you will turn up numerous studies that have identified the rising costs of education to the expansion of administration (also look for “administration bloat”), the pattern of top administrators' pay, and administrator turnover rates. You can also dig into the other costs that administrators generate through their corporatized notion of competing with other colleges for students by building luxury dorms, etc. Several studies point to the idea that more than 50% of rate of increases in costs (and hence tuitions) can be laid at the feet of administration.

But it is even worse than that. Administrators have bought into the whole idea of teaching accountability and retention. The first I will address below as it impacts what has happened to our K-12 education system. The idea behind retention is what really gets me. The question I have asked repeatedly is why do we believe that college is for everybody? And why do we (the professoriate) have to find ways to keep everybody who gets admitted in their programs? Is it true that everyone has the same basic intellectual capacities? Or should we turn our four-year academic institutions into the new high schools and dumb everything down so that everyone can succeed. We can always change the definition of success in academics to achieve this goal.

Unfortunately it goes way beyond a college-for-everyone mentality based on thinking everyone can and should do advanced academic work. Do administrators really believe that everyone is intellectually above average? No it has to do with dollars, tuition dollars specifically (these days). Administrators need a growing revenue stream just as if they were running a for-profit outfit that needed to maximize shareholder value (a core principle of the neoliberal agenda). They have fallen into the “growth is good” fallacy trap. In pursuing growth for growth sake they have overseen the creation of all sorts of “professional” degree programs for career categories that used to be handled well enough by trade schools so that they could “capitalize” on the larger population of potential students who were not interested in solving differential equations or plumbing the depths of the human mind, but would love to say they have a college degree in restaurant and hotel management. It might very well take four years of more education to in fact qualify for restaurant and hotel management, but does it really need any “intellectual” pursuit. I realize, by the way, that this is definitely not PC in this day and age. But what the hell? This post is about retirement so I don't really give a damn.

As Attacked from Above, So from Below

The whole education system is in a nosedive from the positive feedbacks instilled by neoliberal capitalism in the corporatized model operating on education through professional administration. I've had a career of dodging bullets shot from above. I've a reputation as something of a trouble maker among certain high officials! But I had been reasonably successful working with students who were open to the idea that learning was not a process of stuffing their heads with facts (my job) as much as learning the skills of self-teaching so that they could become truly autonomous agents in their future lives. There were always a small majority of such students in my mostly upper division classes who responded to my methods (and of course a minority who already thought of themselves as “customers” who were buying my services to stuff knowledge into their heads!). I labored for the sake of those who got it, knowing that they would go on to succeed in the real world. Over the years I have had many e-mails from some of those students acknowledging that fact.

Education-FAILING REPORT CARD-2I took my lumps from student evaluations from the disgruntled (who seem to be the ones most eager to fill out the forms!) because I knew, even if they didn't, that what I was doing, though it didn't fit the mold of education they had grown used to (and had learned how to game successfully), would eventually surface in their lives and help them become successful in spite of their grumbling about me as a teacher. I've gotten numerous e-mails from former students in this category as well who have recognized that the things I made them do were really the things they needed to learn in order to succeed. I was able to get tenure on the basis of my research and sufficiently good student evaluations. I confess, however, that in the years leading up to getting tenure I did lighten up a bit on my classes. I did this somewhat subconsciously because of the pressure to not get bad reviews if I wanted tenure (another little way administrators have gained power over the professoriate over the years). But I did eventually recognize that I was leaning toward winning popularity contests (I was voted as best computer science professor by the student body twice during that time!) and once I was tenured I consciously made an effort to reestablish my standards. Not surprisingly, student evaluations went back down again (however, I taught a number of specialty courses, such as in our Global Honors program where my evals were way high – but then I was working with extremely bright students who loved being challenged).

In the last few years, however, I have noticed a definite shift in the majority of student attitudes toward education, what it means, how it should work, etc. My first eye opener was teaching a freshman class (what we called our “Core” courses for general studies) in systems science last year (winter quarter). I had taught the very same course the year before with very good results and high student evaluations (as well as good peer reviews). Eighteen year olds are still immature in many ways so you have to work with them differently, but they responded well to my problem/project based approach and I only had two students, out of 24, who did not make it grade-wise. But last year's crop were quite different. Their attendance was horrible (we are disallowed to use attendance in grading!), they constantly talked to one another during my lectures, they openly texted or played games on their computers. Some of them freely admitted they didn't like science period.

My first thought, and something I conferred with the program chair about, was that somehow I had just gotten an unlucky draw. It does happen from time to time that you get a class that has a peculiar personality, i.e. the majority are problematic or extra good. So I chalked this experience up to that fluke. About three quarters into the course I finally gave up trying to stick to the curriculum as planned and turned it into a completely project oriented class so they could talk all they wanted but they had to contribute to their team's work or be penalized. That helped with the attendance a bit. I had a heart-to-heart talk with them with only a week left to go in the quarter. I was frank and so were they. I tried to get at why they were not taking this class seriously and they told me flat out. What they understood as education is I was supposed to tell them what parts of the book would be on the exam and give them practice homework on the same kinds of questions that would be on the exam. I asked them how they came to believe that that was the way education was supposed to work and they told me. That is how it worked in high school (and apparently also in several of their other freshman classes at our campus). I was stunned but still was inclined to chalk it up to bad luck in the draw.

But this last year I experienced something I was completely unprepared for. Many of the seniors in my engineering classes and this last quarter a batch of juniors, had very negative responses to my approach to problem/project-based learning (which involves discovery and experimentation which has been shown to improve context grasp and long-term retention of knowledge). The subjects of these courses are among the most challenging on our campus (maybe quantum physics would be more challenging). So students do need to work much harder to explore the space of solutions. It requires much more autonomous thinking than lower-division courses (especially, for instance, math courses). I also taught two junior-level computer science classes in fall and winter quarter and found some of the same attitudinal problems that I'd seen in the Core course freshman the year before. Needless to say I found this interesting and distressing.

My reviews are in from my engineering courses and I must tell you they were really bad. Most accused me of not teaching at all. And they definitely complained about the amount of work they needed to do to solve the problems. But here is the irony. They all succeeded in doing so, and whether they realize it or not, they learned a huge amount of really useful knowledge in a short period of time and can expect to carry that knowledge far into their futures. They just hated the process and could not grasp what my role in the process was. And here is another ironic fact. This year we had more of these seniors succeed in getting very good jobs with name recognition companies than in prior years. Every one of them reported to me that they did well in their interviews because they actually knew stuff and could think through the solution for tough problems! On top of that I had a recruiter at one of these companies ask me to send more of our seniors her way because the interviewing managers had said our soon-to-be graduates were more prepared than any they had seen from other, supposedly top engineering programs. Go figure. I want students to realize that they have the power to figure things out on their own, and the only way they will understand that is to do it and prove to themselves they have it. But it would also be nice if they recognized that they got that because I set up the situations that allowed them to do so. That, apparently, was not to be.

Whenever the world doesn't work the way I expected it to I start wondering why and start digging into background to educate myself. I read a number of critiques of problem-project based learning (P2-BL) and where it was considered as failing because the students didn't like it. One study found that students who had been immersed in K-12 education in which No Child Left Behind (NCLB) had resulted in a huge increase in teaching to the test pedagogy were the most averse to P2-BL methods. The idea of becoming an autonomous learner did not fit their model of what education was about and they resisted learning a new model. In another similar study they found that not only were students from NCLB affected schools averse, but that miraculously they had actually learned more and retained longer than students who continued on in the NCLB framework. Both of these studies involved looking at high schools that had converted to P2-BL methods (they still had to give standardized tests, which is how they knew that students had actually learned more). One of these schools has since reverted because of problems not only with student attitudes but with teachers having problems with the pedagogy; it is quite hard to come up with meaningful problems and projects in which you can identify the points in which students will have succeeded in learning if they actually do solve the problem (and making the problems solvable but still challenging).

It has been fourteen years since NCLB and the increasing emphasis on standardized, high-stakes testing became the law of the land (2001). The K-12 system has been struggling with the ramifications ever since. But now students who have spent their entire educational lives in that environment are hitting the upper division courses in college. Even those students who are a bit older, who went to community colleges before transferring to our campus, have spent a good portion if not all of their high school lives in it. Based on my experiences this year I would hypothesize that the attitudes we are seeing in the university are much the same as those found in the above mentioned studies.

By happenstance I ran into a couple of high school history teachers in my favorite neighborhood pub. We got to chatting about challenges in teaching and student attitudes toward learning. Suffice it to say they reinforced my presumptions quite strongly. Both were more mature teachers, having been doing it for more than twenty years. And both were livid about the degradation in the whole educational environment as a result of the teaching-to-the-test mentality which now permeates their school (and apparently most of the others as they had talked to colleagues in other high schools in the area). One of them told me he was advising his daughter (who was going to college) to not go into education as it had become a death trap. Both agreed that when they had first started it was a pretty good vocation and the students' attitudes on all counts were generally pretty good. Now both of them had lost the faith and described their attitudes as just putting in the years until they could retire. Very sad.

More recently we've seen a growing backlash among parents (and some ideologues, for the wrong reasons of course) to the Common Core and the “Race to the Top” federal program. With the Common Core standards the emphasis on more standardized testing and the high stakes of missing out on federal grants if the scores are not adequate are combining to raise the stress levels on young students even more. It is so ironic that lawmakers, eager to reform and improve education are passing laws that have the exact opposite effects. But, once again, this is the effect of neoliberal capitalism and corporatism on thinking about education and the idea of “accountability” being the way to cause improvement in the process (particularly teaching). I do not deny that the teaching profession has its problems with bad teachers and phenomena such as I described at the start about critical thinking. So I do understand the desire to find ways to bring these problems to light and take some form of appropriate corrective action to fix things (I, for one, would suggest getting rid of teachers' unions might be a start, or at least revamp the union governance so that it doesn't knee jerk protect clearly substandard teachers). But then letting corporatists in to design the solutions is not the way to do this. For starters the ideas surrounding measures of teaching effectiveness are poorly understood, actually not even really defined. The fall back onto student evaluations by administrators is an intellectually dishonest, and lazy way out for college administration. Unfortunately even much of the professoriate has bought into this mechanism because few of them really have time anymore to do extensive peer reviews (they are pushed more and more into spending time in research instead of finding ways to help their colleagues improve their teaching effectiveness).

Many a psychologists (of learning) have pointed out over and over that the effects of teaching are extremely subtle and cannot be measured in any direct way. We can, of course, determine when teachers are simply not doing their jobs. There are numerous “behaviors” associated with this that can be easily determined. The problem is that we can't really say what effect teaching styles have on learning and retention. Even more importantly we cannot determine the degree of understanding that students obtain from interactions with teachers. The only meaningful definition of teaching (or education) effectiveness is in terms of how successful, in many dimensions, a person is in life several years after graduation. How successful are they at getting meaningful employment, after factoring out effects of the economy on employment opportunities? Specifically, if they went through a program like ours (engineering and computer science) where technical knowhow and know-what is important, are they capable of solving typical problems in their work several years after graduation? And, that means are they on average as a group doing so?

By that measure a number of people are arguing that education is failing. By implication it must be the teaching that is poor. Actually many of my colleagues lament the poor preparation for college level work in our freshmen so they put the blame on high schools (who pass the buck to the K-8 system!) But employers are forever pounding on politicians that our colleges are failing to adequately prepare graduates for the real world. And, based on what I have witnessed I agree with them. Unfortunately their solution is to make schools and teachers accountable through measures of teaching effectiveness that are not known to correlate. It is fast, convenient and, unfortunately, part of a positive feedback loop that is blowing up the very fabric of education. The sad part is that it cannot be fixed. The more failure on the part of education the more pressure will come for accountability which, in turn, simply causes teaching practices to get worse.

Caught in the Middle

The real root cause of the cycle of destruction is the lack of critical thinking by all of the players, administrators, teachers, students (who might be forgiven when they are young), and the rest of society but especially the business people and politicians. Everyone is looking for a miracle cure, an easy way out, something that can be done fast and cheap but produce the right results. Once again I come back to the lack of sapience in the species. That lack prevents people from using holistic systems thinking and long-term strategic thinking to realize they must work hard to develop wise decisions about education. And once again my thesis about how the quality of high sapience is so missing from our species is further demonstrated. Without it, all of the decision agents in this complex system will continue to make mistake after mistake, thinking they are doing the right thing but unable to see the real consequences of their “solutions”. I would never accuse George W. Bush of having good intentions per se, but I'm sure he thought NCLB was a cure for what ailed failing schools (whatever that means). So he and Congress waved a magic wand and created a monster that would show itself more fully fourteen years later. Congratulations Mr. former president. Yet another example of your ideology trumping wisdom.

Fortunately for me I don't have to fight this any more. I and my colleagues all over the country are caught in the middle of the stresses from above (administration) and from below (students' growing insolent attitudes). I've paid my dues. I've accomplished a few academic things of use. I thought I had struck teaching gold with the P2-BL approach. There for a few years it was producing results in student learning. I could directly measure this because I taught a series of courses in a prerequisite chain where I could see the end effects of teaching a cohort with this approach. In the last course those students had, in fact, learned considerably more in the first courses and had retained it better in the last course. Of course many of them grumbled in the first course in the series because this was their first exposure to P2-BL methods and they had to acclimatize. But by the third course the grumbling had stopped and my teaching evals generally reflected their liking the approach and their attaining a sense of learning autonomy. But these last two years everything has turned to mud.

I could, of course, do what I did when I was up for tenure. It really is easy to game this system by doing exactly what the students expect and want. It makes their lives so much easier and that keeps them happy. This is what my superiors are suggesting. But I can't do that in good conscience knowing what I know. I can't seem to explain it to people. After all the students have been conditioned (I do provide reading pointers that should make them aware of what it is about, but they don't follow pointers). So have the professors. The standard pedantic/didactic lecture-textbook-homework-tests pedagogy has been around a very long time. And all of us have been through it. It is the norm. It is what everybody does, so it must be right. Yet we are failing.

And administrators are just looking for an easy way to hold people accountable. In all of my years of teaching never once has an administrator above the level of a department chair come into my classroom or visited me in my office for a chat about teaching and learning. Once they achieve a high-sounding title they are above that. They are important and have important decisions to make so have no time for walking around and finding out what is actually happening on the ground.

All of this adds up to one thing for me. I'm leaving the profession. I had a pretty good run. There for a while it was extremely satisfying. And a few years ago I thought I would stay in the game till I dropped. But what I see happening now (and, by the way, the rate of decay seems to me to be increasing) just doesn't sit right. I will probably do one more year since I have some graduate student obligations and have two conference papers and a journal paper in preparation that I want the university to pay for(!) But then I kiss it goodbye.

In truth, this is the longest time I've been in a single profession! I've had a lot of different careers in my life. Each one has taught me a lot, and I've been able to leverage my grasp of systems to succeed fairly well in all of them (got fired only once from a “transient” job because the boss and I got into a big argument!). My pattern was to switch to something new when I felt I had reached some kind of upper bound in terms of what I could learn and try out. This time it has more to do with the deterioration of the system that makes it hard to learn anything new (like P2-B learning and how to refine it). It has turned into a situation of finding out what the new battle to fight today is, even if the older battles are still being waged. The growth mentality I mentioned above is another factor. The last several years our department has done multiple multiple-person searches for lecturers and tenure-track faculties. We've been in constant search mode (which is extremely taxing) and continuous mentoring of new people mode (which has been marginally successful). And we have not done a particularly good job of either. I had been making idle threats about retiring for a few years in order to spur the department finding several people who could teach the courses I teach, since I knew I would either retire or drop dead one of these days and the department would be hurting when that happened if it didn't bring in some new, younger people to take over. But that search failed because a certain administrator wouldn't listen to the engineering members of the search committee. So now we have to do it all over again.

I'm not so tired that I can't fight a good fight. But I'm not so foolish (shall we say quixotic) to fight a battle that is not winnable no matter what. And this one is just that. Besides I will more likely go off to another career. I have one book published, one ready for review, and a third in process. So I will at least be writing more about systems science and its applications to all of these problems (one of which is education). Who knows? Maybe working from the outside might be more productive.

Civilization Collapse 3.0

Off the keyboard of George Mobus

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Published on Question Everything on May 17, 2015

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What is Working?

I started a kind of list. I had been tracking a number of institutions (like higher education) and organizations (like the US government) and casually chronicling their growing dysfunction. The list was getting long and the seriousness of the dysfunctionalities was getting extreme. It occurred to me that it would be easier to keep a list of those institutions and organizations (including geo-political and economic regions, countries, cities, etc.) where things seemed to be going well.

I define “ well” as conditions where the processes of the systems seem to be functioning and the people involved are happy and productive. What has become disconcerting for me is that I am having problems finding examples to add to this list. In fact, the list has exactly zero items on it. My initial assumption was that we would find the number of dysfunctional items would exceed the number of functional ones, which would suggest that the net of human happiness would probably be negative; a finding consistent with the hypothesis that civilization is in the throes of collapse, but still at an early stage.

In addition to a simple additive list, we should probably weight the items by the magnitude of their impact on individuals' lives. For example, a commercial organization where the real wages of workers have been going down while the work load put on those workers has been increasing would have a direct and clearly felt impact on those individuals, whereas a dysfunction in city government that affected garbage collection might be an annoyance but not a cause for deep concern in the short run. The US Congress is possibly one of the most dysfunctional governance institutions/organizations on the planet (followed all too closely by the Supreme Court and the Presidency) given its enormous resources and historical context. Their inability to grasp the real nature of the economic woes and to find solutions that will help, for example, the working poor, is having a major negative impact on human happiness, but it is insidious and subtle in how it plays out. Discerning exactly how it works is a lot like trying to ascertain how global warming is “causing” any particular weather catastrophe. We know the causal links exist but tracing them through all of the connections in a complex network of relations is a daunting task.

When I started enumerating institutions and organizations at multiple scales that were showing clear evidence of dysfunction it became clear that I would be at it indefinitely. So I started to search for evidence of non-dysfunctional instances. With the exception of a few well-run corporations that are in still high demand markets and where their CEOs are not taking exorbitant paychecks at the expense of the workers, I was having trouble coming up with any truly good examples. A few Northern European countries still seem stable and their citizens seem, on the whole, to be content. But even there there are ominous clouds gathering. For example the rise of extreme right-wing political parties that have found a platform on anti-immigration responses to the increasing influx of Islamic refugees from the Middle East and Northern Africa (designated as the MENA region) portends power struggles within the governments of those countries. There have already been civil unrest incidents and some violence that has been linked to anti-immigrant sentiments.

So I am rather at a loss to say much about where things are going well. I cannot find much that is working. But that may just be me. One could reasonably argue that I am, after all, biased and will tend to ignore evidence against my basic hypothesis, that civilization must necessarily collapse due to the decline of net free energy (i.e. peak oil combined with declining energy return on investment — EROI — and still growing populations). I am probably not immune to such selective bias. Thus I put it to you, the readers, to let me know of any evidence of some reasonably impactful institutions or organizations that seem to be working and contributing positively to human happiness (please also include estimates of the magnitude of such impact). As I was writing this one possible example did come to mind, if I allow that some kinds of religious experiences are positive (and I do even if I do not believe in most of what religions teach about an ethereal world). The current Pope of the Catholic faith (Francis), it seems to me, has done some worthwhile things that could have a positive impact on the followers of that religion, if not on other states owing to their leaders paying deference to what the Holy See says (e.g. calls for peace). But I reserve judgment of the effectiveness of his reign on the Church. For example, will he ferret out gross behaviors like child sex abuses or financial corruption in the Vatican's dealings?

If you have any contributions please make them in comments here. Let's see what sort of list we come up with. But please do not post examples of dysfunction. We already know so many it would be an act of waste of bandwidth.

Economists' View the “New Normal”

Meanwhile if we just examine the state and trends of the global economy we get a basic picture of the developing collapse. An article in today's New York Times Business section by Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University “Signs of a Shakier New Normal”, May 17, 2015, brought into focus a variety of comments made by a number of neoclassical economists of late (including, from time to time, the titular representative of ‘liberal’ economists, Paul Krugman) that we have entered a new kind of economic situation that they don't quite understand but have labeled “the new normal.” I suppose they are trying to subtly say that they expect the current set of conditions to continue indefinitely into the future. But, their reasons for saying so have nothing to do with their understanding the dynamics of the real economy and making predictions based on their bogus models. They are just tacitly admitting that something unusual is happening and it has persisted long enough now to be acknowledged as possibly permanent.

While the US government and a variety of media talking heads are hailing the “recovery” the reality of life for the vast majority of Americans does not demonstrate recovery. They continue to grow poorer, budgets are stretched even for those who have jobs, the real cost of living is still going up even in spite of the recent relief in energy costs, in short for most people there is no recovery. And that is what these economists are referring to (academically) as the new normal.

If the old normal was living a life in which incomes grew and outpaced inflation, material wealth grew and made life more enjoyable (questionable), and the future looked brighter still for the next generation, then indeed the current outlook is “new.” For most of the last 300 years life for western/northern economies, fueled by increasing access to fossil energies, has generally always looked to be improving. Now that energy is in decline we have a new reality to face. My children are struggling now to keep their heads above water and have dim prospects for ever rising to the upper middle class status that would have been their “birthrights” (please note the scare quotes!) due to my status from the mid twentyth century rapidly growing wealth production and the sheer luck of having been born into the white middle class that had grown out of the economic expansion after WWII.

Unless humanity discovers a new high-EROI source of energy with the right power and convenience properties sans the pollution problems associated with fossil fuels the future is not bright for anyone (no pun intended).

The “Why” Hasn't Changed

I have been writing about the problem we face for many years now. While the signs of a collapse scenario are now coming into sharp relief throughout the world, the basic fundamental reason for the collapse of global civilization that I have belabored over that time has not changed. Civilization is facing increasing declines in net free energy per capita. Free energy (also called exergy) is that which enables useful economic work, i.e. producing food, shelter, etc. Of course it can also be used to build frivolous products and services (e.g. i-Pads, phones, watches, giant home entertainment centers, etc.) Many people today will not see these as frivolous (must have my ability to send an instant tweet) until they think about how the energy used has been diverted from doing useful work, like getting food to those who have little. The problem for us is that we live with a shrinking pie, not a growing one. So each new slice takes away some from others. We are in a zero-sum game with an increasing number of players entering all the time. And yet we believe we are still rich. We fully believe we can put that iPhone on our credit card with impunity. That is we do until it is time to pay the bills.

In spite of my writing (which includes work in my new book on systems science) about this fundamental problem the idea doesn't seem to get much purchase with the politicians and neoclassical economists who still see the world economy as being able to grow exponentially (meaning compound) measured in dollar value of gross domestic product, GDP, (or gross global product, GGP, once all these trade deals are in place!) To me this has always been an astounding example of sheer idiocy and complete ignorance of how the Universe works. Nothing grows infinitely. Not even cancers can grow forever because they destroy their host bodies in trying to do so. How, I wonder, did these supposedly smart people ever get so stupid. Economists are supposed to learn a form of calculus and they certainly have access to all of the literature of system dynamics. How then can they just ignore basic physics and systems theory to continue to believe that a growing economy is a healthy economy? Of course I've answered my own question with my work on the nature of sapience and the lack of wisdom in our species Homo sapiens.

Perhaps it has to do with another reality that seems more immediate. The other part of the problem of per capita decline in energy is the increase in population that drives the “need” for growth of the economy. The simple fact is that as long as we keep making more people while working hard to prevent their demise the population will continue to grow and put increasing stresses on the resources we extract from the Earth. Look at what we are doing in the extraction of tight oil (fracking shale deposits), bituminous (tar) sands (mining), and mountain top removal for coal. These are very expensive and very low EROI operations (not to mention environmentally destructive) that clearly indicate how desperate we are for fossil energy. But we need that energy to support growing more jobs to accommodate the increasing number of people who need work. Population growth is also subject to limits but crashing into those is almost always painful for any species that reaches or exceeds the carrying capacity of its environment. And while we humans have seemingly moved our carrying capacity upward through technology, that route has its own limits as well. You can't apply Moore's law to energy or general equipment. And even Moore's law has practical limits. Any study of the current situation with respect to drinking water, soil erosion, mineral supplies, etc. will show that we have, in fact, reached very close to natural limits in several different areas.

Lower per capita energy translates into lower per capita real wealth since less real work can be accomplished per unit of time. For a brief time from the mid 1900s to the crash in 2008-9 we fooled ourselves into thinking we had somehow transcended the need to produce real wealth with the explosion of the use of credit to finance current consumption. This move is tricky and does not immediately appear to be problematic. Everyone basically understands the use of credit in monetary terms. You borrow an amount of money to finance something and you pay back the principal with interest to pay for the use of someone else's money over time. The theory has always been that you use the money to invest in some money-making or money-saving venture and because the economy is growing you will be earning more than enough to pay it back with interest. But the notion that this same mechanism could be applied to strictly consumption behaviors (trading up to bigger houses, buying bigger cars, and lots of fun stuff) was novel and completely unexamined critically. We jumped into it just because we could. Or at least we thought we could.

This did work as long as the economy was expanding and there would be more profit in the future. But what happens when you take out loans that either do not go to investments in profit-making or saving ventures but to finance frivolous entertainments? Or what happens when even investments in profit-making ventures fall flat because of higher than anticipated costs and thus lower profits?

Recessions happen because some of these credit financed investments have failed to provide the expected return on investment and thus investors and bankers become leery (rightly so) and withhold capital at a time when the economy has come to rely on credit to keep things going. Depressions happen when everybody loses confidence in everything.

The relation of credit and energy is a little harder to grasp. But that is only because credit also distorts the relation between money and energy. As I have written many times, the origin of money was as an information carrying token system used to regulate the flow of exergy into desired work processes. When you buy something with real money (however tokenized) you are directing the current or future flow of energy into the process that produced that something. The banking credit system, however, distorts the size of the money supply through fractional reserve banking practices that artificially inflates the supply, at least for a while. The less actual reserves are required the more distorted the money supply becomes and the illusion of having more energy available encourages investment in those frivolous efforts. But since costs (in both money terms and energy terms) are real in any work process, and profits derive from driving down costs, there has been a concerted effort to reduce them by shifting costs to externalities (pollution) and off-shoring labor (to lower energy lifestyle populations) all conveniently enabled by technologies in transportation (container ships) and telecommunications (off-shoring service jobs). By finding cheaper alternatives to getting work done, our high-energy civilizations have been able to hide the declining local net energy and continue to borrow against the future, even while that future will never support paying off the debts.

This strategy, not entirely unconsciously developed, could not hold. The costs of energy have been steadily climbing since the 1980s due to declining EROIs. Some of this has been masked by the very same debt-based financing practices applied to the extractive industries. But even that charade is rapidly coming to exposure. When the fracking revolution flooded the US markets with oil and drove the price of oil downward it did so rapidly leaving the financial condition of oil producers exposed. The costs of producing the next barrel of oil was too high to allow sustaining further exploration and drilling. Moreover already producing wells were declining much more rapidly than happens in conventional wells, with total output much less per well than with conventional wells. Companies have been diminishing their development and capital expenditures are down significantly in the oil and gas businesses and as there will be rapid diminshment of supply before much longer you can imagine what this will ultimately do to the prices for oil and gas. What has seemed like a reprieve from high energy prices will come to a crashing halt as energy prices reflect rapidly depleting supplies. Of course with a return to very high prices, the extractive companies that managed to survive will try to get back into the business (say in the Arctic Ocean), but the continuing decline in EROI of those plays will simply cause the same feedback phenomena to recur. This roller coaster ride will end more likely with the cars going off the tracks than a gentle stop.

One more clever but very unwise invention has masked the real story on the economy and the relation between money and energy. Over the last several decades we have witnessed what has been called the financialization of the economy. This really means the growth of speculative investments through bonds and stocks (initially) and more recently by a slew of “instruments” that purport to provide value through the management of portfolio risk. The fundamental belief in financialization is that money begets more money directly. In theory you no longer have to wait for profits to be made by productive enterprises; you can reap a reward by just moving funds around between stocks — buy low, sell high. Well, as I said above, investment in productive processes either do generate more energy per unit time or help us save energy leading to the effects of profit. The original stock and bond markets were set up to facilitate this kind of investment. But of recent times the stock market, in particular, has turned into a casino where gamblers are paid to gamble with other peoples' money. Returns on investment no longer depend on companies making profits and paying dividends. Money is made on trades. GDP increases with transactions even when no real wealth is produced. As with fractional reserve banking this whole business tends to distort the relation between energy and money making it seem that you really don't need to produce anything (other than financial services), you can gamble your way to wealth.

The financial markets have turned into a giant Ponzi scheme. There is no real wealth at the base. Profits are created out of smoke and mirrors. The financial sector crash of 2009 was nothing more than a bursting of the bubble with one important difference. In this case the power of the financial giants was such that they could, without shame, go to the government with hands out and argue that they were too big to fail; that failure would bring the whole economy down. So they were bailed out. People worse than robber-barons walked away with fortunes under the protection of the United States government and the Federal Reserve (in collusion) while the rest of the nation anted up to pay the bills. And what is now different as a result? What lessons did we learn about this shady industry? Apparently none. The recent “Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act” has been severely criticized for its ambiguity and weakness that essentially lets Wall Street firms pretty much do as they please still (one of those examples of an institutional failure writ large).

An interesting question that a number of people who see this charade for what it is ask, “Why aren't people up in arms about this nonsense?” Why are we not lynching the hyper-robber-barons? One possible answer is that we have been conditioned so deeply to believe in the neoliberal capitalism model and believe that we, ourselves, might one day be a beneficiary of its largess so that we are prevented from seeing the evils it fosters. We want ours too.

In truth the bandits were probably right to claim that collapse of the banking system would lead to a collapse of the economy. The government acted to prevent another depression to avert the kind of suffering that took place in the 1930s. Were they right to do so? It is the terrible irony of our situation that by preventing such a situation they have merely put off the inevitable for a short time more. In reality there is suffering now. It is perhaps more diffuse and lower key than what was seen in the 1930s but it is still happening. Moreover, by kicking the can down the road they have simply ensured that the next bubble burst, and there will be one before much longer, will be even worse.

The problem with our politicians, economists, and basically just about everyone else, is that they just can't get their heads around the reality of what the economy actually is and what rules truly govern it. They have grown so used to thinking in neoclassical economics, neoliberal capitalistic, and ideological terms that they simply have no way to recognize reality when it slaps them in the face. They will continue to want to return to a “healthy” growth-based economy where it is possible in theory for everyone to get rich. And so they (which includes everyone who buys into this claptrap) will never do the right things to transition societies into low-energy, simpler lifestyles consistent with diminishing energy. They will never introduce notions of population control geared to humanely reduce the size of the population commensurate with a minimum acceptable per capita share of net free energy. And so we can expect chaos to ensue as the reality pounds our civilization further into oblivion.


I'm afraid I have little to give. Who would take it anyway? My guess is that younger families should probably try to decouple from society as best they can. Grow your own food, and all of that. I've given suggestions in the past about what sort of plan might succeed, but it is based on radical decoupling that most people will simply not believe is necessary. For myself I am too old to worry about it. I'll just observe for as long as I can. My kids (the ones struggling to stay afloat) never listen to my advice anyway so they're going to have to find their own way.

Just keep monitoring the major trends in the major institutions and organizations. Use your best judgment as to when you should take action, if any. Think now about what action you might be able to take and how you can maximize your success (whatever that is going to mean).

And good luck.


Spring is Springing

Off the keyboard of George Mobus

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Published on Question Everything on March 20, 2015


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Happy Vernal Equinox

At my age, every spring I get to witness is a happy event!

Would that I could say as much for the state of our world. The evidence for the accelerating advance of global warming and the consequences of climate change is mounting. In spite of the drastic cold that much of the Midwest and East experienced in the US this winter, the continent has had one of the warmest winters on record. We have certainly enjoyed the milder climate where I live. Not so much for those in the Southwest where drought is still a major problem.

The only good news (until you think about the causes!) is that CO2 emission levels were stable this last year — they didn’t grow. But one of the reasons they didn’t is that the amount of carbon being burned has not grown. And that is because, in spite of all the clap-trap statistics out of Washington and other capitals, the global economy has not grown. The amount of real economic work (i.e. building things) has not grown. This being true even though the price of oil has plummeted. And that is the real scary part.

To me the notion of the economy not growing would be a good thing if it were done on purpose, i.e. the world governments planned for and intentionally implemented non-growth oriented policies. That would mean that they would be taking into account the potential pain and suffering that might attend non-growth especially for the lower classes. They would invoke policies that made sure that distribution of what was being produced would be equitable. Instead, look what we have. The rich continue to get richer, not because they are producing more real economic value, but because they continue to steal from the rest of society, primarily through the banking systems (thank you Federal Reserve). And the poor and the so-called middle class are getting poorer in the bargain. A non-growing economy simply translates into fewer reasonably paying jobs. The biggest number of new jobs being created, by the way, are ironically in the food services industry (not particularly known for high wages) and that, doubly ironic, is because the people who are getting richer are eating out more! Let’s hope they are giving good tips (Oh wait, I just heard something about a study on the generosity of wealthy people that showed that they were the stingiest tippers!!!)

Instead, the non-growth being experienced now (and by the way don’t be sucked into the numbers China publishes either!) is a natural consequence of having reached the limits of what can be done with financial wheeling and dealing to hide the fact that our net free energy per capita has long since peaked and we are headed toward complete collapse of our civilization’s capacity to support 7.5+ (and counting) billion people. We are not just looking at some kind of adjustment or even a resetting to a “somewhat” lower standard of living for those in the developed countries. Once the collapse starts in earnest it will be catastrophic. For example, we are already seeing a reduction in oil production from both the tar sands in Canada and the shale plays in the US as a result of low oil prices. That unconventional oil is simply too expensive to produce compared to the revenues it generates. The oil producers can only operate at a loss for so long before they fold. And because the financial system is so distorted and full of hot air, there really is no more capital to divert their way to keep them afloat. With so many consumers working at low paying jobs the level of demand needed to boost those gasoline prices, for example, is simply not there. So it is is likely the prices of oil and derivative products will remain too low for unconventional production to be profitable any time in the foreseeable future.

Catastrophes are strongly non-linear events, like avalanches and earthquakes. You can’t necessarily predict when such an event will take place. And there are generally a lot of little events (clusters of small avalanches or earthquakes) here and there that portend, but do not provide information on when the big one is going to occur. And they are rapid. Once started, and with the right underlying conditions, they are like explosions. The first occurring parts entail later parts in an amplifying way. The only thing we can say with any certainty is that a major event WILL occur.

The underlying conditions in the case of civilization are several. Basically, as I have been writing about for years the single biggest factor underlying an economic collapse (and as a result a population collapse) is the amount of net energy available to do USEFUL work per capita. As long as that number is going up or is at least steady, everything will be OK. Ideally, it would be steady because 1) the population was not growing, and 2) neither was the extraction of energy and raw material resources. More ideally still would be this steady-state situation would have obtained at a far lower total population size than we have today. In fact, had the human population stabilized at an ecologically balanced size there would have been far less carbon being burned and more trees, etc. to absorb the CO2 that was put into the atmosphere by what was burned.

Which leads me to another underlying condition that has acted as the enabling factor in what has actually happened. Human beings are just not very wise at all. Collective human knowledge had to develop to a point where we could use our intelligence to manage our affairs properly. It is just now getting to that point. Unfortunately our inherent capacity for making veridical judgements — wisdom — or what I call sapience[1], has lagged behind from an evolutionary standpoint. And the better part of wisdom is to not venture forth boldly when knowledge of consequences is lacking. In other words we have been really clever but abysmally foolish. And now that we do know what the situation really is, it is probably too late to apply our intelligence in any meaningful way to correcting our earlier mistakes. Our lust for convenience and conquest over nature, while natural consequences of our biological mandate, have doomed us to this collapse.

The best evidence for my claim that human beings are collectively and individually foolish can be found in the US federal government. The people manning Congress, the Executive, and the Judiciary branches, as well as all of their underlings have made a mockery of the whole notion of representative democracy. The decisions they are making are beyond the pale of foolish. Those who would applaud Mr. Obama’s recent decisions regarding fighting climate change, for example, should consider that he has acted far to late and what he is proposing is far too little to make much difference. Then there is the plain stupidity of people like Mitch McConnell (R, Kentucky), Senate majority leader, who is actively fighting Obama’s plan to have the EPA regulate emissions. Or consider Senator James Mountain Enhofe[2] (R, Oklahoma) who heads the Senate Environment and Public Works committee — throwing a snowball on the Senate floor to prove that climate change is a hoax (he wrote a book about it being a hoax). These people are clearly ignorant or possibly criminally insane to continue to hold such views in light of everything that is going on around them as well as the scientific evidence. But there you have it. Among Republicans there are many more like them. Among Democrats there are many who, while they talk the talk of understanding the threats of climate change, are completely clueless when it comes to making the connection between that and neoliberal capitalism (in which they share the belief with the Republicans). This makes Democrats even more dangerous than Republicans if you think about it. It’s one thing to be ignorant and another to use double-think in your reasoning process. Both lead to disaster.

But here is the thing. We the people put these fools where they are. We voted them into office. We are responsible for what they are doing. We have no one to really blame but ourselves. And the reason is, as I have been asserting, the average Homo sapiens is anything but sapient. The average person’s ability to make wise decisions is practically nil. Part of it is due to the lack of adequate tacit and explicit knowledge. This is a major failing of our cultures and our education systems. But even those are the products of our cravings for cheap and easy. We want profits but don’t want to do the hard work of understanding reality sufficiently well to know what we can and should do to make them (or even what they are).

The Global Vernal Equinox (Spring)

With apologies to my Southern Hemisphere friends!

We’ve seen the so-called Arab Spring in the MENA region. By all accounts the people there were demonstrating, and fighting, for democracy. Or at least that is the prevailing theory. Presumably what has been holding back the peoples of these regions from producing great economic conditions (defined perhaps more by their own cultural interpretations of what those would be) was the repressive regimes that ruled over them. Have a coup or revolution and get rid of those bums and let democracy flourish. Then all would be well.

Except it doesn’t seem to be working out so well after all. Get rid of one set of bums and the next set somehow turns out to be bums as well. How can this be? The answer, and take Egypt for an example, is that the new set starts out with good intentions but soon discovers that the real problems of the region have nothing to do with democracy but with resources (other than oil in some cases). There aren’t any. There are too many people for the natural capacity of the land to hold. There is nothing really there for outside investors to invest in that could draw capital into the region. The problem isn’t a lack of democracy, it is a lack of everything that is vital to life. The people are hungry and they are angry about it. But they haven’t figured out that the problem isn’t some political philosophy. The problem is that the only way to parcel out the inputs of resources from other parts of the world (when they are available) is through a top-down, command and control mechanism (look at Saudi Arabia or Iraq under Saddam Hussein for other examples). If you put in a democracy friendly set of administrators they simply soon discover that they need to do the same things their predecessors did in order to maintain any kind of order at all. But the reality is starting to catch up to the region. Influxes of resources from other regions are diminishing and as they do it is increasingly hard for whoever is in power to keep the machinery running. That is why the discontent is rising again in so many of the MENA countries. They are in an advanced form of collapse and we are witnessing what it will look like everywhere in the world in the coming decades.

But there are certainly many more regions in the world where the same basic phenomenon is playing out. The US and its allies have not yet figured out that the conflicts going on, that they feel compelled to meddle in even though they haven’t a clue what to do, are beyond their ability to resolve. Nor have they come to grips with the fact that they really don’t have the resources to do anything useful anyway. Meanwhile, in the US, the governments (local, state, and federal) are failing to provide basic services to its citizens. Europe has taken in many Middle Eastern refugees in an attempt to assist them have a living. But now the native citizens of those countries are starting to turn negative (hateful actually) and at least some of the emigres are feeling alienated enough to start killing people. The pressure is building and we are seeing little catastrophes play out all over the continent.

Russia may be next. Or Africa. Or… Eventually, however, one of these seemingly local events will lead to a cascade of events that will cover the globe. It is impossible to say when, where, and why (in particular). But the pressure is building ineluctably. There is no escape, no reprieve, no alternatives.

Please enjoy your spring. Ours came earlier than ever this year. So our enjoyment got going a few weeks earlier than usual. That’s a good thing, right?


[1] For those interested, my forthcoming book on sapience is nearly finished. The working title is: Sapience: A Systems Science Approach to Understanding the Mind. I’m in discussions with several publishers now so hopefully it will be published soon, before the collapse!!!

[2] That is right. His middle name is Mountain! The height of absurdity and irony rolled into one large pile of…[you fill in].

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.

A Sunny Winter Solstice

Off the keyboard of George Mobus

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Published on Question Everything on December 21, 2014


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The shortest day of the year is here and I am celebrating. The sun has come out after a few days of really bleak winter-like weather. Lots of rain and wind.

Happy Solstice to All

This has certainly been an interesting year. The political, government arena continues to be a real laughter. Now that Obama and the congress are both lame ducks and the Supreme Court is split on just about everything the three-ring circus that is the US government will continue to supply ample material for the comedians and late night hosts. Too bad Colbert picked this time to abandon ship.

Meanwhile world events continue to demonstrate the accelerating spiral down the tubes for humanity. There is so much it is impossible to keep track anymore. One thing is certain, just because something is no longer top-of-news in the media doesn’t mean it has gone away. The European economic crises is still very much afoot. The situation in the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) has only gotten worse of late with the so-called Islamic State taking chunks of Syria and Iraq.

But wait! The price of oil is way down. That has to be a good thing, right? Oh yes. So American consumers, who are the main beneficiaries it seems, are going back to buying goods with their extra change. That will boost the economy back into growth mode. We’re saved, and just in time for Xmas too!

All of the cheerleaders are out in force with the America is the new Saudi Arabia shouts. None of them has a clue about the nature of chaotic processes apparently. Sudden changes in price signals cannot be taken for anything other than an alarm. The current glut in US oil supplies is partly due to the frenetic drilling that is going on in the shale (tight oil) plays in Texas, North Dakota, etc. They have to keep drilling at this pace in order to keep the oil flowing because each well, after an initial huge burst of production, goes into decline rapidly and the total amount of oil you get out of it is quite a bit less than from a conventional well that costs considerably less to drill and pump. Moreover, the drilling doesn’t always produce a great well. There are “sweet spots” on the landscape, places where the fracking produces good initial flows. But most of the holes don’t perform that well, so it takes more hole to get the same amount of oil out.

All of that frenetic activity costs a lot of money (investment) and with the poor cash flow from poorly performing wells, that money has to come from outside sources. Hence all the hype you hear in the media about the oil “boom”. By the end of this new year I expect the big story to be the devastation of the oil bust. All of the minor players, the wildcatters, will be forced out of the market and the big players will be restricting their drilling because they can see the writing on the wall.

Meanwhile oil consumption goes up because prices are down (Econ 101) and expectations for that lasting forever return to our short memoried populace. Already we hear stories of increase SUV sales and increases in miles driven per capita. Happy days are here again!

So what happens when you have a sharply declining supply and a sharply rising demand (Econ 101 again)? I expect a real shock to occur sometime in this next year. Right in the middle of a political battle of epic, nay Biblical, proportions. Couple all of these energy dynamics with the climate change issues and we have the promise of a real wild ride.

Chaotic systems that are being driven (forced) often undergo dramatic shifts, say from one attractor basin to another. The sign that such a shift is pending is sudden swings in some parameter, up and down. Such swings portend catastrophic changes, like a swarm of small earthquakes just before a major one. Look for it soon, coming to a planet near you.

Despite it all I am serenely pursuing my next project. Sales of the Principles book appear to be surprisingly robust, even in the Xmas shopping season. I have started reworking my Sapience working papers into a version tentatively called, “The Systems Approach to Understanding Mind”, or something like that. My hope is to have a series of books taken from this very blog that all are of the theme, “The Systems Approach to …”  in which I apply the principles from the current book to a number of domains. After the sapience book I plan to start on one for the governance of socio-economic systems based on my sapient governance blog series.

The basic idea is to produce a series of books which show how the systems approach and systems thinking actually do apply to at least the analysis of complex social problems if not providing some clues to the solutions of those problems.

I hope you will have a reasonably peaceful winter, but if there is a lull in the action, please consider taking time to reflect on all of the forces that are conspiring to alter our lives radically. And take heed. Think about what you need to do personally to prepare and adapt. In the end that is all you can hope to accomplish.

The Evolution of Governance

Off the keyboard of George Mobus

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Published on Question Everything on September 24, 2014


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The Evolution of Governance

Previous posts in this series:

  1. How Does Nature Manage Complexity?
  2. Systems Science and the Political Economy
  3. Governance of an Economy
  4. A Sapient Political Economic System

A Brief History of Evolving Social-Economic Governance

In the blog post, Systems Science and the Political Economy I tried to show how the concepts of economics, social organization, and the political process are all intertwined and based on extended physiology — the interactions between the physiologies and psychologies of eusocial beings. I started with a primitive social system where the participants were starting to specialize by talent in the production of tools or services that were needed to keep the group successful and fit. As Adam Smith had long ago recognized, specialization and cooperation is the key to success of the whole enterprise (this latter observation was expressed in his lesser referenced book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments). In this post I would like to run through a brief recount of how social and economic governance has evolved through history. There is a single caveat to make: all of this history is based on the fact that the decision agents involved in both the general social organization/economy and the governance structures have been humans and only as sapient as the species had evolved in the late Pleistocene.

In all likelihood early sapiens formed groups based on extended families. These groups were small, maybe twenty to fifty individuals across all ages. They were hunter-gatherers with a still relatively primitive set of tools consisting of digging sticks, stone blades and axes, and possibly thrusting sticks (spears). They may have scavenged meat more than hunted it but they had mastered the use of fire for cooking and hardening wooden shaft points. They probably built temporary shelters but were primarily nomadic, at least over a large territory, following food opportunities. This was the milieu in which we imagine the first specialists emerged. Certain individuals were good at chipping rocks, others good at finding root foods, etc. Men were probably the primary hunters and as tools like throwing spears and later bows and arrows improved we suspect certain individuals tended to excel in the hunt while others were good at butchering. If we can extrapolate from contemporary indigenous peoples’ organizations then the tribe was guided strategically by the wise elders, a council group, with perhaps a headman providing tactical leadership for hunting and conflicts with other groups when they occurred. I consider this as the root form of governance that evolved along with and because of human genetic evolution. Language was an integral part of this evolution as the organization of a primitive market of specialist agents undoubtedly required significant communication to coordinate activities. Aside from the time-to-time conflicts over territorial disputes, groups interacted with one another to trade special goods and especially brides to ensure against inbreeding. The main form of interaction within the group was cooperation even while that between groups vacillated between competition and cooperation (trade). Thus logistical management was probably minimal since all individuals could easily see everything that went on within the tribe and each individual’s behavior was guided by a strong moral sense of what was best for the group.

This root form persisted even after the discovery of horticulture as a process. Originally tribes, probably driven by climate changes in Africa, started settling in year-around camps where they could be assured of water and good soils. Effectively they were still tribes and they still tended to generate specialists, but now doing farming instead of hunting and gathering. Note, however, this was not a universal phenomenon. Some tribes in more arid areas remained nomadic and reliant on herding of ungulates for a living. These tribes would evolve a governance form that was more suited for a more demanding and constrained lifestyle.

Early agriculture was wildly successful and tribal villages grew into larger many-family units. As the Mesolithic age transitioned into the Neolithic and later the Bronze age tools were evolving rapidly. The plow, drawn by oxen, for example, revolutionized agricultural practices and provided for an explosion in food production and, consequently, populations. With increasing complexity and decreasing transparency in terms of the work of specialists, the need for logistical management arose as did a class of ‘managers,’ such as the granary manager and the scribes who accounted for the volumes of grains and other food stuffs stored for future consumption. The need to protect farmlands and villages also called for some of the stronger men to become warriors from time to time. They needed weapons (built by specialists) and supplies when needed. Thus the interface between logistical and tactical management for protection was established. The same was true for trade with more distant settlements. Someone had to organize the trade excursions and then manage the artifacts and foods to be traded. Coordination management emerged as a class of people who did not get directly involved in the on-going production of food or the crafts that produced the artifacts needed to produce food and support daily living. The beginnings of a layered hierarchical management system emerged from the need to coordinate many specialized work processes and coordination specialists emerged from this structure. The bureaucracy was born.

The question of strategic management is not easily discerned. As with the above described tribal organization, a council of wise elders and a headman or chief whose primary duty was to implement the strategic decisions of the elders may have morphed as the needs for tactical and logistical management grew more prominent. Once permanent villages were formed, in essence the strategy of life became fixed. Grow food to feed the population, protect the land, and seek out alliances for trade and protection purposes. The wise elders probably devolved into the function of advisors as opposed to leaders. The role of the headman evolved into that of mayors and later kings. They took more power as leaders and eventually “law givers.” The beginnings of autocracy and authoritarian rule vested in one individual were at hand. This is the point in cultural evolution when the selective forces that had favored increasing sapience were reduced. The selective forces for ruthlessness and power seeking from competition between the various coordination level managers for the leadership job took over. Most often, history tells us, the top dog was the one most honed in military capabilities. As regional populations grew and put pressure on the land, competition for resources (soil in particular) came to be a permanent pattern of interactions. Thus military men gained the skills in leading.

This new framework for organization was incredibly successful. Within a seemingly short time small villages gave way to more elaborate towns and cities in key environments (e.g., Egypt and Mesopotamia). The age of civilizations and empires emerged and the complexity of life exploded. The surrounding farm villages and the farms themselves were somewhat unaffected by this transition in terms of daily life. But of course they became subservient to the city centers that now needed resources brought in from the surrounding land. A more elaborate military was needed to protect the towns and surrounding lands. Tactical management was raised to a new level. For some reason, however, logistics management in its full form never advanced beyond the issuance of currencies and collection of taxes, which are not really serving the economy so much as making the bureaucracy possible. Even as cities grew in complexity and workshops became increasingly opaque to their customers, the governing class left the logistics pretty much to the marketplace. They could get by with this approach only because the vast majority of humans are inherently motivated by cooperative moral sentiments. The proportion of cheaters was (and still is) relatively small by comparison with the cooperators and the instances of dispute could be managed by a magistrate judiciary. Occasionally truly egregious disputes and wrongs needed to be referred to a “higher court”, but for the most part the marketplace remained reasonably self-regulating[1]

Rather than governments taking a direct hand in logistic management, by assisting the direct regulation of interprocess transactions and distribution of resources, a different, non-governmental form of logistic management emerged from the practice of sequestering excess foodstuffs for later consumption and as insurance against a bad harvest. Once abstract monetary tokens came into widespread use, they rapidly began to represent stored wealth and a new institution, the bank, arose as a means for sequestering these tokens. The idea that bankers should receive their income from a portion of each savings account was probably the first version of managing that resource. But very soon another practice came into existence. As with granaries that stored seeds and from which seeds could be borrowed, for example, to start planting a new field (an investment in the future), banks started lending small amounts of stored money to finance new trade ventures. And just as the granary needed to be paid back in full (with possibly a small increment more), the bank could charge a fee for the use of the money — interest payments. But here is where the twist came in. In order to convince the people saving their “wealth” in the bank that this practice was sound, they paid the savers a small fee for keeping their money in the bank and thus available to the bankers to make loans. This was the first foray of the monetary system into logistics (as described in A Sapient Political Economic System as the origin of “monetary policy.”) Banks loaning money out to borrowers effectively creates second-order money because it is cash that is supposedly existing in two places at once. It is both in the bank at least on the ledgers, and in the hands of someone else being used to buy things. If the savers want their money back, the bank would have to rob Peter to pay Paul, take out more money from other peoples’ deposits to restore the full amount of the account that is being withdrawn. The obvious risk is that if everyone wanted their money out at the same time the bank would not be able to give them their full due unless it could turn around and quickly pressure the borrowers to pay them back. Messy business.

This basic pattern worked pretty well most of the time. The banking industry achieved full status as an institution and with due prudence became respected and trusted. But then, banks struck an unholy alliance with governments. They started loaning money, for example, to finance armies and navies for war efforts. Those loans could only be paid back if the wars were won so those were risky business deals. In any case bankers became influential in government affairs (see, for example, The House of Medici) and, indeed the financial machinations of bankers and those of political heads of state became extremely intertwined and remain so down to the present. In spite of numerous downturns and failures, the banking industry seems to have survived quite well. The next major “innovation” in financial management came with the invention of bonds and stocks. Capitalism is basically a set of ways in which an investment class, those with the financial resources, can lend their “excess” wealth, or what would have been called savings, to new ventures, not unlike the loaning of seeds to start new fields.

As I wrote in A Sapient Political Economic System even today governments do not engage in true logistical management, preferring and believing that markets can solve all of those pesky distribution problems more efficiently than can people. This belief emerged and evolved into its current “free market” version as a result of the observations made by Adam Smith regarding the mythical “invisible hand.” Indeed, Smith was noting that there was a logistical function that seemed to be taken care of by self-interested parties working out trades in an open market setting. Smith’s observation may have hit on an underlying truth about coordination even as it has been lost on those eager to use this observation as an excuse for maximizing profit taking. In one sense Smith’s observation, made in much simpler marketplaces, is basically true, if the decisions are left strictly to people to make when all relevant information is available to them. But as I also pointed out, with proper scientific-based methodologies and an appropriate objective function those decisions could be based on facts-of-the-matter and not human opinion. Better still, with sapient agents there would be little question as to the efficacy of logistical decisions.

The notion of a free market being the solution to all problems has been reinforced by the the failures of so-called planned economies. The few attempts that governments have made to “plan” an economy have ended fairly disastrously. The former Soviet Union comes to mind. China was going down the same road but has recently morphed from a communist state to a modified capitalist state with somewhat less planning and a good deal of new knowledge gleaned from watching the progress of the West and the failures of the Soviet Union. But even in the modern China we have evidence of the failures of their approach to logistic management. For example, China has a horrendous commercial real-estate bubble (as well as a private bubble) due to poor planning.

Evolution of a Sapient Socio-Economic Management System

If human socio-economic hierarchical management were to have evolved in ways that reflect a more “organic” form, what would be different between what was described above and some kind of “ideal”? This is an exercise (possibly in futility) to try and discern how such a system might be obtained. As a starting point, assume that there will be a reset of civilization. And not just to a lower technological civilization but to a very low technology collection of tribes. Let’s consider what a future evolution of society might look like. Furthermore, let’s consider what that evolution might look like in the case where the social agents, the people, have evolved greater sapience[2].

I suspect that the main difference at the operational level, the level where people are attending to daily life and production of goods and services will come from something that might look like altruism but is actually the result of desires to cooperate and to do what is good for society. The profit motive will have been reduced back to the need to make and save a small profit as a buffer against bad times. Indeed, when the larders are full and account for the average demand during those bad times, the producers of goods and services may elect to back off of volume and/or price. Volume could be adjusted based on demand/need and price could reflect the actual costs of production. There would be no premium to collect to take advantage of fellow tribespeople. Every producer would consider the whole of the society in setting prices and availability based on actual costs and availability of inputs. These are morally-motivated decisions and not profit-motivated.

Operational level management is primarily concerned with quality aspects of products and services. Just as craftspersons of old cared about their reputation and thus paid careful attention to quality details, sapient producers would monitor their outputs for quality sake and make adjustments to maintain or improve that quality. But a big difference is a subtle shift from concern for reputation to keep sales up to concern for the customer’s capacity to find value in the product or service. In other words this too looks a bit like altruism but is not because the producer is not compromised by performing the necessary acts. Indeed, both producer and customer are enhanced as a result of the synergy afforded by the product or service. Society is better off as a result of a qualtity product being used, possibly to construct another quality product.

At the coordination level the question might be posed: If everyone is so cooperative and morally-motivated by their interactions in transactions, wouldn’t the market be sufficient to provide logistic coordination? And it is likely that with agents who are more discerning and honest in their communications, the likelihood that the marketplace could serve as a sufficient medium for logistics is probably high. But only as long as the complexity of the web of buyers and sellers is relatively simple and the nature of products and services is also relatively simple. At the stage of social evolution where the farming community is the mainstay of society, then this condition probably holds and simple marketplace mechanisms along with the above mentioned cooperativity and motivations of the agents would lead to efficient and satisfactory outcomes. This is what Adam Smith observed in Wealth of Nations, at least in terms of the workings going on in the lower echelons of commerce. Unfortunately, higher forms of financing and obfuscated transactions were already developed and starting to negatively impact those lower echelons even in Smith’s time. Just at the start of the Industrial Revolution, the bankers and lack of state-based logistics management were deepening the wedge between the rich rentier-capitalist classes and the poor working class. The moral sentiments that Smith also wrote about were fading.

Recall the main tools of logistic management, the budget and the accounting system? The evolution of a true hierarchical cybernetic system would involve the employment of these to help producers and consumers regulate themselves at the operational level and maximize cooperation. For the society, the maintenance of a global accounting system would allow all members to have information about the costs of everything and the prices that reflect fair trade. Something akin to a financial accounting system would let everyone know and understand the state of the whole community. With that knowledge, sapient agents would be able to adjust their activities and expectations. In the early agricultural days, and even before in the hunter-gatherer stages, everyone in the tribe knew very well what the status of the whole tribe was with respect to food and other resource supplies. Everyone got complete visability when it came to the stores of those resources. They could then individually take whatever action would be necessary to do their part to maintain or improve the status of the group. A global accounting system, not just for the governing “agencies” but for every operation within the society, would provide this same sort of information for more complex systems.

I imagine that at some point, as societies do grow within the limits imposed by the carrying capacity of the environment and by the availability of energy, there would need to be a function devoted to summarization and interpretation of the accounts. The information load from an accounting system, even for a moderate sized company requires a controller and financial managers to monitor the assets, liabilities, and equities as well as cash flows of the whole enterprise. Similarly, budgets relating to the whole community, the activities of individual producers and consumers would be employed to plan for resource allocations. Unlike planned economies such as tried in communist countries, budget development is not a strictly top-down process. Each operating unit provides input based on their operating experiences and the trends they see. For example, a producer may note an uptick in demand for a specific product and project the continuation of that demand increase. They would request additional resources to meet the demand and the budgeting process would ascertain the feasible allocations of resources given those requirements. The logistics coordinator would have to make decisions about actual allocations and their timing. But they would not simply decide one fine morning that making more “tractors” would boost the manufacturing sector of the GDP which would look good when reporting to their superiors. An approach to logistical management has simply never been tried in any economy. Yet it is the necessary form of management needed to deal with the kind of complexity found in societies beyond the simple village.

Higher sapience would make this kind of management possible simply because people would not feel they have to hide anything. The sentiment of proprietorship and secrecy about what goes into production would be much minimized. Thus agents would be willing to participate in accounting reporting (cost and financial) and would be happy to have comprehensive information about products and services. However, the major driving sentiment behind a sapient logistic management system would be the a priori willingness, even desire, for all participants to cooperate for the good of the whole. Today, perhaps due to cultural aberration and pressures to conform, most people are primarily interested in maximizing their own situation. Fewer in number, but still enough to make things really bad, are those who hold that same sentiment and are perfectly aware that doing so will harm others, yet they do not care. Nothing could be further from a sapient mind.

The form of tactical management would be as described in A Sapient Political-Economic System. But how would it evolve as societies evolved to greater complexity? Tactical management of a small community starts with attending to the state and trends associated with the community’s environment. The very first problem is how to grow enough food to maintain the health of the community. But other issues include finding building materials for shelters and materials for making other tools. Under the assumption of a reset of social evolution with small communities and those are spread out, and with the members of communities having some greater level of sapience, it is not hard to imagine that the tactical issues of interacting with other societies would be trade of goods and genes. However there is also the trading of information that would need special attention. If one group is experiencing stresses, say due to poor harvests, they might share this information with the other groups nearby. They might find out that those other groups, too, were experiencing stresses. Then, the groups might find ways to symbiotically cooperate to find synergies that would help all through the rough times. At minimum they could agree to spread out further apart to lessen the total human load on the environment. Of course I am not saying this would be easy, but more sapient minds would be more likely to seek cooperative solutions than resort to violence. More sapient minds, armed with knowledge about how the world works, would be in a position to find solutions. More sapient minds, remember, are strategic as well as morally-motivated. They would be less prone to the US-vs-THEM psychology that dominates our weaker form of mind.

Of course there is always the possibility that clusters of less sapient communities will have survived as well. Such communities are more likely to resort to violence in acts of desperation. Thus tactical management will also necessarily include military-like approaches for protection. There is nothing about higher sapience which precludes self protection. So, until or unless the lower sapient groups die off (due to unsuccessful competition with more sapient groups) the construction and maintenance of military capacity would remain part of the tactical management process.

What would be different is the role that strategic management would take in all tactical affairs. Agents tasked with tactical management (e.g. monitoring the health of the environment and the activities of potential enemies) would necessarily consult with the those tasked with strategic management — the wise elders or, in the case of smaller communities, the wise leader. Strategic management is always concerned with the state and trends of the world around the community. They also keep themselves informed of the state and trends of things within the community, the logistics and operations. They know and think about the strengths and weakness of the community and the threats and opportunities in the environment. Their job is to wisely guide the activities, both logistical and tactical, for the long-term stability and maintenance of the community.

Where do wise elders come from? Or a wise leader? If you read my working papers on sapience, especially about the evolution of sapience you would recall a discussion of the statistical distribution of sapience strength. In the extant population I conjecture that the distribution is not the ordinary normal curve but is quite skewed toward the low end of the scale. That is, the mean sapience level (like an SQ) is relatively low, with a rapidly declining tail off toward the high end. This is the result of the newness of the traits involved in integrated sapience. Given enough time in biological evolution and a continuance of selection factors favoring sapience, the curve would eventually tend toward normal (bell shaped). Well, if our reset populations are somehow more sapient that is what we would expect to see. And there will always be a minority (but a non-trivial one) of individuals who are much higher in the distribution just as there are people with higher IQs now.

The Key to a Hierarchical Cybernetic System

The key is good inter-module communications and veridical models for making control adjustments. Because no communication channel is perfect, there is always noise and ambiguity, nature learned a long time ago how to build communications systems with clever coding and redundancy. We humans have learned to do the same, but we low sapient humans have also managed to inject noise and ambiguity to hide reality from others we see as competitors (or suckers) and to hide from reality ourselves. We know how to do it right we just don’t have the guts to do so. At every turn we can rationalize obscuring the truth by believing that everyone else does so and we are just protecting our own interests. In a sapient society, a wiser people would understand the importance of reliable and complete communications. Unlike in the game of “Telegraph” where everyone laughs about the mangling of a message passed on by whisper from one person to another wiser people would work hard to ensure the fidelity of messages they handle.

This is not merely true within the marketplace but up and down the hierarchy of management. Workers would not hide mistakes from their coordinators for fear of punishment. They would be wise enough to realize that it is important to report problems so they can be fixed. They would have no fear because they also realize their coordinators are wise enough to understand that mistakes happen, things go wrong, and that it is not in anyone’s best interest to punish anybody when they do.

Similarly, the models of the subsystems used to make decisions must be as close to reality as they can economically be made to be. Models that are not sufficiently complete or riddled with ideological beliefs(such as the neo-classical, neo-liberal economics we mostly rely on today) that do not correspond with reality are worse than useless. They cause damage. In our current population of sub-sapient people beliefs in models of governance based on totally unfounded ideologies (and they are all pretty much this way) are the cause of our current crises in government, politics, and economics. They are the reason that our civilizations are collapsing in front of our eyes. Sapient beings learn from mistakes and that learning turns into more precise and/or accurate modelling of the processes that need to be managed. Models become more veridical as the system evolves.

Ultimately, and I realize I repeat myself, a true hierarchical cybernetic system depends on the sapience of the decision agents at all levels in the hierarchy. While there may still be a statistical distribution across levels of sapience and intelligence, this need for all to be sufficiently wise in their judgements also implies a more egalitarian social fabric. Just because an individual is performing the role of strategic decision maker does not mean that that individual is “worth” more in material rewards for doing their job. Is this socialism? Is this the feared plague that is the antithesis of capitalism? Well yes and no. Egalitarianism among sapient beings is not the same as rewarding a lazy sub-sapient just because he is breathing. Higher sapience implies greater sentiments of responsibility and effort applied. Only if every participant in society contributes to the good of the whole can there be a true hierarchical cybernetic system. And only if the latter is achieved can there be a sustainable form of society and culture.

I called this posting “The Evolution of Governance.” Many readers may have noticed that I then described what sounds like a “designed” governance system. However, I claim that even human designs are the result of evolutionary process. From the earliest times of Homo sapiens humans have tinkered and tested technology and organizations. The governance systems that have emerged over the history of man, especially since the advent of agriculture, show that these were merely experiments. So it is the same with the current experiment in liberal democracy and capitalism relying on an all-knowing market. This too is an experiment and one that has proven disastrous even as it produced untold material wealth.

If humans can make it past an evolutionary bottleneck and if the average level of sapience can be boosted then the next experiment, built from what was learned by this last one and knowledge of hierarchical cybernetics should be an improvement. In some sense mammals and birds can be viewed as a kind of brain/mind organizational improvement over dinosaurs. But it took a major global calamity to give them the chance to emerge and evolve further. I take comfort in thinking that the next round of governance evolution, based on increased sapience and hypersociality will demonstrate the same kind of improvement in form and function. Nothing is “perfect,” only better than what came before.


[1] I forgot to mention in that previous post the role of the law, especially contract law, in helping to ensure transactions are conducted fairly. Their are laws mandated by Congress and there are laws that are subject to interpretation by the courts and the enforcement evolves according to the history of application. While these laws seem to be in place to regulate fairness and thus reinforce cooperation, they are not actually part of a logistical management framework. Rather they seem to be compensating for the lack of sapient-based cooperation that would preclude cheating and the taking advantage of others due to higher levels of empathy, etc.

[2] Some readers will argue that perhaps sapience can be improved by learning or being influenced in childhood by being in a sapient community. Perhaps it will not require neo-Darwinian evolution to produce a more sapient group. That is indeed possible in my opinion. Certainly by comparison with the state of affairs at present even slight improvements in morally-motivated judgement would make a substantial difference. Coupled with an effort to maintain that knowledge of how the world really works that we have gained through science, it is conceivable that educating for wisdom would contribute significantly to a morally-motivated society. Then, as with all biological-cultural coevolution there would exist a return to the selection forces that gave rise to and promoted sapience in the first place. For purposes of this discourse either education for wisdom, or some directed selection for greater sapience will have similar effects.

Governance of an Economy

Off the keyboard of George Mobus

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Published on Question Everything on August 8, 2014


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An Example from Biology

A living system is the basic example of an economy. For example within a single cell the metabolic machinery is a production factory to produce more biomass, either growth of the cell to a mature size, or through cell division production of new individuals. There is a third product that some cells, those in multicellular organisms, make and that is simply replacement of degraded biomass, what we call a steady-state economy.

Figure 1 shows a simplified and abstract representation of cell metabolism, at least as far as things like protein synthesis and uses are concerned. The major work processes are the construction of enzymes (and enzymatic systems) and the machinery construction. Various processes, such as those shown, are actually complex molecular machines that require enzymes and energy to do their work. For example the ribosomes, the major protein synthesizer machine has to be constructed out of RNA molecules and proteins. All of the cellular organelle are constructed or self-organize based on their inherent chemistries.

The cell is basically an “exchange” economy where various machines produce products needed by other machines. Most often the trades go through several steps. In the background all of the machines tend to degrade and break down. Their molecules have to be either recycled or expelled. Many cells actually produce molecular products that are used by other cells, so the exchange model extends to whole multicellular systems as well.



Figure 1. Metabolism in a living cell is an example of an economic system.


Every cell captures materials and energy from its environment. Photosynthesizing cells (plants) have an energy capture and conversion machine, the chloroplast, that manufactures energy packets, like adenosine tri-phosphate (ATP) from sunlight input. Animal and fungal cells take in molecules that are both energy carriers and raw materials. They first need to digest organic materials (from plants) and then machines called mitochondria convert the carbohydrates into ATP. ATP is like a floating battery that circulates everywhere within the cell conveying convenient energy to all of the other machines. Every machine in the cell (organelles) use the energy stored in ATP to do their work. All of them employ proteins and membranes. The former can be either structural components or functional (enzymes). The latter, bi-layered lipoproteins, encapsulate the functions of the machines. Those boundary conditions regulate the flows of molecules so that rates of work are controlled.

Every machine, or metabolic processor, operates under feedback control. Certain molecules “sense” the products and provide either direct feedback to the machine (e.g. down modulating the production of certain proteins at the ribosomes) or escort the products off to the recycling center if they are not needed. Some escorts test the quality of the output, for example determine when a protein has not folded into its tertiary structure properly, and acting as quality control monitors send the deformed product off for digestion and recycling.

Living economies operate under fairly rigid rules (principles) with respect to the conservation of material and energy. For example the rule of “if you don’t use it, you lose it” is followed rigidly. Cells don’t keep useless organelles or molecules around if they are not actively contributing to the whole system. Such “excesses” are degraded and digested, recycled or expelled. And their production machinery will be down-modulated. No more energy will be expended on producing what isn’t needed.

Another rule is: “If there is a greater need to produce product X, then up-modulate the machinery to make it.” When cells are placed under conditions that are unfavorable, where some critical factor like pH is near or beyond the limits of tolerance the cell responds by up regulating machinery that produces mechanisms to thwart or compensate it.

These rules reflect the laws of supply and demand.

The depiction in figure 1 represents the kind of organization and processes that take place in the cytoplasm outside of the nucleus. The basic controls regulating metabolism are operational controls (as covered in the last post). Everything is tightly coupled through feedback loops and under “nominal” conditions the market of exchanges and valuation based on energy consumption works cooperatively without a great deal of intervention. But nominal conditions hardly prevail for long. Every cell sits in an environment where fluctuation in critical factors constantly impose stresses that must be responded to, as described above. One of life’s earliest accomplishments was the invention of homeostasis. This is the basic feedback control loop for maintaining critical factors within a nominal range by reacting to external changes. A homeostatic mechanism can either do something actively to influence the external conditions, or respond by activating a movement of the organism away from the situation (where movement is possible) or call upon internal reserve mechanisms to counter the external influence, for example by sequestering molecules when their concentrations are driven too high. Homeostasis is the first level of tactical management, coordination with the external world in order to maintain function. It also demonstrates the tight link between operational control and tactical control. Figure 2 depicts the components of a homeostatic system.



Figure 2. Homeostasis.


The basic physiological process depicted could be any of the producing machines described above. It needs and input of some critical factor to do its job. But the critical factor is influenced by something in the environment that can drive that factor above or below its necessary level. The control system monitors the input generating a feed forward error signal, eff, which is used by the sub-process I’ve called the ‘control model’ to generate a control signal, cr that activates the response mechanism. That mechanism is capable of doing something that counteracts the environmental influence. This diagram shows an arrow from the response to the environmental factor, but the mechanism might act internally, for example to actively sequester or neutralize unwanted molecules.

The control model might be a complex one. I’ve included the basic feedback control loop for the physiological process product output. The comparator generates an error signal, efb, that can be used by the model to send a control signal, cp to the process to take internal corrective action. The model, thus, represents a close cooperation between an operational control (feedback) and a simple tactical control (feed forward).

Also shown in the figure is a depiction of a higher-order mechanism that embodies the two principles mentioned above. The response mechanism needs to be maintained at some level of readiness that is just necessary for the ordinary sorts of responses it has to make. The ‘response constructor’ is responsible for this maintenance. Imagine its “responsiveness” as represented by the size of the oval. It can’t be too big because its maintenance would be prohibitive in terms of energy and material required. At the same time it cannot be too small because if the external influence were to drive the critical factor out of range too fast it would result in some kind of damage to the organism that could be fatal. How to determine what the right size would be?

The response constructor uses some kind of molecular memory device that keeps, essentially, a time averaged trace of the history of external influences (supplied by the control model). If the memory value is high then it means the influence has been strong and frequent over some past time window. Thus the response constructor “knows” to build up and keep strong the response mechanism. It will invest more material and energy into the response mechanism because it “expects” there will be an on-going need for fast and strong responses in the future.

The details of the constructor and its memory are not important right now. I will just say that this basic kind of machinery is active in all biological systems where some anticipation of future demands for a function is needed to prevent damage or take advantage of an opportunity. In a more elaborate and multi-time domain form, this is the basis for what neurons do when they encode memory traces in their synapses. Hence the term memory is not abused here.

You may recognize the above figure as it is basically the same as figure 6 in the prior post in this series. Here I have added the response constructor to expand the example as an exchange economic model.

In the metabolic economy there is a true ‘currency.’ That currency is the packets of energy called ATP. Energy is involved in all transactions and, by the second law of thermodynamics, degrades in capacity to drive work as it flows through the economy. It is given off as waste heat and new high grade energy must always be supplied.

The messages depicted in these figures are conveyed by chemical signaling. Small weight molecules are released by one sub-process and diffuse through the cytosol to be ‘received’ by another, target, sub-process that will then act on that message. Cells have receptor sites on the outsides of their membranes that are specialize to couple with these diffusing molecules. When that happens it generally sets off a cascade of so-called second messengers that eventually affect an internal control mechanism that then does its work (having access to ubiquitous ATP) and responds to the signal the cell received. That is what is actually going on in figure 2 with all of the signal arrows representing various molecules that activate the machinery, such as the response mechanism. Chemical signaling was the earliest form of communications in living systems, both internal and external to the cell membrane.

But the point is that the cellular metabolic economy is regulated by the same hierarchical control system covered in the last post. When we include the role of the genes, along with their network of expression controls and epigenetic mechanisms, we will find that it all fits the model shown in figure 8 in that post.

There is one more aspect to the biological model of economy governance that should be brought out. Cells do not grow bigger and bigger forever. There are constraints on how large a cell of a particular type can get to be. Some constraints may be imposed by external factors, others, like effectiveness of heat dissipation, may be imposed by internal factors. Newly created cells, however, are smaller than the optimal size and so they follow the mandate to convert materials and energy in to new biomass within their membrane. Once they reach the optimal size however they have the potential to replicate by cellular division, thus making two small cells that then, each, continue to grow biomass. They do this as long as there are no external constraints, such as lack of a vital material or energy, to cause them to stop growing and simply maintain.

In the case of multicellular organisms the same pattern can be seen but with an interesting twist. External factors, that is external to the multi-celled tissue that is growing, can trigger internal signaling within the tissue to stop the reproduction of more cells. This is what happens, for example, in the development of organ tissues in embryos and fetuses. Cells receive signals that not only tell them what to differentiate into, but also when to cease growth activity or at least modulate it to fit with the overall organism growth pattern. No one tissue can exceed its natural size. Figure 3 depicts this form of restraint on growth.



Figure 3. The biological mandate dictates that more biomass be produced until some forms of constraint trigger restraint.


Biological systems evolved these self-restraint in the face of external constraints in order to preserve life. Any overrun by any one biological entity threatens the life of all other organisms and therefore mechanisms for suspending the biological mandate were needed to achieve balance in the whole ecosystem. The regulation mechanisms are many in form but you will find them at all levels of living systems. And you can see the effects when they fail to work. This is what cancer is, a breakdown in the growth-regulating system releases the suspension on the mandate and the cells resume growth and reproductions indiscriminately. I’ll return to this idea later.

The Biophysical Economy

The human economic system is effectively the same model as the cellular metabolic economy. The roles of materials and energy are the same. The work processes needed to construct products needed by other processes are basically the same. Even the purpose of the whole system is the biological mandate of growing more human biomass.

In figure 4 I have drawn yet another view of the biophysical economy, abstracting all of the basic functions into just a few representative sub-processes. Fundamentally the economy is designed to extract natural resources from the Ecos as well as capture sources of energy to then produce all of the goods and services that ultimately go to consumers through a distribution subsystem. If you trace through the flows and processes you will see that this schema is similar to what was shown in figure 1. Unlike the cell example the human economy has a much smaller recycling capability (so it is not shown).



Figure 4. The biophysical economy is shown in a very abstracted form.


Since I have written a considerable amount about the biophysical economy (and biophysical economics) I won’t go into details here (look for more in the Biophysical Economics section of the blog). Rather I want to call attention to the signal arrows in this figure, the thin black and green arrows. These are the cooperation signals the provide supply and demand messages between processes. In the past I have claimed that money is really just a form of signal, information about the amount of usable (free) energy that can be controlled in the sense of directing which work is to be done (see figure 5 below). Unfortunately in a debt-based situation such as we have today money is a very distorted message conveyance. That is one reason that our current economic system, world wide, is not working very well. The governance model (essentially free markets with light regulations on selected processes) relies too heavily on cooperation and that depends on the fidelity of inter-process signals. As already argued, when any system gets too complex it is necessary to introduce coordination (logistical management) between processes in order to facilitate the functions in figure 4.



Figure 5. Money is used to convey information regarding the flows of goods and services. Individual agents decide how much money (the intensity of the message!) to send. The receiver interprets the message to determine how much work to do and thus how much energy to expend.


What this really means is that a workable governance model must be based on effective communications and realistic logistics rules. The governance we have was born from a very nebulous set of ideas about the interactions between government, political process, and the economy, hence the name political economy. The system is a result of an evolutionary process but with a kind of built-in bias toward the idea of progress. Unlike all previous forms of social evolution (e.g. emergence of eukaryotic cells from bacterial cells, emergence of multicellularity, etc.) the evolution of the political economy has been nudged along by the reflective agents who have tried to shape what it would be. It was as if certain genes in the genome ‘thought’ about what they wanted and mutated themselves accordingly. The whole system is impacted by ideology-based decisions, and generally not for the better. Overlay the complexification of society due to technological development and you have the evolution not of a sustainable system, but an aggregate of many dysfunctional processes.

Economic Governance

Consider the history of economic systems that have come into existence since the advent of agriculture. The original governance of agriculture-based societies was based on the need to reliably produce food stuffs for the society. Governance began with the specialization of those who could see the larger picture, not just how to plant seeds, but when and where to plant. The early Egyptians, for example, organized around the management of water from the Nile river and the land immediately nearby. A coordination function emerged quite early in the form of early kings (probably derived from “headmen” in nomadic tribes) in neighboring territories who took on the role by managing the administration of things like granaries and the emergent functions of ‘surveyors’ who specialized in measuring out the land areas after the annual Nile floods had receded. After the invention of the plow and the domestication of animals, along with the increasing capabilities to work with metals and clay, specialist trades developed rapidly. The production of products of these specialists needed to be organized and coordinated since any one specialist might be losing track of what the others were doing. Someone had to rise above the whole operation and help make sure what needed to be done was done.

The model of governance that emerged in Egypt and five other similar civilization centers was based on a hierarchy of command and control. The kings became Pharaohs, god-kings, who had absolute authority. They presumed their knowledge was absolute. As the complexity of the kingdom rose layers of administrators were rapidly added. The Pharaoh became more distant from the workers in the fields. A class system based on the tendency in human psychology to establish some kind of pecking order was amplified by the nature of the hierarchy. This would establish a pattern that would be with us for the rest of our experience. A human bureaucracy superposed over the natural management hierarchy carried all of the flaws of human psyche, especially the lack of adequate sapience to counteract the limbic system’s tendency to drive the need for establishing power relations. It has never been a particularly happy combination.

Among the duties of the ruling class, by virtue of their nominal positions, was the protection of land holdings — the territory of the kingdom. A separate specialization developed early on, that of the warrior and the armed forces necessary to protect the kingdom from marauders. At first their jobs were probably mainly defensive but as time went on and kingdoms experienced bad harvest from time to time, the idea of invading another territory probably followed very naturally. Of course it might not have taken a hard time to promote the notion of aggression. Humans are already individually aggressive and greedy (again a lack of sapience thing). So the temptation to invade another kingdom for booty or outright takeover was probably not a hard hurdle to jump.

The basic form of hierarchical governance with class and power overlays has been with us ever since. Even the American and European experiments in some forms of democracy have not been able to rid us entirely of this structure. For example the American presidency, which George Washington explicitly demanded not be like a king, has evolved to a king-like status. We even have a modern form of dynasty in families like the Roosevelts, the Bushes, and the Clintons. The British, of course, never got rid of their royalty, going back to feudal days.

What is wrong with governance is the humans who implement it. A human being is a selfish, self-centered, limited-perspective agent who is placed in the untenable position of making cybernetic decisions with weak knowledge and distorted senses. No mere mortal man (or woman) can be the president of the United States, or leader of any state on the planet. The philosopher kings are rare these days.

Human Agents

Recall figure 4 in the prior post, reproduced here so you don’t have to go back to that. We human beings are, ourselves hierarchical cybernetic systems. Our brains are designed to process operational level, coordination level and strategic level information. We make decisions at all of these levels. But, and this is a huge caveat, we are driven by the biological mandate and our sapience capacity is still very immature. In figure 6 I’ve added the limbic system that drives much of human decision making. In higher sapience the feedback from the strategic level of decision making acts to down modulate the emotional and purely biological drives that influence our thinking and reactions. In ordinary sapience (i.e. the average brain) this feedback is weak and the influences from the limbic system will ultimately dominate decision. This is the basic reason that economic agents are selfish and mostly irrational.



Figure 6. The irrational and selfish agent is motivated by limbic drives and desires.


Human beings are the worst agents for a hierarchical cybernetic system since the inject their own desires into the decision process. Moreover they are largely plagued by incomplete or even wrong knowledge about how the world works. Libertarians are the worst. They completely deny the need for a regulation system. But I have to admit that their instincts might be right given that it is human agents that are doing the regulation. A political economy needs a hierarchical cybernetic framework. What it does not need is human decision makers who are so lacking in sapience.

But suppose that the agents in a hierarchical cybernetic system could be more sapient. In effect it would mean an expanded strategic thinking ability along with expanded systems and higher-order judgment ability. Such an agent would not have lost their limbic drives; evolution doesn’t work that way. Instead what the expansion of the prefrontal cortex associated with increased sapience would mean is a stronger ability to down-modulate the activities of the limbic system that might have driven poor, selfish decisions. Such individuals would have stronger cooperativity motivation and more empathetic capacity; they would be hyper-social creatures. In short, they would be wise. Figure 7 depicts such an agent. I call such an agent an “adaptive, evolvable agent” because their expanded abilities include being able to deal with uncertainty, ambiguity, and especially an ability to modify their own concepts (beliefs) in light of new evidence. Their thinking is capable of evolving with changing conditions.



Figure 7. An adaptive, evolvable agent is one with greater sapience than we currently see in most people. Greater sapience would include expanding on strategic thinking in each agent, but would also mean the agent would be hyper-social, quite ready and motivated to cooperate with fellow agents.


In my next post in this series I will attempt to construct a hierarchical cybernetic system for a human economy that would be long-term stable (dare I say sustainable?) Note that I said ‘a’ human economy. Given the situation with energy source depletion it cannot be the current economy. I’ll base the design on the above concepts of a biophysical economy embedded within the Ecos framework and in balance with it. We can then ask, what governance might look like for such a system. We have to use my adaptive, evolvable agents as the decision makers in this structure, and I will offer the argument as to why this is so.

Granted that this is something like a Platonic ideal — we don’t have a surfeit of highly sapient people to work with — but in order to understand where our real system is it might be useful to gauge against what the ideal might look like.

Exploring Consciousness

Off the keyboard of George Mobus

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Published on Question Everything on February 17, 2014


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Dangerous Territory?

Perhaps fools do rush in where wise men fear to tread. The territory we call consciousness studies is fraught with dangers, intellectual as well a professional (for a scientist). Philosophers have never felt any danger (sometimes quite the opposite) because their job is to simply raise interesting questions about the phenomenon. They don’t have to explain how it comes about. René Descartes was content to just declare, “Cogito ergo sum,” and call it a done deal.

Nevertheless the subject cannot but intrigue the scientist who contemplates how the brain works. After all, the brain, working, produces mind and minds experience consciousness (at least I, like Descartes, think I do; the rest of you may be zombies for all I really know!)

Having touched on consciousness in my explorations of sapience (Part 1 with links to subsequent parts), and feeling like I have a good working theory of how wisdom comes about from that brain basis, I am thinking this is a natural turn to take. This is the first of a more in-depth exploration of that devilish hard problem of what is consciousness. I guess you could say I’m feeling foolhardy.

The So-called “Hard Problem”

Philosopher David Chalmers introduced the idea that consciousness is the hard problem, or rather, that some fundamental aspects of consciousness are too hard to explain by mechanistic models.

It seems we need our “mysteries.”

According to Chalmers there are “easy problems” associated with consciousness. For example the mere processing of external stimuli, recognizing what they are and where they come from is easy enough to explain from mere brain theory. For Chalmers and many other philosophers of mind the real problem is subjective experience. That is, how do the stimuli evoke subjective experiences such as “redness”, what are called qualia, or “phenomenal experiences”.

This is where we run into significant rhetorical problems. As soon as we say an experience is subjective we are making a claim about our own experience, not a claim about another’s experience. It is impossible to say that Carl experiences redness when looking at an object that I experience as red. At best Carl and I can agree that whenever looking at an object that I experience as red, he reports that he also experiences something he calls redness. We agree that some kind of visual experiences are consistent across objects. We both use the same name for it. And when I tell Carl that the object I just saw (which he did not see) is red, he understands what I mean in terms of his own experience. It is because of this property of consistency across shared experiences that we might readily conclude that redness is not actually a subjective experience only. There is some physical quality about the way a human brain interacts with reflected light waves to see the same basic quality as almost all other human brains. I submit to you that while the issue of qualia may keep philosophers up at night it is not a real problem when considering the nature of and brain mechanisms for producing the phenomenon we call consciousness.

There are, however, significant semantic issues involved in grappling with the idea of consciousness. When I write, “I saw a red object,” what exactly is the I (in both instances in this sentence)? There is a symbolic referent, I or me, that is used linguistically to identify the agency of a biological system. But more than that, and what is for me the truly hard problem, is that there is a locus of experience and thought that feels an identity and ownership of those experiences and thoughts as well as of the body in which it seems to reside. I can talk about “my body” as if it is a thing that does my bidding and is used to interact with the world. The I inside seems to be unique and, in a sense, somewhat isolated from the body. You will recognize this as the ancient mind-body problem so often argued by philosophers.

Famed neurologist and author, Antonio Damasio (2000) tackled this problem head on in his work, The Feeling of What Happens. Rather than ponder what consciousness must be from an armchair, Damasio has been examining the brain, its functions, and their correspondence with reported subjective experiences as well as behaviors. I have found his arguments (paraphrased below) quite convincing as far as they go. They do provide a more solid ground to start from than introspection alone. My own approach is, in a sense, similar to Damasio’s but working from a kind of reverse engineering process. My work on autonomous agents starts by attempting to emulate the brains of vary primitive creatures such as a snail, paying particular attention to the critical role of memory trace encoding in neuronal synapses (Mobus,1994). It is my contention that this is the first problem to be solved before attempting to emulate whole brains. It is absolutely essential to understand the dynamics of this encoding in order to solve certain critical problems in memory trace behaviors that we know affect long-term behaviors in all animals. My immediate goals are to build brains that are progressively closer to mammalian capabilities (not necessarily human, by the way). This will be demonstrated by their capacity to adapt to non-stationary environments and still succeed at a given mission objective.

I think the answer to consciousness lay in the evolution of brains from those primitive versions up through mammals and to humans. I have elected to try to emulate the stages of brain evolution by simulating biological-like neurons and their dynamic interactions in brain-like structures (e.g. the hippocampus and its analogues in reptiles). Essentially I seek to grasp how the brain works by recapitulating its evolution.

Jeff Hawkins (2004), of PalmPilot fame, is also attempting to reverse engineer the brain (especially the human level) but is most interested in the neocortex of mammals and humans to emulate human level (like) intelligence. His approach has been a more top-down one in which he has focused on what he feels (and I agree with him) the role of the cortex is as a memory-based prediction processor that can form invariant representations of things, causal relations, and interaction dynamics in the world that actually allows the possessor to visualize the future based on experiences learned in the past. I feel he is closer to understanding real intelligence than all of the classical artificial intelligence and artificial neural network researchers combined! Real, natural intelligence will never be simulated by a program. It will only be emulated by a program that simulates the necessary details of brains. I think we can do this on a computer, but probably not a brain as complex as the human’s. I will be happy if we can get to something a little more advanced than a lizard, for example a mouse.

I must say I think Hawkins’ approach, while having the advantage of providing a kind of top-down framework for generating hypotheses about intelligence, is going to have difficulty in not having spent time understanding the way in which neurons (all of them) encode synaptic efficacy as the basis for memory traces. Further, we now know that neurons are actively wiring and rewiring as a result of experiences. New synaptic junctions are formed, especially between distant clusters, and the mechanism for doing this involves the dynamic behavior of existing synapses and the epigenetic controls on genes that encode, for example, channel proteins. My adaptrode model provides the basis for this mechanism and this too is one of my goals — to show how distant neural clusters can come to represent causal associations in a developing brain simulation.

The approach of reverse engineering takes the work of neuroscientists like Daniel Alkon (1985), Eric Kandel, and Larry Squires (2008) who showed how synaptic efficacy dynamics worked, and Damasio and others like him who have painted a picture of how the mind works (similar to Hawkins’ framework approach) and attempting to simulate the parts that interact in such a way that the whole thing works just like brains do, but in software and silicon instead of meat. I contend that it is the causal relation encoding dynamic built into synapses that is the key. And that can be simulated reasonably well[1].

In any case Hawkins seems interested in consciousness as an afterthought, a consequence of neurology (see Chapter 7 in his book). He seems focused on the issue of intelligent decision-making and never considers the nature of judgement or wisdom. In the chapter on the topic, consciousness, creativity, and imagination are treated more like epiphenomena of neocortex operations. I, however, am interested in the nature of consciousness from the standpoint of that it is an essential evolutionary consequence of fitness and how it emerges from the workings of the brain. I do not think it is an epiphenomenon — a simple but unnecessary consequence of brain workings (in fairness to Hawkins he may not really think that these “extra” phenomena are truly epiphenomena, but his treatment of them seems cursory and almost dismissive, so that it seems as if he does).

For Hawkins the objective is new technology to be applied to building useful tools; tools that are truly intelligent, meaning they learn from experience and can make good decisions. He sees these applications as specifically not being humanoid robot like, but rather for things like autonomous vehicles that do not have emotions or internal drives as animals (and humans) do. But for me the motivation is quite different. I seek to reverse engineer the brain and demonstrate its functionality in a working autonomous agent as a way to better understand biological brains! I build agents not to develop commercial applications but to understand better the brain itself. Frankly I suspect Hawkins, in excluding the inclusion of limbic functions like emotional content, will run into a barrier in his quest. As Damasio (1994) pointed out in his first book, Descartes’ Error, essentially all of our memory traces are tagged with emotions or feelings derived from the limbic centers and based on the emotional context of the moment in which they are formed (see Chapter 8 — The Somatic-Marker Hypothesis). Damasio has concluded that the whole brain and body &ldwquo;… form an indissociable organism… ” (page 88) that probably cannot have parts isolated and function properly. Hawkins seeks to isolate the neocortex (and perhaps part of the thalamus and hippocampus) for his ‘intelligent tools’. I am skeptical that the learning algorithms he might apply to the neurons (synaptic plasticity) will do what he expects without an underlying motivational response system. But I wish him luck.

As long-term readers well know my ultimate interest is in the nature of wisdom and its effects on intelligence, creativity, and affect (emotions) as a necessary and evolutionarily emergent capacity of our human brains. I think consciousness is for something that is deeply tied to the nature of sapience. Perhaps, as I have speculated, the two phenomena are coextensive, i.e., come from the same brain structures that evolved in humans but are almost absent in lower animals. I suppose you could say that my ultimate goal would be to show how that can emerge (evolve) in brains by building something as proof of concept. As I said earlier, that won’t be possible with the current generation of computers, even the most powerful supper computers or even through massive parallel processing over the Internet. But it should be possible to make advances in that direction that demonstrate the potential of the trajectory.

Believe it or not there are a number of researchers, both in and around the field of artificial intelligence (AI), who are studying Artificial Consciousness (AC). The study of AI has, itself, helped shed light on what we really mean by intelligence even if it has not been very successful in producing the general kind of intelligence we now recognize as the basis for adaptive behavior in autonomous agents like animals. I would claim that my own modest efforts have gone a long way to show an alternative approach that does do so. Those who have considered AC do recognize that if it is possible to produce consciousness (whatever it is) artificially it will certainly include, and start with, the capacity for adaptive autonomy by an intentional agent.

The beginning of this approach is now to consider how an animal is “aware” of its world and its self as it moves about sensing that world and its own body states.

Awareness — Self vs. Non-Self

The nature of consciousness begins with the nature of an agent’s awareness. Even the simplest living organisms keep track of stimuli that originate in themselves versus those that originate in their environments. All animals, certainly, from the lowliest worm to human beings have neural mechanisms that track their own bodily positions and self-stimulation versus stimulations that originate from elsewhere in their environments. In other words they keep track of self versus non-self The need to do so is really pretty simple. Organisms need to react with appropriate behaviors to the impacts of the stimuli coming from other sources. They do not need to react to stimuli from themselves. For example, a nudibranch (marine snail) needs to withdraw its gills if they are touched by other agents (live or not). It does not need to do so if it touches its own gills. So it has neural mechanisms that keep track of its own movements. It knows where every part of its body is relative to all other parts at all times. If it detects a sensation on the surface of its body while noting that its foot, for example, is curled up and is the source of the stimulation (its foot will also feel the touch of the gill), it does not need to react. Any other stimulation not accounted for by its neural tracking of self should be reacted to for safety sake.

The circuit in Figure 1 shows how this is accomplished. The circuit compares sensory inputs from any of its externally focused senses, visual, auditory, or touch. These are compared with proprioceptive sensory information for correlations. In the nudibranch case above it will have a proprioceptive map that indicates where its foot is because it keeps track of how it moved that foot to its current location (nudibranchs are quite capable of such contortions!). It also receives touch sensory data from the gills in the location corresponding to where the foot is. Thus it can determine that no response is needed since it is self-stimulating the gills. Contrariwise, if the foot has not been moved to that location then it will conclude that something not itself has touched its gills and it will retract them immediately.



Figure 1. The distinction between self and non-self is differentiated by whether proprioceptive sensing matches external somatosensory inputs. A. If the proprioceptive input does not indicate that the self has produced the sensory input, then the non-self cluster is activated indicating the need to attend to the stimulus. B.If the proprioceptive input does indicate that the self has moved and this correlates to the sensory inputs then it is recognized as a self action. This kind of circuit is what lets you know that it is you scratching your ear and not someone else trying to be friendly.


Awareness is essentially the maintenance of somatosensory maps[2] that keep track of every sensory input that is active at any given moment. These come from the external world and from the internal body. Proprioception, as just described, provides a map of the body’s movable parts so that the animal “knows” at all times where its part are relative to all other parts. It also supplies information about how much force, for example, had to be used to get the part where the motor commands directed it. This is used as feedback to help regulate the motor commands themselves. If little force is still accomplishing the task then more force is not needed. This information can be used to determine the agent’s relations with objects and media in its world. A second internal sensory map is the interoception, or sensing of physiological body states such as blood sugar levels or nitrogenous waste build up in muscles. It includes hunger, hormone-driven effects like sexual urges, and pain reception. Some of these states, such as sexual urges, can be triggered by external sensory stimuli (presence of the opposite sex’s pheromones) but sensed by internal sensors and relayed to the brain as body state information.

Even the most primitive brain maintains these three dynamic mappings that keep it aware of the state and position of the self and the state of the environment around it[3]. In reptiles and below these maps are mostly processed in the nuclei-like structures of the lower and middle brain areas. Many are nonmalleable in the sense that they cannot learn new images or new behaviors. They provide instinctual behaviors. In amphibians and reptiles newer, more flexible, structures appeared. They are more cortical-like in architecture and they are flexible in the sense that they allow for non-instinctual memories (at least in short-term) to be encoded as new images from the environment. Such structures help quadrupedal mobility in more difficult to navigate terrains. They also allow more flexibility in reorganizing instinctual behaviors to achieve a more complex goal. For example mating rituals can be more elaborate and follow slightly different patterns in each instance based on current circumstances. This helps improve mating success and thus seems to have obvious selective advantage.



Figure 2. There are three sources of sensory input to the central nervous system. The exterioceptive senses are the ones we normally think about as the five senses along with a few others. The proprioceptive system keeps track of body movements and positions of parts relative to each other. The interoceptive system monitors internal body states and keeps a map of activity levels in the relevant subsystems. All maps are integrated into a “global” map of the self and its relation to the things and forces operating in its environment. This is the origin of awareness and can be found in some of the most primitive brains.


Yet even more elaborate and flexible mapping processors emerged in the form of the paleocortex[4]. This structure may have evolved in dinosaurs or at least the last common ancestor of dinosaurs and birds, since the latter have similar structures. A cortical structure, as Hawkins and others have elaborated, allows much greater flexibility in making more complex associations between sensory inputs and leading to more complex motor outputs (behaviors). The maps shown above were replicated in these cortical structures but in a much more elaborate form. The paleocortex could process so much more and do so by acting as Hawkins’ memory-prediction system that I have shown to provide anticipatory (preemptive) based actions.

The final stage of evolutionary expansion of brain systems and the gain of unparalleled adaptivity came with the emergence of the neocortex in mammals. In some respects not unlike the paleocortex this ‘new’ cortex provides a much more powerful capacity to encode memory traces and make anticipatory guesses about the near future state of the world. But even more important, the size and complexity of this subsystem allows the brain to manipulate concepts experimentally, to imagine a possible future that can be tested for possibilities before action is committed. For example a preditor such as a lion or wild dog can consider that they have often found food resources at particular water holes. When the game is more scarce, the predator can then experiment with the idea that there might be other water holes some distance away where more game might be found.

You may question my use of the word “idea” here. But I mean it literally. Most of your ideas actually start out in the subconscious processing taking place in various parts of your brain. Only a very few of these ideas make to the light of conscious awareness. Yet we know they are there because psychologists/neuroscientists have devised clever ways to elicit subconscious thinking and visualize it using fMRI and other dynamic imaging methods. Thus, though a predator like a lion might or might not have a conscious thought about ‘trying’ to find a new watering hole, the thought is there none the less. This is evidenced by the actual behavior of such animals that has every appearance of premeditation. For my part I have several reasons to believe that lions and dogs actually do experience such ideas consciously. I also suspect they have an inner language that includes complex concepts in the form of noun-like and verb-like (including tenses) abstractions of the things in their world. Recent work in animal communications indicates that their body languages convey much more of their inner thoughts than we had previously considered. I will have to write about this at a later time. For now please accept that mammals have mental capabilities, made possible by neocortex, that allow them to work with concepts in ways very similar to our own.

From Brain to Mind

The neocortex alone, as simply an expanded version of the paleocortex, would not have resulted in the explosion of complex behaviors that gave mammals tremendous survival advantages. The other concomitant development in brain structure was the development and expansion of the prefrontal cortex, the lobes of cortex just behind the eyebrows. The frontal lobes were always the seat of associating environmental situations with appropriate behavioral programs, planing of muscle contraction sequences, and then sending commands for those sequences at the appropriate timing intervals. The addition of the prefrontal cortex added a new feature, the ability to plan alternative coordination with possible future situations, extending the ability to anticipate and adding considerable flexibility to behaviors (along with increased complexity). With the addition of temporal categories, past, present, and near-future, animals with prefrontal cortex could process the present situation based on past experiences and plan future actions.

Figure 3 shows a complete set of mappings and the information flows from sensory to planning to motor coordination. The new layer of map effectively observes what the sensory integration is producing and uses memory of past experiences to decide what motor actions would be needed. In this sense it is planning for the future by anticipating future outcomes. But in the primitive animals in which this map came into being, the future is just a very few seconds.

The figure includes the feedback through the environment resulting from the animal’s behavior altering its relation to objects in the environment — essentially changing the environment (red arrow) relative to the animals perceptions. The loop is continuous in time. The animal continually senses the environmental configuration of percepts and tracks how they change in the planning map. Those changes then give rise to new motor plans. Not shown in the figure are the internal feedback loops from higher order maps to lower order ones. I’ll have more to say about this aspect in future postings.



Figure 3. Adding motor outputs requires the integration of sensory inputs and the coordination of motor outputs. This requires a higher-level map to plan actions that will need to be done in order to better position the agent in the environment. The sensing, planning, motor output, and feedback as the environment changes relative to the agent’s perceptions is continuous in time.


Connecting complex environmental situations and body states with actions to take was a major leap in agency, the ability to flexibly choose alternatives, some of which might be learned through experience. But it was still only a slight improvement in anticipatory behavior in being limited to the immediate future. In many ways this capacity could be limited to amateur game playing; if the opponent moves here I should move there. Considerations for what the opponent might do two minutes from the present, let alone two hours, were not a factor.

As the evolution of more complex environments proceeded [5] selection for more behavioral flexibility became stronger. The behavior planning map expanded to provide more memory capacity for more complex situations encountered. At some point (probably in early mammals, monotremes) a new map emerged above the short-term planning map in Figure 3. In all likelihood this map evolved as many new organs/facilities often do as a duplicated structure (the planning map) that was initially redundant, but later was free to evolve additional capabilities.

That structure is depicted in Figure 4 as an “Observer Model.” sitting atop the action planning map. At this juncture the latter is more a short-term default map wherein actions chosen would hold under ordinary circumstances. But the higher-order map is capable of storing more implicit (and perhaps the beginnings of explicit – episodic) memories than could be accommodated in the lower map. This larger memory also includes longer time scales for memory retention. But more intriguingly the higher-order map is a dynamic map in that it is capable of reconfiguration (generating new wiring schemes between concept objects) and hence, as a modeling “platform”, capable of generating multiple possible scenarios for the future. The time horizon for planning actions, and hence the length of the sequencing, expanded as well. The animals could consider behaviors further into the future than before.



Figure 4. At some point of complexity (environment and behavior) a new map appeared as an adjunct to the Action Planning Map. This map introduces longer time scales of “what happened” as well as “what may happen in the future”. This map is probably better called a dynamic model but it takes current status information and constructs refinements to models of how things work. The output from these models affect the current behavior.


Note that this new capacity opened up new possibilities for exploring fitness space in mammalian evolution. The larger the spatio-temporal scope of an individual’s experiential memory coupled with mechanisms for experimenting with possible scenarios gave animals a capability to increase their tactical advantages considerably. The carnivores and the primates evolved this capability to maximum effect.

The reason I call this an observer model is that unlike the planning map that directly innervates the motor coordination map, this map takes in what the lower-level maps are doing and constructs what amounts to higher order models of both the self and the environment over long time scales. The sense of “I&rdquo, with continuity across time, is a consequence of this modeling. I am reasonably certain that dogs, cats, other carnivores, cetacean, and primate species have an inner sense of self and identity associated with their life experience memories. It may be true for ungulates too (horse owners would probably agree). Maybe even lagomorphs (rabbits) too! Indeed, as I think of various mammalian species I have watched behave (e.g. squirrels and raccoons) I would guess they all have some sense of I-ness.

There is another sense that results from there being a sense of I. That is the sense of agency and will; the sense that I caused that to happen. This has to be fairly obvious from the fact that the observer is watching the motor outputs (behaviors) that change the environment (relative to the observer) as well as observing the actions of the planning map and what it was in the sensory maps that gave rise to it.

With the emergence of this observer, model constructor, model user, scenario generator we have the emergence of the mind. We have the origin of the sense of self as different from the lower-level functions (maps) because it is. Lots of things could be going on in real-time in the lower level maps. This new higher level map (model) is working in a different time domain. It is collecting experiences and consequences of past behaviors in those circumstances which it uses to build anticipatory models of what should be done in the long-run (well, some long-run). It then provides the action planning map with provisional suggestions as to what sequence of actions it should take if such-and-such a situation comes to fruition. This new map allows the animal to deal with some ambiguity and uncertainty.

The new map is in the prefrontal cortex. Its actual work is to map longer-term and broader scale concepts to all of the regions in the neocortex where the details of lower-level concepts and percepts are actually stored (e.g. parietal and temporal lobes, etc.)

Higher-order Consciousness

The capacity to be aware of the environment and the sense of the body as a basis for short-term behavior planning is what I have called First-order Consciousness. The sense of self is primordial, consisting of a knowledge of proprioceptive senses that distinguish that what is happening is either due to some factor in the environment (awareness) or due to the animal’s own actions. All animals from the most primitive (probably with what we would call nervous systems) to human beings have this fundamental consciousness or they could not act effectively (be fit) in their worlds.

A sense of self that produces also a sense of separateness, the sense of I is what I call Second-order Consciousness. There is an observer in the brain that literally tracks both what is happening in the environment and what the body does in response AND proposes longer time-scale action sequences that should better situate the animal in the future. Fitness is greatly enhanced. The animal possessing this capability is able to adapt to multiple environmental configurations within limits.

What do we see with humans? In my next posting I will tackle the next level phenomenal experience — observing the observing! Humans are conscious that they are conscious. What does it mean?


Damasio, Antonio (2000). The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, Mariner Books.

Damasio, Antonio (1994). Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, HarperCollins Publisher, New York.

Hawkins, Jeff (2004). On Intelligence, St. Martin’s Griffen, New York.

Kandel, Eric & Squires, Larry (2008). Memory: From Mind to Molecules, Roberts and Company Publishers.

Koch, Christof (2004). The Quest for Consciousness: a Neurobiological Approach, Roberts and Co.

Koch, Christof (2012). Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist, The MIT Press, Cambridge MA.

Mobus, George E., (1994). “Toward a theory of learning and representing causal inferences in neural networks”, in Levine, D.S. and Aparicio, M (Eds.), Neural Networks for Knowledge Representation and Inference, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. [Available on-line:]


[1]. Simulations, however, are not easy. A simulation is always an approximation to the actual system. We can never simulate the lowest level details. For example my Adaptrode does not simulate the molecular interactions that take place in a neuron from synapse to genes. Such a simulation would provide greater accuracy by capturing the sub-dynamics that contribute to the whole phenomenon. But at the cost of needing much more computing power. We always are stuck with a tradeoff between accuracy and computational overhead. What we do is try to analyze the phenomenon and identify what we think is the sufficient level of accuracy producing the desired effects (think of curve fitting approximating a non-linear time series). If there is a need to get the simulation to run in real time, then the constraints on level of detail are much more severe. Using a computer simulation of thousands of synapses with firing frequencies of 200-300 Hz requires a substantial amount of trimming of detail! Time will tell if the Adaptrode equations suffice.

[2] The use of the term ‘map’ may be confusing but the processing ‘modules’ reponsible for handling sensory inputs literally map the array of inputs (think of the retina as a two dimensional array of light sensitive cells) to higher order processing modules. Unlike static roadmaps, however, these neural modules are dynamic maps that track inputs across the sensory field, thus changing where activity is located based on what they are mapping. For example, think of the visual inputs from the retina as the eye moves. The objects in the field of view are moving relative to the map itself. Imagine a lattice made of rubber. An object in the field of view is like a distortion in the lattice, say pushing a finger down on it. As the eye moves and the object remains stationary it is like moving your finger across the lattice so that the distortion affects different regions.

[3]. Here the term environment refers only to the affective environment of the animal; essentially only those forces it can detect and objects it can recognize. For worms and snails this is a pretty limited environment. For humans it is clearly much larger. Nevertheless, there are many aspects of one’s immediate environment that one cannot sense directly yet they can have causal impacts on the individual.

[4]. A cortical structure is a sheet of micro-modular units (cortical columns) that are arrayed in a matrix arrangement. The sheet is divided into regions (and likely sub-regions) that are responsible for processing various representations. The sheet can be imagined as being layed out with regions near one edge (actually the back of the brain in the neocortex) devoted to low-level sensory inputs from all modalities. These are passed to the next regions which extract meaningful conceptual images from the inputs from the “lower” regions. That is, the outputs from the sensory regions are passed to the integration regions. It is also notable that there is a tremendous amount of feedback from the integration regions to the primary sensory regions. The outputs from the integration regions pass further along the sheet to object recognition and that to whole-field (situation) recognition. From there the behavior selection processing is done in the planning or pre-motor regions. Finally motor outputs are processed in regions in the far other edge of the sheet and the outputs are sent back down to the motor control nuclei in the central and lower brain areas for passing to muscles, etc. This is a, perhaps overly, simplified description. I plan on devoting some future writing to elaborate on this subject.

[5]. I say the environment evolved because an environment includes all other relevant species and environments and the various interacting genera coevolve. Sometimes such coevolution involves an “arms race”, as between prey and predator, called the Red Queen race.

The Real State of the Union (and World)

Off the keyboard of George Mobus

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Published on Question Everything on January 27. 2014

Discuss this article at the Geopolitics Table inside the Diner

The Formulaic SOTU

You know the drill. The POTUS starts by spotlighting some highlights of what s/he thinks is going well in the US. Here are our strengths, as a country – Blah, blah, blah – look at us, we’re good guys and exceptional in the world! There will be special guests sitting with the first partner who will be acknowledged as exceptional people for whatever reason. The “message” — Everything is fine folks. See how we prevail over adversity, etc.

Then s/he will acknowledge some critical issues that need to be addressed. The climate, the environment, energy, jobs (actually probably number 1), income disparities, etc. etc. are bound to be on the list in this SOTU.

And then comes the grand list of major initiatives that will solve all our problems. Of course, only if Congress gets off their fat butts and get bills written and through the votes. And we know what the responses will be. Politics has been so badly ideologized (if not a word it should be) that the President’s party will rise in applause for every one of the grand schemes. The opposite party members will sit staunchly, frowning and likely shaking their heads to signal their disgust and telegraphing how intransigent they plan to be to block any of the nonsense.

What You Won’t Hear, But Should

The POTUS will only be communicating with the humans on this planet. That is because we humans use language and other species don’t. Too bad. They should be warned also.

My fellow human beings, the state of the world is not good.

I am sorry to report that the US is probably the single biggest cause of this situation. Our insistence on the notions that greed is good, economic growth is good, financialization is good, and personal wealth accumulation is good, is the one underlying factor that is driving the destruction of our environment and the depletion of critical natural resources. What we are doing, and apparently not thinking about the consequences, is not sustainable, even over the next several decades. To put it succinctly — we are screwed!

The US has led the world in a mad grab for anything we could possibly exploit. We have led the world in creating so much pollution that the natural environment cannot possibly absorb and process it. Now China is trying its best to follow suit. Europe, for the most part, has been a little less guilty, but trying its best to keep up appearances. India, African nations, the MENA states, and the BRICs, and everyone in between wants what we Americans have had. If all 7.2 billion people were raised to the same level of consumption and lifestyle as Americans (middle class) we would need five and one half Earths just to get there. Obviously that isn’t going to happen.

We have messed things up so badly that our civilization is highly likely to collapse in chaos. If you are familiar with self-organized criticality dynamics (of course almost no one will be) you will recognize that the pressure has built up and many small collapses have already occurred. The big one is coming and likely soon. We can expect a massive down-sizing of the population and the living standards of any survivors. To believe that somehow our current situation is really different from prior civilizations with respect to the possibility of collapse is just wishful thinking. There is, of course, one difference with the current state of affairs and the consequences of collapse. In all other local civilization collapses the survivors had somewhere else to go where resources were still available. This time we are talking about the planet as a whole. There is nowhere else to go.Collapse on this scale combined with massive climate changes and sea level rises could very well lead to extinction of our species. We should recognize it, at least, as a possibility. In fact our destruction of habitats and now the shifting climate effects are driving many species of plants and animals to the brink of extinction. Many, unfortunately, have already stumbled over the precipice.

Now for the really bad news. There is absolutely nothing that I as president, or the congress, or anyone can do to change things now. Most of the problem is to be found in you the populace. You are profoundly ignorant of how things work. You don’t want to take the time to try to understand the world. You basically want to have a good time and leave the work of fixing things to your elected officials. The problem is that those officials haven’t got a clue for the most part. And even when someone tries to speak up and point out the problems and what we should probably try to do, they are laughed at, mocked, marginalized, or just plain ignored. Sheer massive ignorance and stupidity is defeating us on all fronts.

In conclusion I would have to say that I suspect there will be only a few more state of the union addresses given in the future. At some point truth will force itself on us all. Of course, by then it will be much too late to do anything. It really already is too late. At best a few insightful and forward thinking people will work to organize themselves to survive the chaos. There may be a species of humanity in the distant future, but only if they evolve a greater capacity for wisdom than we have.

Goodnight. And hope for the best. No sense asking a god to bless us.

These words will never be heard.

Peak Complexity?

Off the keyboard of George Mobus

Published on Question Everything on January 10, 2014


Discuss this article at the Energy Table inside the Diner

Joseph Tainter‘s Thesis

In The Collapse of Complex Societies Tainter posits that many historical civilizations have collapsed due to a very subtle phenomenon, one hard to perceive for both those who live through it and those historians who later study the records. There have been a number of “major cause” theories advanced over the years, the poster child being Rome’s collapse due to invasion by barbarians. None of those theories really got down to the root of the matter. Tainter, and a number of other authors have more recently taken a systems approach and discovered a common element, something that, for example, prepared the Roman empire to suffer invasions (among other injuries). That phenomenon can be characterized as the diminishing returns on increasing complexity. The returns have to do with access to adequate resources to support a growing population, especially all forms of energy, including food. The complexity he refers to are all of the cultural approaches to solving the problems associated with that acquisition and with managing an increasingly restless population. This is essentially a biophysical economics explanation. Someone invents a new technology or procedure (including laws) for improving the acquisition and distribution of needed resources. In doing so they increase the complexity of the society. But, ironically, the increased complexity generated ends up having a diminishing marginal gain relative to the costs of maintaining the complexity. We pay more but get less and less over time.

There is a psychological problem herein that is yet more subtle. People, in general, can be negatively affected by increasing complexity in their social milieu. Alvin Toffler, in 1970, wrote about Future Shock or the effects of information overload on people and how that impacts the societies in which they live. Increasing complexity of culture (e.g. technological innovations coming at a rapid rate) is what generates information in the sense that each new detail surprises the observer. Each increment in complexity might not generate a lot of information by itself, but collectively it adds up to bombardment of the brain with more information than can be processed reasonably by the average brain.

Today we know so much more about how the brain processes its daily input of information, throwing out anything it can’t categorize or associate with an affective (meaningful) state and integrating what it can into our knowledge base. This is mostly done while we sleep and dream. The process of integration and deletion, however, takes time. Under the conditions that humans evolved to their current mental capacities the rate of this process, and the time period of normal sleep, matched well with the rate of information accumulation during the day so that the brain was not, on average, overloaded. Overload, when it does occur, results in two conditions. One is a loss of information that should have been retained and integrated during the night. The other is accumulation of short-term memory traces (engrams) that should have been discarded. Our brains have a storage capacity that allows buffering of overload for a short while to allow for variations in sleep periods and daily doses of experiences. Thus the brain can actually retain, for several days, useless traces that simply clog up the works and might even prevent truly useful messages from being stored for processing. But in the human’s natural state such overload situations are temporary and over time information can be processed. When the overload condition becomes chronic, it is another story.

In today’s world the information load from every aspect of our lives in a technological society is overwhelming for most people. The brain executes a self-protection mechanism. It simply starts filtering out a lot of information. We subconsciously switch off our attention to the world around us to keep from being swamped. Additionally, our bodies react to information overload by treating it as stress and if chronic it does damage to our health.

Part of the tuning out of messages in a complex society is that people simply do not pay attention to what is happening. They subconsciously turn to ignorance and lack of attention to protect themselves. In our modern societies I observe that the majority of people tune out the complexities. For a vast number of them, that includes especially education in and subsequent attention to the sciences. But today I see it in all domains. Even in watching or reading news reports, most people will attend to news stories only if the implications fit their pre-conceived beliefs about the world (which are necessarily over simplified). Ergo the rise of media phenomena like Fox News and its followers (same story for progressive/liberal media).

Knowledge (what and how) and understanding (why) of the way the world works provide a kind of inoculation against future shock. The reason is that knowledge is the reciprocal of information. The more you know, the less information you receive with each situation and thus avoid information overload. Being ignorant of the way the world works simply makes you more susceptible to it. And therein lies the conundrum. A positive feedback loop exists that makes people less able to cope with complexity as complexity grows. They become increasingly ignorant while trying to self-protect their brains from overload, but that just means they become more easily overloaded as complexity increases. And because they are ignorant they don’t grasp how to prevent more complexity from emerging — even the perpetrators of complexity, the lawyers, politicians, bankers, and tech gurus, are increasingly ignorant of the overall effects of what they do, so they just keep doing more of it. Meanwhile our “education system” is completely oblivious to this simple fact. Rather than educating people to understand (which is hard to do) we teach them to avoid understanding (teach to the test, which is easy to do).

Thus each new solution to the biophysical problems (or perceived problems) leads to increasing complexity and diminishing returns on investment in development, maintenance, and usage. That, in turn, drives people away from understanding what is happening in their world (the complexity) so that they cannot make rational choices. Increasing complexity then leads to increasing mistakes of judgment and eventually collapse of the system (society). In terms of major transitions in evolution (see: Major Transitions in The Future of Evolution) this crisis situation has led to the emergence of effective hierarchical coordination within some representative systems in a population of such systems that, by virtue of their increased fitness (stability against collapse) survive and differentially “reproduce”. In the case of human societies on a global scale this is more problematic since the current species of human is caught in an in-between state of mental evolution, between just barely sapient and fully sapient. As I have written many times over the years, sapience has all the attributes of a natural integrating mechanism to allow those sapient individuals to form much better governance systems. A collapse of global civilization should result in more isolated, small communities not unlike the unit tribes of early hominids in Africa. All of these communities would then constitute the population of evolvable systems.

Take a Snapshot — What do You See?

One of the most visible characteristics of peak and post-peak complexity is the way in which subsystems that contribute to overall system complexity have a tendency to break down. Or they will not work properly relative to their intended functions, which means they are not providing the desired service.

As an example, there is a set of “smart” traffic lights on a sequence of corners on my way into work. Smart lights sense the presence of traffic, especially that waiting to get the green light. Most such systems try to measure the load (how many cars are lined up waiting for the light to turn) and calculate from both a time limit and the rate of the cross-traffic flow (how many cars per unit time are sensed crossing the sensors in the road). A fairness policy dictates that when traffic in one of the directions is very heavy, say during the time people are driving to or from work, the light will stay green longer for them, but it will change within a reasonable time to prevent overloading the cross street. Or at least that is the idea. Smart lights are supposed to solve the problem of traffic congestion by smartly (optimally) regulating the flows. But the several lights that I mentioned are anything but smart. I think what happened is that when they put in a light rail line that crosses my street it changed the complexity of the whole system. The light rail needs special handling so that it can maintain a schedule, which changes the light changing program. When that happened the lighting engineers must have made some very wrong assumptions about how to handle the increased complexity of timing the lights because now, with no traffic (including the light rail) crossing we end up sitting much longer than the true smart light would have allowed. Moreover there are many times when there are cars in the left turn lane on my side of the road, but none on the other side, the lanes going the opposite direction. What should happen is that all of our lanes should get the green light, the going-straight and the left-turn lanes, while the go-straight lanes on the opposite side should have to wait while our cars make their left turns. But no, what actually happens is that the left turn signal on both directions is turned on so that those of us who are going straight need to sit and wait — even when there is no one in the left turn lane on the opposite side.

The rest of the light timing is even dumber than this but I don’t have the time to describe all of the idiot ways that traffic gets snarled up by these stupid lights. They would do better to simply have a fixed timer on all directions and let it go at that. But this example shows how things go wrong with complexity and end up doing damage when they were intended to make things better. It also shows the failure of a system, the engineering process that was supposed to handle the new complexity but didn’t do it correctly. It seems a small thing, a little inconvenience, so most people probably don’t even think about the 20 seconds to 2 minutes they lost at those corners. Some might say, “only a systems engineer would notice and worry about such a small thing.” And that is probably right. However, add up all those lost minutes from every car that needs to get through. Add up every day that those minutes are lost. Before long you can actually see a not-insignificant loss of time for society. We all lose. Now consider how many such corners exist in the world, where smart algorithms should be facilitating traffic but actually slow it down. I’ve seen a number of them around here and even in other countries. It does add up.

Then consider all of the little screw-ups in technologies that are the result of poor design of an overly complex system (a certain operating system comes to mind). How much time is lost there? Almost everybody has experience with technologies that are too complicated to operate (features are never used) or break every once in awhile for no apparent reason. I have a wireless router at home that is forever needing reset. Why (a simple answer is that I was too cheap to buy the top of the line!)?

These are all little things that people don’t take much notice of, and never consider the global consequences of. But the really worst cases of things breaking or not working as intended is governments and organizations. We are seeing record numbers of scandals, un-prosecuted crimes (are you listening Mr. Dimon?) and failures to act in accordance with the rules. At least half of this is attributed to the cheating attitudes and greed that seem to be driving so many people in authority or position. But the other half is due to the simple fact that our institutions have gotten too complex for anybody to fully understand. Take a look at the Dodd-Frank bill or the tax code. We’ve gone over the top (the peak) when supposed experts in policy or taxes make horrendous mistakes because they cannot deal with the complexity of those rules and regulations or the procedures involved. But then, what does it matter? The enforcers are overwhelmed too so they don’t really do a proper job of monitoring and enforcing so no one who makes a mistake actually gets caught or pays a penalty. Couple that with the greed half and you now have a pat formula for stealing in plain sight.

And with just about everybody information overloaded, no one notices. Or at least no one who could possibly change things.

Single individuals (even the president of the United States) are powerless. Even if they knew what needs to be fixed they haven’t the influence or tools to do the fixing. Small groups are powerless. In our litigious society no one group can get anything effective done without stepping on someone’s toes and getting pushback for their trouble. Not even congress can move forward without some kind of gridlock.

What Isn’t Broken?

Over complexity that is not mitigated by the introduction of a hierarchical management systems (which actually reduces overall complexity) causes systems to fail in various modes. The failures, even little ones here and there, accumulate. Some can even have multiplicative consequences when positive feedback in included. Societies, even organizations, collapse due to over complexity and the law of diminishing returns applied to it.

Look around you. What institutions/systems do you see that are humming along happily doing their jobs? Me? I see very few, if any. I’ve even recently discussed the failures of the institution of science. Looking at political failures, aside from the incredible stupidity in Washington DC, consider the mess in the MENA region (e.g., Egyptian turmoil).

Can we really find just plain proper working let alone dysfunction? I suspect you will find it hard to point to truly functional systems in this world. What am I watching?

Peak Energy and the Rapid Decline of Supportable Complexity

There is still a lot of conversation and debate over the energy picture, specifically regarding fossil fuels. With the high media visibility of non-conventional extraction techniques (fracking and tar sands) and the over-hyping being done about the long term consequences of slightly increased volumes now from these technologies the public is buying into a belief that the energy problems are over. Remarkably the increases in volumes has not really translated into lower prices (the initial high flows of natural gas flooded the market and drove prices down, but those are starting to creep back up again.) Gasoline, for example, is still high from historic perspectives. Several people have calculated that any price over $90 per barrel of oil produces a damaging drag on the economy. This has been cited frequently in explaining why the US economy (as well as the global economies) have been struggling so badly over the past 4-5 years. Energy costs are at the root of ALL costs for all products and services as well as government — in fact everything. So even small increases in energy costs contribute to the problems.

At least in part this means the costs of maintenance and replacement of capital makes it harder to fix things or make them right in the first place. The decline in available free energy per capita, which is the defining parameter, translates directly into the availability of monetary representations of work and that too declines. We humans have cheated a bit, and continue to try to do so, by using debt instead of a currency that is backed by exergy (free energy). Essentially a few of us have tried to pull the wool over the rest of our eyes and make us think we still have the resources to keep on our consumptive ways. But look at the reality. Everything is breaking down. I will even go so far as to say nothing will really get fixed. Even if the American congress were to miraculously pass an important bill that seemed to have positive benefits for all it would be a short-lived anomaly on the road to perdition. The rule from here on out is decline and decay and all of our complex institutions and technologies will crumble to our feet.

What will likely be the short-term response from governments and financial institutions? Print more money. Go into more debt. Try desperately to make it look like things are OK. They will do this by trying to create yet more complex solutions (e.g. where exactly did quantitative easing or credit default swaps come from?) Depending on any swings in the political arena in the next (mid presidential term) elections, or in the presidential election of 2016 such that one party gains complete control of the white house and both houses of congress will determine how many more complex laws and rules will be created. The current gridlock is actually saving us from total asininity. If one or the other party gains control they will immediately find more complex ways to govern, which, of course, will simply lead us to ruin that much faster.

There is no physical way out of this dilemma. It is strictly thermodynamic business — nothing personal against you Homo sapiens. There is nothing you or I can do about it, except in personal preparation terms.But watch for yourself. You will likely see the degradation continue. You are witness to the peak of complexity every time you fire up your smart phone. Look for those phones to soon become a source of aggravation to you. The next model or operating system will have more glitches because the designers were racing to get it to market. The networks will suffer more outages with increased traffic. Technology will fail to serve. Institutions will break down and collapse. Our global society will collapse into a small number of isolated communities and the beginning of a new dark ages at best.

I am neither a “glass half empty”, nor a “glass half full” person. The glass is rapidly emptying and has or soon will pass the halfway point. Nor is there any way that we can start filling it back up to compensate. On the other hand there is a sort of positive side to this. For those lucky or smart enough to survive, the world will get a lot simpler and, ironically, in the long run, a lot more humane.


Diamond, Jared (2005). Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Penguin Group, New York.

Homer-Dixon, Thomas (2006). The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization, Island Press, Washington DC.

Tainter, Joseph A. (1988). The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK.

Toffler, Alvin (1984). Future Shock, Bantam Books, New York.

Some New Year’s Observations

Off the keyboard of George Mobus

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Published on Question Everything on January 1, 2014


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You Are Here

It’s that time of year again for reflections on the past year, assessment of our current situation, and projections into the new year.

The truth is I’ve grown weary of writing the same thing over and over again. Last year saw further declines in the natural environment, increases in extreme weather events, increases in conflict in the MENA region (and others to boot), more rapid depletion of fossil fuels, greater disparity between the top 1% and the poor, and on and on. The political and governance systems continued their disintegration. Corporations continued to make profits by replacing workers with automation. And the bankers and brokers continued to amass fortunes by swindling the rest of the world, and with the assistance of governments as well. In spite of the accumulation of evidence of decline, almost nobody is paying attention.

Today almost everybody still believes that economic growth is the great salvation of humanity. If we could just get back on track with growth everything would work out.

There are only a handful of people in this world, who like me, have thought through the consequences of this logic. I think a proportion of that handful are reading this blog! This group constitutes a vanishingly small percentage of the world population. Either we are complete fools or there is mass delusion at work. I will unashamedly declare I am no fool. Yet I see no way to combat the delusion. The promise of endlessly increasing wealth is just too seductive for people. They are either too stupid, or too ignorant of how the universe works to work out the results. They are blind to the reality of overshoot and assured collapse for the simple reason that those are scary thoughts whereas growth of the economy promises comfort and a good life.

My claim about stupidity rests on evidence, at least from the United States, in several critical situations. Consider that according to a recent Pew Research poll, one in three Americans believe in special creation of humans. Of the two thirds who acknowledge the theory of evolution, about half of them believe that evolution has been guided by a god so as to produce humans. Of the final third (according to a different survey) more than two thirds of them believe humans are special, exceptional, and not subject to the same laws of nature as animals in general. I suspect that a large measure of these “beliefs” is grounded in pure ignorance. The vast majority of people have a cartoonish version of evolution knocking around in their brains. They really don’t grasp the process so much as have a vision of an old phylogenetic tree from a 1960’s textbook representing the emergences of clades from a common source. They have very little grasp over the ins-and-outs of genetics (and epigenetics), development, phenotype variations, or natural selection. They may know some of the terms, but have no idea at all what they mean, or how it all fits together. They are stupid because it seems to never occur to them that science has made some progress over the last fifty years and there is quite a lot of information available to them if they would simply take a look.

As another example of the stupidity/ignorance factors bollixing up the works, consider the governance of countries and states. Since the US is such a prominent player on the world stage I will use it as an example.

Perhaps a good starting point is the increasing polarity between the two major ideologies motivating the political process. The differences between the two major parties have never been more stark or more damaging. The conservatives (and I lump in libertarians in this bundle) are bent on the extremes of austerity and will do anything to push their agenda (the “Tea Party” being the most extreme). Ironically they are playing into the hands of the real powers in the conservative pole, the wealthy who see government intrusion and taxes as robbing them of their ill-begotten fortunes. Selfishness and greed have taken over at that end and if anybody can be blamed for forcing a class war it should be them.

Progressives are no better in the sense that they are motivated by a blind belief in progress of the human condition and equate that with economic (materialist) growth. They too are greedy but have some sense that the increases in wealth should be shared equitably somehow. You might consider that they have the moral high ground, but that would be mistaken. In their efforts to force progressive policies, e.g. government expansion ala John Maynard Keynes’ liberalism, they continue to clamor for more. But you see, they have no way to pay back the debt. Their steadfast belief in economic growth is based on that being the only long-term remedy for short-term debt financing. And they are totally ignorant of the biophysical reality of economics being based, ultimately, on energy flow. They are just as wrong headed and dangerous in their own way, as are the conservatives.

The political process has become frenetic, and attracts some of the most dangerous thinking people imaginable. Their extreme views attract a “base” of voters who are themselves feeling threatened by forces they cannot possibly understand but who are willing to believe it is the other side. Then there are those who are willing to believe that the American way of life is being threatened by forces both without and within. They see “their” America changing in ways they cannot comprehend. So they vote for extremists on either side.

And when those people get to Congress they do the only thing they know how to do — make stupid noises. This has been the least “productive” congress in history. Given what an aggregate of fools we’ve sent to congress, perhaps it is just as well that they haven’t produced a raft of legislation we’d all regret.

Unfortunately Congress is not the only dysfunctional branch of the federal government. I’ve made no bones about my deep disappointment in Barrack Obama. His apparent beholdeness to the financial powers on Wall Street has made him a dupe of the very forces that are destroying the country through complete ignorance of what makes wealth in the first place. The Jamie Dimonds of this world have gone into complete la-la land where you can create wealth (paper) out of nothing more than speculation; and you pay yourself a hefty bonus for getting those numbers captured on the balance sheet! The pity is that Obama, a lawyer, has not got the slightest understanding of how the world actually works (and I mean in the physical sense, of course). His beliefs about what should be done come from a dangerous theory about how humans are exceptional and we can create whatever reality we want if we simply can agree on how to do it. Talk about delusions.

And then look at the Supreme Court. When judgments are based on ideology (especially when those ideologies are dangerous) what do you get? Justice? The judgment on the Citizens United case, and the subsequent increase in the corporate oligarchy, is a clear case in point. This is stupidity incarnate.

And it isn’t just the federal government that is broken. Ideological polarization has infected state politics as well (see: Dan Balz’s article in the Washington Post). The phenomenon is a trend toward greater polarization without any seeming counter force in the wings to bring some kind of balance back into politics and governance. The bottom line is that we the people have screwed ourselves. We were stupid enough to send stupid people into government and we are getting stupid behavior from them. Think about it. Shutting down the federal government as a ploy to get rid of Obamacare! It doesn’t get any dumber than that.

As a final example of stupidity all across the board, consider the continuing debate over the reality of global warming and climate change. Why, indeed, is there a debate at all. If those who acknowledge the anthropogenic warming are serious why haven’t they taken substantive action rather than concern themselves with convincing the other side or shuffling their feet at conferences where they waste time discussing the problem. Those that don’t acknowledge it have shown themselves to be terribly stupid and ignorant. Rejecting the science just because it shows that their deeply held ideology is flawed rather than changing their minds about that ideology is typical of foolishness. A quick glance at comments made on the HuffingtonPost about this article shows that stupidity still abounds. Throughout the last several years the reports have been demonstrating that the situation is worse than the first models had suggested. The positive feedback loops involving methane emissions due to warming ocean and tundra promise to produce catastrophic warming. Now, it seems, we might also see lessened cloud cover that will further reduce the albedo of the planet, leading to more penetration of light and more warming. Yet, the governments can only talk about baby steps toward reducing carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels. They can’t even speak to the real dangers that are now looking inevitable. They are powerless to act. They don’t know what to do so they remain silent except for the minor lip service they pay to “green”.

Where We Came From

Once, long ago, it seemed there was an abundance of energy and physical resources for all of humanity. We were learning how to invent new ways to extract resources, to mold them to our liking, and to trade our goods and services with one another so as to enjoy many amenities of modern life. Adam Smith’s invisible hand worked miracles. And it all seemed so right given that we recognized ourselves as a very special kind of creature on this planet. It was our god-given right to exploit anything and everything for our benefit.

In some ways, of course, this was true. No other beast could do what we could do. And there really was an abundance of natural resources for the taking. The water and air were pure. What could possibly go wrong?

The answer is unfettered growth; of population and resource consumption through increasing technological skills. In our ignorant enthusiasm and blind faith in our own cleverness we simply didn’t know when to put the brakes on so as to achieve a stable steady state interaction with our Ecos. We learned to be greedy and thought nothing of it because it never occurred to us that there might be a limit. And speaking of limits, even when earnest scientists pointed out the limits back in the 1970s (or go back further to Malthus) no one wanted to listen. It is simply too much fun to get richer and have lots more toys, bigger houses, etc.

In a way, though, it is hard to blame us in the sense of our being willfully destructive. For starters we did come from complete ignorance about how the biophysical world works. And the building up of sufficient knowledge to begin to understand the problems associated with unfettered growth took time. In a way, even though the “knowledge” exists today, it is broken up into discrete disciplinary packages and distributed over multiple disciplines, many of whom don’t talk to one another. It is hard to get an integrated view when you are highly knowledgeable about one small corner of reality but ignorant of so much else. Thank our educational system and its subservience to progress and profits for that. Many more people COULD understand more about the integrated nature of the world than actually do today but for how we “train” people to think in narrow (and non-inquisitive) ways.

Evolutionarily humans passed a threshold of consciousness that gave us language, complex tool making, and general ability to manipulate abstract representations in our minds and in artifactual form. That crossing of the mental Rubicon set us on a conquest of our environment — changing it to fit our desires. Unfortunately it was just a first tentative step in the direction of higher sentience. Part of that crossing involved a larger, stronger role for intuition-based guidance of decisions being processed by somewhat more rational intelligence. Apes in general had evolved a capacity to work out complex relations in their heads. Our brand of intelligence was not much more than just an elaboration of that in both the social and technological realms. But what didn’t get very far was the evolution of the basis for intuitive thinking, what I have called “sapience.” Sapience is grounded in brain circuits in the prefrontal cortex that greatly elaborate the planning and strategic control of our thinking (the activities in the rest of the brain). In its role of expanding the brain capacity for acquiring and managing tacit, veridical knowledge it is the basis of what we call wisdom. Simply put, wisdom is the capacity to not think foolishly, to proceed with caution in new territory, to grasp the moral aspects of sociality. Homo sapiens got just enough sapience to be able to recognize it, but not enough to fully appreciate its purpose. Hence we foolishly raced into technological advancements that had complex and too often harmful consequences.

Ignorance and lack of adequate sapience coupled with cleverness and unfettered greed (the pathological increase in desire to acquire resources to support biological purposes) is basically what has brought us to this situation we are in. The new year is not so much a transition from running up to falling down — I think we are already in the fall, but just haven’t broadly recognized it yet. Nevertheless, we can view the coming year as prelude to the future of humanity. I expect there to be many more signposts along the way to, first, collapse of global civilization, and then to the evolutionary bottleneck event I be live, strongly, will follow.

Where Do We Go From Here?

As the old saying goes: to hell conveyed in a handbasket.

In spite of the US and other government claims that economies are on the mend, the data being cited is suspicious at best and downright problematic. The new jobless claims rate has been falling! Hooray! Its just as well to get those long-term unemployed folk off the rolls by them giving up looking for work. Corporations are reporting reasonable profits. Hooray! When you don’t have to pay workers what they were demanding in order to live the American dream, your costs go down. The stock market is up. Hooray! When the Fed pours faux money into the markets and keeps interest rates at or near zero, the investor class has to do something with their gift wealth.

Meanwhile the income disparity data tell a completely different story for the majority of Americans (and the same trends are developing in other OECD countries). The reason a local-scale “sharing” economy is starting to take shape is very simple. People have much less and have much lower incomes. They are re-learning how to cooperate with neighbors to produce value that they cannot acquire simply from having an income and buying it.

Over the last years we have been pummeled by news of an energy revolution in the US. Unconventional sources of oil and natural gas (shale deposits from which oil and gas can be extracted using rock fracturing technology) have been exploited and the first production volumes made it look as if America would have bountiful oil and gas for the next century at least. There is just one hitch. It turns out that the production rates initially reported have been unsustainable. The number of exploitable sites (sweet spots) appears far fewer than original reserve estimates had given. The clothes have come off the emperor but the general public, and the government officials still believe the emperor still wears magical clothing. They want to believe. They have to believe.

The reports I have been following suggest that 2014 will be the year that a lot more people are going to see the emperor is naked. There will still be heavy production simply because of the number of wells that have been drilled. We will still get a fair amount of oil from Canadian tar sands as long as the price of oil stays about roughly $90 a barrel. But the profit margins on fracked oil and gas are coming down fast. Both industries are now relying of increasing debt financing to keep operations going and that is going to run out soon. At what point will they simply pull out of production? Econ 101 teaches us that lower production will interact with demand to drive prices up. Then at what price will people still be able to function in daily life? Several economists have already pointed out that the run up of energy prices historically have been the prime triggers causing recessions. The 2009 recession is one of the best examples. People stop buying stuff when they are squeezed in terms of basic costs of living (food, energy, clothing, housing) all of which have been on a steady rise (ignoring the government’s “core inflation rate” numbers which actually ignore true CORE costs!) Consumers don’t buy goods and services – Economy goes down; pretty simple actually.

This year is likely to see continuing squeezes on energy costs for everyone. As I have pointed out on several past blogs, energy costs percolate through everything in the economy. Energy requirements start at raw material extraction and run through to even the energy needed by household just to CONSUME products! Energy is the only real currency of the economy. Start lowering the energy flow and you start contracting the economy. And all of this talk about decoupling the economy from energy (lowering so-called energy intensity) is plain nonsense. Talk of an information or service economy not needing the same amount of energy is just stupid wishing. You can’t eat information. You can’t live in a service. Sometimes I wonder what people (economists and politicians) have to tell themselves to make them believe this kind of hogwash. Denial and self-deceit are the predominating psychology of our times.

The obvious end, collapse recognized by the masses, will not likely come in 2014, at least in the OECD countries. I think it is already in progress in the MENA region and extends into mid Africa. We will likely see more deterioration in Russia and the former Soviet countries. The PIIGS are in a temporary stasis thanks to the EU’s largesse, but when they fail to pay back their debts again, that will fall apart rapidly. Brazil is a case study for the western hemisphere – Mexico and other Latin American countries to follow.

Collapse won’t come everywhere at once. It will be sporadic, episodic, and chaotic. You will recognize it if you are in it and cannot figure out where to get food or how to pay your heating bills. You will not recognize it if you continue to assume that is just some temporary phenomenon happening to a non-exceptional part of the world. But it is underway globally nevertheless. Without a massive, and I do mean spectacularly massive, infusion of energy resources there is simply no other conclusion. What will make this collapse so painful is the confounding effects of climate change and continuing, worsening extreme weather events all over the world. It takes considerable energy to construct adaptations to climate change. We don’t got it!

The Politics and Governance of 2014

In the United States we are already gearing up for the presidential elections of 2016! We still have the Nov. 2014 congressional elections to get through. The political turmoil at the end of 2013 is unprecedented. Money has already been flowing to influence elections. Are enough people in the electorate so disgusted with the Tea Party wing’s absolutely stupid tactics (non-strategic, just reactive) so that they kick some of them out? Will the Democrats take a majority in the House, or will the Republicans capture the Senate? Everything is up for grabs. And nobody is stepping up to provide meaningful leadership. Has Obama positioned the Democrats who have supported Obamacare for defeat? The Chinese curse, “may you live in interesting times,” comes to mind when I contemplate the idiocy we are about to witness in American politics.

Given the current attitudes and moods of those in government (executive, legislative, and judicial branches all) for both federal and state, I think we will see a steady decline in rationality in governance in 2014. Greater polarization is just about guaranteed. And that means more gridlock in legislation. It will be interesting to see if Obama carries through with his promise to use the EPA to regulate CO2 emissions what the House Republicans will do. &ldqou;We’ll show him. We’ll shut down the government again!”

The state of affairs in the US have gotten really unbelievably bad over the last several decades. But they are equally bad or worse in so many other countries around the world. Where is the world are things going right? There still seems to be some stability in Northern European countries, but there is a specter over the land there as well. Unfettered immigration, especially from the MENA region, is starting to tear the seams of societies there. I look for more signs of destabilization, especially with the increasing costs of heating fuels next winter.

More Arab springs? Oh right, those are now being recognized as resource restriction-based revolutions. People don’t care what their governing ideology might be as long as they have access to affordable food, water, shelter, and energy. Drive those prices up further and see how long the Egyptian military stays in power without a major and bloody revolution. But then I suspect revolutions of that sort are going become commonplace over the next several years. Regardless of the stated motivation (democracy or the adoption of Sharia law) the underlying cause will be the same; people are getting poorer and are suffering while a few oligarchs are living high on the hog. That is an ages-old formula for revolution. You would think the elites would learn something from history. And, by the way, Jamie Dimon, et al, don’t be thinking it can’t happen here. Your federal government is becoming so ineffectual that they will not be there to protect you for long. And you have pissed off an awful lot of people. I’m not threatening you, I’m simply reminding you of history.

At the end of a missive of horror, one is expected to exhort all to change their ways to avoid the calamity. Or one is expected to offer a ray of hope. But I will fail those expectations. There is no hope for salvation for civilization. Collapse has to happen. We absolutely need to reset the system (go back to DOS let alone Windows 3.1!) to a simpler and paradoxically a more humanistic social arrangement (for new readers my past blogs explain this at length).

So in spite of the media hype you may be hearing right now about how the economy is improving, look for 2014 to bring yet more misery to millions more. Expect turmoil to gain momentum globally. And expect strife to overtake governments in all regions of the globe. Look for signs of true increases in net energy flow. You’ll be disappointed. Look instead for sudden realization that the oil boom in North Dakota (for example) is a sham and that the money to keep it going is coming from an elaborate Ponzi scheme. You’ll see the truth.

Other than that, have a happy new year.

The Future of Evolution?

Off the keyboard of George Mobus

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Published on Question Everything on November 28, 2013


Discuss this article at the Science & Technology Table inside the Diner

The Major Transitions in Evolution

This last year, having completed work on the systems science textbook, I have immersed myself in the emerging and growing literature on this subject. Evolution as used here refers to the universal dynamic of change, specifically the increase in levels of organization and complexity1 over time (McIntosh, 2012; Morowitz, 2004). I devoted an entire chapter to the phenomena of auto-organization and emergence as underlying the process of evolution involving selection, descent with modification, competition, and cooperation. The latter was covered in the following chapter (the two chapters form a unit section titled Evolution). My co-author and I sought to present the concepts in the most general forms possible, as applicable to all levels of organization in the universe. The reason is that there is emerging a general understanding that evolution is much more than just the neo-Darwinian biological paradigm that has dominated thinking and investigations for the past hundred years or so. The theories of evolution have been evolving! One of the most exciting discoveries (still somewhat tentative but gaining evidence) contributing to this evolving understanding is that evolution itself has been evolving! That is, as new levels of organization emerge, the mechanisms of evolution within the new level seem to be accelerated compared with what came before. For example, I have already written about the new thinking about evolvability and how it may have played a role in the survivability of mammals and birds after the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg, formerly the K-T) mass extinction event. Over the past several decades considerable work has shown that evolution in all its forms is far more complex, subtle, and operates in levels of organization just as the physical universe is evolving into more complex, subtle, and leveled organization due to evolution. The philosophical implications are deep.

The emergence of higher levels of organization is now recognized as a sequence of transitions that occurred as a result of increasing complexity within the Universe. That means that as the complexity at any one level of organization reached a critical point in complexity of structures and functions (e.g. when proteins and nucleotide polymers were sufficiently large and interacted in autocatalytic cycles and were associated with bi-layer fatty acid complexes — membranes) many of these structures/functions combined to create new super-structures with new super-functions that, in effect, created a whole new level of organization (formation of protocells). Figure 1 shows a summary of the major transitions where higher complexity emerged from lower levels in the hierarchy (Calcott & Sterelny, 2011; Maynard Smith & Szathmáry, 1995).



Figure 1. A summary of the major transitions leading to levels of organization in the evolution of the Universe. The presumptive “Big Bang” is thought to be the origin of ordinary mass and energy. Nucleons evolved through the interactions of gravity and nuclear fusion processes in supernovae explosions. Once the Universe cooled sufficiently for stable atoms to interact within nebular clouds and in the form of formed mass bodies such as planets (like the Earth) chemical reactions led to a large variety of molecules and crystalline structures. The combinations of atoms created more complex structures that could then further interact in a pre-biological evolution of precursors for life.


At each level in this summary we see that the complexity of structures that auto-organize increases as we go up the hierarchy. For a more complete explanation of the process of auto-organization, emergence, and evolution of complexity, please see my working paper, “Does Evolution Have a Trajectory?” Here I am more interested in what that trajectory looks like, standing back and looking at the whole of the history of the Universe.

Figure 1 illustrates what we mean by levels of organization and the blue dashed lines represent the transitions from a lower level to the next higher level. For example pre-biotic chemical evolution involved the generation of the major molecular constituents of life from non-organic sources. The origin of life problem is far from solved in detail, but the broad outlines of what compounds needed to be synthesized in advance of protocell organization is understood well enough to be confident in saying that the pre-life conditions could create a milieu in which further auto-organization of those component parts led to protocells with heritable, stable genetic material and the triggering of neo-Darwinian evolutionary mechanism. The latter increased the rate of increase in complexity above what had been the case in all time before (see Figure 2 below). And eventually, with the emergence of chromosomes and stable energy-gradient consuming metabolisms, true cells (e.g. eubacteria) organized and set off a new level of evolution.

Notice a few interesting dynamics indicated in Figure 1. The obvious (red arrow pointing upward) is the increase in complexity with the increase in levels of organization. But there are two other very intriguing dynamics we should note. The first (green arrow pointing up) starting in biological evolution continues upward. This is to recognize that the emergence of social evolution (cooperation among biological entities to give rise to higher organisms) did not actually bring biological evolution to a halt. Biological evolution, however, is seen as halting any chance for pre-biotic developments. The reason given is that bacteria, especially, would instantly consume any non-organic but carbon-based molecules that might form by accident. So the chance that a second or third pre-biology could get a hold is essentially nonexistent. This is similar to the slowdown and cessation of nucleonic evolution due to the limits of energies needed to fuse ever more complex nuclei. The depletion of lighter weight elements in making heavier elements simply acted as a negative feedback to bring further evolution to a halt.

Social emergences and evolutions (e.g. endosymbiosis giving rise to eukaryotes, colony cell specializations giving rise to multicellular forms, and higher forms of social organizations) did not halt biological evolution, but instead enhanced it (Bourke, 2011). But then we get to cultural evolution, and in particular that of human cultures, which especially includes science and technology. Suddenly we see a re-triggering of lower level evolution due to human intervention. We have generated nuclei we don’t (or haven’t) find in nature. We have created chemical compounds impossible to auto-synthesize in nature. We are on the verge of creating artificially constructed protocells and even cells. We have cloned all kinds of creatures that would not have happened in natural selection. We have created chimeras from multiple species. It seems as if humans and their scientific cultures have restarted the lower levels of the complexity hierarchy and we have yet to see what may come of further evolution taking place in those levels. Most people look with great horror on this development, claiming we are creating monsters that will destroy us. They may be right. But there is another (non-humanistic, but perhaps more objective) way to look at it. We are simply unwitting agents in the Universe’s once-more increase in the rate of evolution of complexity. We are the Universe’s way to increase its own evolvability. We, as a species, may be victims of this transition. But the Universe as a whole may actually achieve a whole new level of organization as a result.

Figure 2 is a very rough approximation of the rate of increase in complexity as a result of Universal evolution. It looks exponential. A central question raised by this view would be, how much more complexity is possible? The answer may lie in realizing that the perspective shown in Figure 2 is from us residing on this planet. Change the scale, by stretching the time line out many more billion years into the future and the complexity measure up by many orders of magnitude and the steep rise we see from Earth might just look like a slower sloping exponential (still). In other words, we can’t let our earth-bound and species-centric bias influence our perspective on what evolution is really all about.If we can help it.



Figure 2. Overall complexity of the Universe appears to have grown at an exponential rate (albeit very small exponent). This is a very rough graph that shows how levels of organization emerged and the evolution of complexity then appears to have greatly increased. Other authors have suggested that the graph should depict a step function as the emergence phase might have been rapid and the evolution phase slower.


Cultural Evolution

Auto-organization, the emergence of new levels organization, and the evolution of structure and function with those levels depends entirely on the flow of energy. Energy flowing from a high potential source of the right kind of kinetic form to a low potential source powers the processes and their adaptation (maintenance of function in spite of environmental variations) and evolution (changes in form and function to maintain continuity into the future) over time and space. The sun has been the main source of high powered energy flows in the form of electromagnetic radiation (light). Early life may have used less powerful chemical potential gradients to extract energy but once photosynthesis was discovered the power of light was exploited to synthesize new structures and perform new functions (of course life based on chemical energy sources can still be found today, for example at thermal vents in the deep ocean). The evolution of life has since largely been driven by the steady flow of energy to the earth from the sun and the eventual degradation of the energy to waste heat due to the many work transformations done by the biosphere.

Life evolved us. We and our late progenitors found new ways to raise the level of organization above that of life itself. Through the evolution of our large brains we became capable of invention of artifacts that allowed us to exploit sources of solar energy other than food. We gave rise to a new complexity — humans and artifacts that would then evolve together, that is co evolve. The artifacts increased human access to high powered energy flows which then allowed humans to gain greater ecological fitness in a much higher number of environments. Even though some people think evolution of our biology has ceased with our ascension to the top of the food chain and our technological ability to keep genetically deficient individuals alive prosthetically (e.g. glasses), in fact we are not the exact same species that emerged from Africa some 60-65 thousand years ago. Racial differences attest to the on-going force of selection for traits commensurate with different environments. This cannot be denied. So our culture(s) which made dispersion across the planet feasible has recursively acted on us to push biological evolution, albeit at a normal pace for biological evolution, further along.

On the other hand, culture has evolved at an exponential rate due to the continuing discovery of higher and higher potential energy gradients. We cannot eat hydro power, or fire, or explosions. These forms of energy conversion from potential to kinetic could not feed directly into our biological bodies to drive some kind of super-biological evolution. But they can be exploited in machines that we invented as we explored what possible ways we could exploit water, wind, animals, tree, coal, oil, and nuclear fission. These high power energies can effect our minds, inspire our inventiveness, and as a result we act as the selective forces that play the evolution of culture. With enough excess energy available our artifacts need not be only functional (practical) but esthetic as well. Indeed a whole category of artifacts are only meant for esthetics. Culture evolved rapidly because of the availability of energy and the coupling between biology and artifacts through the human mind.

This raises an unpleasant thought. If evolution depends2 of increasing availability of higher power then we face a very unusual condition in the not-so-far-off future. Fossil fuels being the main source of power now (over 80% globally) and finite in abundance are starting to be harder to extract as a result of their depletion. This is reflected in the rising costs of extraction and decreasing marginal returns on investments and production. Eventually, and I suspect within the next decade, the cost-benefit ratio for fossil fuels will simply go to one (1) with the result that the energy flows to our culture (and hence to our biomass maintenance) will fall to zero from these sources. Cultural evolution will slow to a halt and afterward go into devolution (in the best case scenario).

Of course, humans will not react well to this decline of what they had come to know as “progress.” Their reactions will more likely cause a catastrophic decline of the further coevolution of mankind-cultures leaving whatever is left of the former with naught but the stone tools of our fore bearers of some fifteen thousand years ago.

At first glance this would seem to go against the picture of evolution producing ever higher levels of organization in these major transitions. From our perspective this looks like an end of evolution rather than a transition to higher evolution. But that is just from our perspective. Had the dinosaurs been at all sentient and knew something about progress they would have surely thought their extinctions would have been an end to the emergence of higher levels of organization. After all they were the norm. To their way of thinking they probably could not imagine the world going on without them. Wouldn’t progress have simply meant more diversity in dinosaur species?

But while a power reset to a lower value will degrade cultural evolution in its current form, it does not follow that all of humanity is lost. The bulk of human biomass does depend on technology to keep it alive. Without modern agricultural industry, more humans will go hungry and starve to death. Others will act violently to save themselves as best they can. However it is not a given that all human life will come to an end. There is some non-zero likelihood that some humans will survive and figure out how to maintain in spite of the collapse of societies and the radical climate changes that are ahead. Human beings are, after all, enormously adaptive. And all that is needed to provide the future basis of continuing biological and “mental” evolution of the genus Homo is a high capacity to adapt.

An Impending Transition

When considering some of the conditions prevailing prior to previous transitions it is intriguing to realize that most were in response to heavy stresses acting on components that would eventually combine to create the new structures at a new level of organization. In other words, the emergence of a new level, and the mark of a transition, were a result of strong selection against components but for combinations that were more adaptive than any one component by itself. Synergy is the result of components acting cooperatively to accomplish what no one, or even the aggregate of components, could do alone. Though much research must be done to validate this, a picture has been developing of the fortuitous symbiotic relations that developed between prokaryotic cells that gave rise to the eukaryotic forms. The process has been termed “endosymbiosis.” There is a suggestion that larger prokaryotes ate smaller ones but failed to digest them and they stuck around, having found a suitable safe haven. We don’t know exactly what the conditions were for some large prokaryote to engulf, say the precursors of mitochondria or chloroplasts (plastids that retain a significant working genome of their own), but we do know that relations between all of those precursors could have developed gradually and probably proceeded through a colony-like association before actual internalization. Mitochondria precursors, for example, might have supplied large eubacteria colonies with ATP supplements to their chemoenergy sources. Also what we know is that mutualistic relations develop between species when there is an advantage to cooperate and that such an advantage increases the fitness of both. And, finally, we know that such relations will be selected for even when there is negative selection operating on the individual members of one or the other species.

The growing abundance of free oxygen in the atmosphere and hydrosphere was just such a dramatic and increasing selective force. Respiration requires oxygen to “slow burn” carbohydrates to release energy packets able to supply synthesis machinery (e.g. ribosomes). Oxygen also kills anaerobic bacteria quite nicely so selection for oxygen tolerance was quite strong. It would have been greatly increased by the inclusion of a nice little bug that could fix oxygen to carbon and hydrogen while producing wonderful little batteries for use by other organelle (also likely prokaryote derived).

The transitions seem always to involve the evolution of sociality3. The new level of organization always involves the new kinds of interactions between socialized new forms. Molecules can undergo chemistries that atoms by themselves are incapable of. For example, protein catalysts (enzymes) are able to facilitate so many difficult reactions (with large energy hurdles) that no single atom, or even small molecules, could manage. The chain of amino acids in an enzyme cooperate by forming complex shapes that have kinetic properties suited to perform their collectivized function.

Even the origins of human sociality on the plains of Africa seems to have been in response to strong selection forces. Humans gave up claws and jaws in favor of posture and voice. They were no match for the carnivores of the environment. They were not even built well for being carnivores. They needed to evolve social mechanisms to support acting as a unit for hunting, gathering, protection, etc. The stresses of climate and competition acted to select those groups of humans (tribes) that best cooperated within the group. They were in competition not only with other species, but with conspecific tribes as well. The ones that did the best job of intra-group cooperation won the competition.

The reduction in the power available to human culture may mean an end to the kind of culture we have become used to. But it does not mean an end to human evolution. As long as there is sunlight some humans can and will survive, even thrive. But the stresses of survival in the brave new world could easily mean that the evolution of a new, greater level of socialization is in the offing. Current human culture represents what amounts to the first baby steps toward the kind of eusociality previously accorded to species like ants and naked mole rats. Our role in this transition to a sentient form of eusociality is merely as a transient species having some of the characteristics of both a semi-social (e.g. other apes) and a eusocial species. The latter is evidenced in the fact that we can, under nominal conditions, form strong cooperative associations even with strangers to accomplish some common goal. Evidence of the former is the level of cutthroat competition, selfishness with profits, and greed that are displayed by too many of our kind today. This is our ancestral reptilian brain at work. The cooperativeness that we display in our near eusociality is the result of our neocortex and particularly the large prefrontal cortex (orchestrated by the patch right behind the eyebrows called Brodmann area 10). We are the transition.

Humanity finds itself in the same kind of predicament early life (anaerobic bacteria) faced when those devilish little blue-green algae (actually cyanobacteria) started defecating oxygen! The impending stresses from reducing power flows and increasing climate changes promise to put us in dire need. We have to evolve or go extinct.

A Blessed Bottleneck

Transition in the biosphere is coming. There is no way to avoid it. There will be another great die-off and many species will exit the stage of life. We could be one of them. But I honestly don’t think we will. Rather I think the course of evolution already laid, its trajectory, will not be thwarted entirely. Our culture is not the defining property of our biological species, our capacity to build a culture based on cooperation is, however. The extent and kind of culture that humans can build will, of course, depend on the power available to them, but it is the act and process of building some culture that is the essence of our biology.

Regardless of who gets through the bottleneck event (roughians or sapients) I’m not sure it will make a difference. The forces that will drive the evolution of future species of Homo, I conjecture, will favor greater cooperation not less. Furthermore, the brain structural seeds of circuits that will support cooperativity are already sown. As future generations experience mutations that improve those circuits they will differentially succeed in the competition with poor cooperators by building adaptive cultures that can deal with the contingencies of the future.

The history of universal evolution is one of transitions to greater cooperativity (sociality) reacting to increases in stresses at lower levels. Think of it like what Per Bak calls self-organized criticality. A pressure builds up in a non-linear complex system. Mostly small evolutionary events occur. Every once in a while a middle sized event (e.g. origin of a new genera or loss of an old one) occurs. And on very rare occasions a really large event, a transition event, takes place, and nothing is the same afterward. I think this is where we are headed.

Do not weep for humanity friends. We are just players in a universal drama. It is a story of redemption even if the protagonist dies. Sentience will continue up the curve in Figure 2 for a ways more. It can happen not by increasing cultural complexity per se, but by raising the social complexity bar. After the transition (say ten thousand generations from now!) the cultural + social complexity can once again increase. Power alone is not the only thing needed for post-transition complexity. Mind, sentience, cleverness mediated by sapience is the key. Eusapient beings in that distant future may discover new sources of power to drive artifact complexity once again. But they will not be lured into creating complexity for its own sake (novelty and convenience). Nor will they be so foolish as their predecessors (us) to waste their environment in pursuit of that kind of complexity.

How Could Anyone Know What Will Come?

No one does, of course. I am speculating, to be certain. But consider this. The major patterns of universal evolution are becoming clear to us. Those patterns repeat themselves in different forms, but systemically they are the same. Competition drives inter-specific and conspecific incremental evolution. Cooperation emerges in response to the build up of competition-based and environmental forces (like climate). I have no idea what the details might look like, but I think I can see a broad picture emerging that gives me considerable hope. And joy. Humans in our current form will absolutely go extinct eventually. But, if I am right, it will be the death of a species giving birth to a new species that is more fit in the context of the planet as a whole system. It would be sad indeed if the extinction of Homo sapiens was the end of sentience on this planet, given the potential for that sentience to rise above mere sapiens‘ cleverness. It is certainly one of the outcomes possible but it would seem to me to have been such a waste of time and resources. Evolution has a history of purchasing new opportunities on the expenditures of prior species, genera, and higher. It has inexorably led to greater information/knowledge processing and complexity of organisms throughout its history. Why would it not be so in the future?

Indeed, as long as the sun produces an energy flow commensurate with life (light energy) there is still time for evolution to produce a much more highly capable sentience than are we. There is no law of nature to prevent it. We won’t be able to know what that sentience looks like (humanoid presumably). But I think we can take comfort in knowing that if it exists it will be the new and better us.


Bourke, Andrew F.G. (2011). Principles of Social Evolution, Oxford University Press, New York.

Calcott, Brett & Sterelny, Kim (2011). The Major Transitions in Evolution Revisited (Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology), The MIT Press, Cambridge MA.

Maynard Smith, John & Szathmáry, Eörs (1995). The Major Transitions in Evolution, Oxford University Press,

McIntosh, Steve (2012). Evolution’s Purpose: An Integral Interpretation of the Scientific Story of Our Origins, SelectBooks, Inc.

Morowitz, Harold J. (2004). The Emergence of Everything: How the World Became Complex, Oxford University Press, NY.

Sawyer, R.Kieth (2005). Social Emergence: Societies As Complex Systems,Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK.

Simon, Herbert (1996). The Sciences of the Artificial, 3rd ed. MIT Press, Cambridge MA.


1. Complexity as used here refers to an indexed value based on the depth of the hierarchy, after Herbert Simon (1996). As components form stable complexes at lower levels, new interactions between those complexes emerge and new laws of organization take shape. This forms a hierarchy of realized complexity. The depth of the hierarchy (as shown in Figure 1) provides a measure of complexity.

2. And here I include the effects of population growth as part of the equation of evolution because larger populations support a possibly higher variability in genetics and ideas, thus the fitness of mankind plus culture has to lead to higher reproductive success for all!

3. Sociality is the term being applied to all forms of cooperation taking place at all levels of organization in the complexity hierarchy. Atoms are social in combining to make molecules. Molecules are social in combining by various bond forms to create complex shapes (like enzymes). Cells are social when the communicate with one another and form tissues, and so on.

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  • Transition Voice

The Great Pause Week 9: México's Seppuku"The survival of life on earth depends on México’s dark fossil sunlight never seeing the light [...]

"We are one large solar flare, one errant asteroid, one mutant gene, or one nuclear winter away [...]

The Great Pause Week 7: Coping with a Nuclear Infection"Emergency preparedness plans are already inadequate, but the prospect of a mandatory mass evac [...]

The Great Pause Week 6: The Green Child"There passed long stretches of beautiful waterfront acreage with hanging Spanish moss, decayin [...]

The Great Pause Week 5 : Is it Over Yet?"The pandemic, as lethal as it has been, is not yet nearly bad enough."Área de Protección [...]

The folks at Windward have been doing great work at living sustainably for many years now.  Part of [...]

 The Daily SUN☼ Building a Better Tomorrow by Sustaining Universal Needs April 3, 2017 Powering Down [...]

Off the keyboard of Bob Montgomery Follow us on Twitter @doomstead666 Friend us on Facebook Publishe [...]

Visit SUN on Facebook Here [...]

What extinction crisis? Believe it or not, there are still climate science deniers out there. And th [...]

My new book, Abolish Oil Now, will talk about why the climate movement has failed and what we can do [...]

A new climate protest movement out of the UK has taken Europe by storm and made governments sit down [...]

The success of Apollo 11 flipped the American public from skeptics to fans. The climate movement nee [...]

Today's movement to abolish fossil fuels can learn from two different paths that the British an [...]

Top Commentariats

  • Our Finite World
  • Economic Undertow

In reply to Tim Groves. I find absolutely nothing to dissagree with about your 10:59 pm comment! [...]

In reply to Dennis L.. " A former NYC bartender, she has left her apartment in Brooklyn to move [...]

In reply to Harry McGibbs. Harry - the major economies are all paying 80% of wages up to a limit. Th [...]

In reply to Gail Tverberg. BAU Lite.... the calm before the Storm [...]

More tales from blue pill land... "The electorate will be a little bit disgruntled", that [...]

Same here! Greetings to all, and thank you Steve. [...]

Really glad to hear from you. Can't wait for the post. [...]

In reply to ellenanderson. Sorry I haven't been writing lately, there is a lot/nothing going on [...]

Hi sp gp Sorry didn't mean to be harsh. I myself go through waves of bitterness and anger (I lo [...]

RE Economics

Going Cashless

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Simplifying the Final Countdown

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Bond Market Collapse and the Banning of Cash

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Do Central Bankers Recognize there is NO GROWTH?

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Singularity of the Dollar

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Kurrency Kollapse: To Print or Not To Print?

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Of Heat Sinks & Debt Sinks: A Thermodynamic View of Money

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Merry Doomy Christmas

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Peak Customers: The Final Liquidation Sale

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