Published on Peak Surfer on February 19, 2017
Discuss this article at the Environment Table inside the Diner
We first latched onto the notion of catastrophic climate change back around 1980 when we were a young attorney taking quixotic cases involving impossible-to-rectify injustices like cancers among atomic veterans, trespass of sacred sites or nuclear waste disposal, and shoving those insults under the noses of attorneys-general, judges and justices to try to get a reaction.
Occasionally we would finesse a surprising win and that helped attract donations to keep the enterprise running and the entertainment value high, attracting more donors, and so it went.
One such case was against the deepwell injection of toxic effluent from the manufacture of pesticides and herbicides by agrochemical companies in Mt. Pleasant, Tennessee. The effluent in question had been extracted from an aquifer and tested by State laboratories where was quickly ranked as the most concentrated poison they had ever pulled from the wild. A single green fluorescent drop killed all the fish in the tank. There were 6 billion gallons injected under Middle Tennessee from 1967 to 1980. It made Love Canal look like the kiddie pool.
As we mustered our arguments to go before state regulators and appellate judges, we were compelled to counter some rather absurd arguments being advanced by the mop-up squads of high-priced attorneys for the companies. They said, “Heckfire, Tennessee has plenty of water,” meaning there was no good reason to protect the nonpotable (mineral-rich) waters of the Knox Aquifer a mile down.
Apart from the fact that the Knox is an artesian source of water for area industries and thereby already protected from “contaminants” whether toxic or not by the federal Safe Drinking Water act, we advanced two principal lines of argument, bringing in expert witnesses and entering scientific studies into the record.
Our first line was population growth. Tennessee was growing and what may seem like a lot of water in 1980 may not be nearly enough in 2080. The second line was climate change.
We argued that global warming was advancing, just as scientists had been consistently predicting for the past hundred or more years, and that it would put pressure on water supplies not just in Tennessee, but across the continent.
At that time science suggested warming in the 20th century of about half a degree Celsius. Those were the good old days. Nonetheless, persuading a country judge that global warming was real and something to be concerned about was no mean feat.
We had to pull out the big guns. We went to our local congressman and got his assistance to troll the federal agencies for useful studies. We holed up in Vanderbilt science library poring over journals and books on climatology. We spoke to some key figures in the field at that time — Stephen Schneider, Susan Solomon, Kerry Emanuel, Edward A. Martell, Mario Molina — and we assembled that advice into legal briefs and memoranda.
The case lingered on for a number of years but by 1985 had been largely resolved by gutsy State regulators, who wrote new rules that essentially prohibited hydrofracking. The companies shut down the injection wells, closed their factories soon after (the phosphate ores that had attracted them in the first place having long since played out and the costs of hauling in by train making the location uneconomical) and moved on. The litigation cost meter ceased running and the death threats stopped. But we were still beset by unshakable malaise.
We had seen the future, and it was different than we had previously imagined. It was not our father’s future.
The materials gathered over the course of ten years were published in our book, Climate in Crisis: The Greenhouse Effect and What We Can Do. The book came out on the heels of two other fine 1989 books that said essentially the same thing: Stephen Schneider’s Global Warming and Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature, all to resounding popular disinterest.
Fast forward a quarter century and we were still very much in a funk about what the future holds. When our granddaughter was born in 2005 we felt very sad for her.
We were still tracking the literature, still going to conferences, still speaking with experts, but until the International Permaculture Conference in Sao Paolo, Brazil in June, 2007 we had not found much to call hope.
It was at the Ecocentro do Cerrado that year that we caught a first fleeting glimpse. Andre Soares and his partners were conducting experiments in recreating terra preta do indio – the Amazonian Dark Earths. They were, not coincidentally, massively sequestering carbon while growing wholesome food.
Just over a year later, in September 2008, the Permaculture International Journal sent us to Newcastle, England to report on "Biochar, Sustainability and Security in a Changing Climate,” the 2d International Conference of the International Biochar Initiative, with over 225 attendees from 31 different countries and over 70 presentations. That, and some intervening trips back to Brazil to visit the archaeological sites near Manaus, provided the source material for our 2010 book, The Biochar Solution: Carbon Farming and Climate Change.
For those readers who might be new to biochar, the Virgin Energy Challenge offers this quick synopsis:
Biochar is a relatively low-tech approach inspired by the terra preta soils found in the Amazon basin. These black, fertile soils were created in pre-Columbian times by indigenous farming cultures. They mixed wood char, crushed bone, and manure into the otherwise relatively infertile Amazonian soil to build crop beds. The wood char, though not a fertilizer per se, served to buffer nutrients from the bone meal and manure. It apparently served as a soil analog of a coral reef. Its porous structure and nutrient buffering surface area created a favorable microenvironment for communities of soil fungi and other organisms that aided soil fertility.
Terra preta soils, once well established, appear to be self-sustaining. So long as crop cover protects them from wind and water erosion, they maintain their high level of soil carbon and productivity long after additions of the materials that built them have stopped. In fact they gradually increase in depth as new material composts. In the Amazon basin, thick terra preta soil beds built as far back as 450 BCE remain productive and highly valued by local farmers to this day.
Terra preta soils were initially thought to be peculiar to the warm, wet environment of the Amazon basin. Research has shown, however, that similar results can be obtained in temperate regions by amending soils with formulations of biochar and other ingredients tailored to local soil and crop conditions. The amount of carbon that can potentially be stored in this manner is huge; the amount currently stored as soil carbon has been estimated as 2,300 GT, nearly three times the 800 GT of carbon now present in the atmosphere. If soil carbon could be increased globally by an average of just 10%, it would sequester enough carbon to return atmospheric CO₂ to pre-industrial levels.
The issue with biochar then is not the amount of carbon it could ultimately sequester in the soil; it’s (surprise!) economics. There’s little doubt that a well designed program of soil building, incorporating use of biochar as an element, would be an effective way to sequester carbon while providing long term economic value to farmers. It would boost crop yields while reducing the amount of fertilizer needed. It would also reduce water runoff and nutrient leaching while improving drought resistance. On the other hand, biochar is costly to produce and distribute in the amounts needed, and it may take decades for the considerable investment in soil quality to pay off financially.
The key to success for biochar will come down to technology for producing it from local resources, and dissemination of knowledge for how to employ in in a broader program of soil building. A sense of the complexities can be found in a document from the International Biochar Initiative: Guidelines on Practical Aspects of Biochar Application to Field Soil in Various Soil Management Systems. The three VEC finalists developing biochar display the diversity of product and business strategies possible for addressing these complexities.
There are a few errors in that account, but they are trifling. Biochar is not a “relatively low-tech” approach, it is about as low-tech as you can get. Some Amazonian deposits, similar to those “as far back as 450 BCE,” are ten times older than that. Most estimates put soil carbon at 2500-2700 PgC, not 2300 PgC. You don’t need to increase carbon content to 10 percent globally, 5 percent would probably do it, but remember: we were at 20-plus % soil carbon before the age of agriculture and most soils are hungry to get that back. Building it back with biochar makes a more permanent repair, not just moving the furniture around, as other Virgin Challenge competitors — BECCS (Biomass Energy Carbon Capture and Storage), direct air capture and holistic grazing — do.
Biochar gave us hope, but it did not, in and of itself, solve the climate crisis. We asked that question at the close of our book — “Can it scale quickly enough?” The answer, from what we have seen at the recent UN climate conferences and the lack of early adoption as the dominant farming paradigm, is — “Probably not.”
The rapid rise of global temperature that began about 1975 continues at a mean rate of about 0.18°C/decade, with the current annual temperature exceeding +1.25°C relative to 1880-1920 and +1.9°C relative to 1780-1880. Dampening effects by the deep oceans and polar ice slow the effects of this change but global temperature has now crossed the mean range of the prior interglacial (Eemian) period, when sea level was several meters above present. The longer temperature remains elevated the more amplifying feedbacks will lead to significantly greater consequences.
While global anthropogenic emissions actually declined in the past decade, there is a lag time for consequences. The rate of climate forcing due to previous human-caused greenhouse gases increased over 20% in the past decade, mainly due to a surge in methane, making it increasingly difficult to achieve targets such as limiting global warming to 1.5°C or reducing atmospheric CO2 below 350 ppm. While a rapid phasedown of fossil fuel emissions must still be accomplished, the Paris Agreement targets now require “negative emissions”, i.e.: extraction of CO2 from the atmosphere.
In a recent Soil Day paper presented to the American Geophysical Society and the Society for Ecological Restoration, Harvard professor Thomas Goreau wrote:
“Already we have overshot the safe level of CO2 for current temperature and sea level by about 40%, and CO2 needs to be reduced rapidly from today’s dangerous levels of 400 parts per million (ppm) to pre-industrial levels of around 260 ppm.”
Goreau, citing the work of John D. Liu and ourselves, provided his prescriptions:
"Current rates of carbon farming at typical current levels would take thousands of years to draw down the dangerous excess CO2, but state of the art methods of soil carbon sequestration could draw it down in as little as decades if the percentage of long lived carbon is raised to as little as about 10%."
Here we note that Dr. Goreau’s arithmetic is much better than the 4 pour 1000 or Holistic Management calculations we criticized last week. Goreau has distinguished labile carbon from “long lived carbon” and not limited land area just to existing farms. He advocates 10 percent rather than 4 tenths of a percent. He continues:
While all soils can, and must, be managed to greatly increase soil carbon there are two critical soil leverage points that will be the most effective to reverse global climate change, namely increasing the two most carbon-rich soils of all, Terra Preta, and wetlands. These are the most effective carbon sinks for very different reasons, Terra Preta because it is 10-50% carbon by weight, composed of biochar, which can last millions of years in the soil. Wetland soils can be up to pure organic matter, because lack of oxygen prevents organic matter decomposition. Wetlands contain half of all soil carbon, and half of that is in marine wetlands, which occupy only about 1% of the Earth’s surface but deposit about half of all the organic matter in the entire ocean. Yet they are often ignored in both terrestrial and marine carbon accounting. Marine wetland soils have more carbon than the atmosphere, but are being rapidly destroyed in the misguided name of “economic development.”
Biochar is what soil scientists call “recalcitrant carbon,” meaning that it does not readily combine with other elements unless high temperature heat or some other catalyst is present. Consequently, as much carbon as can be gleaned from the normal “labile” carbon cycle and turned into recalcitrant carbon can be kept from the atmosphere. We know from the experience of the terra preta soils that it doesn’t just stay out of the atmosphere for a few seasons, it traps carbon in the soils for thousands of years.
Switching to renewable energy will not arrest climate change. None of the schemes that involve planting trees can succeed unless they also include biochar. None of the claims of Allan Savory, Joel Salatin or the Holistic Management movement for mob grazing, or any of the claims related to organic, no-till, animal-drawn carbon farming by Eric Toensmeier, Michael Pollan, Vandana Shiva and others pencil out to reverse climate change unless you include biochar. Even then, the area required for biochar-augmented conversion of land-use, farming and forestry is massive — something like 7-10 Spains per year, and maybe more. Anything less than that and the ship goes down.
When we first grasped this in Brazil in August 2006, it provided our first “ah ha!” moment. But then we concluded it likely can’t scale fast enough, by gradual adoption through word of mouth or a few good books, to prevent Near Term Human Extinction. In October 2007 we called that our "Houston Moment," not in the sense that "Houston we have a problem" but because we were in Houston at an ASPO meeting when it dawned on us — it may already be blown. The death sentence for our species — in the next century if not this one — could have been handed down even before we were born.
The problem is not the science or the efficacy of the solution. The problem is human willingness to change. There also seems to be something called profit that always complicates matters. We will tackle that, and offer some possible ways forward, in our coming posts.
Off the keyboard of George Mobus
Published on Question Everything on August 8, 2014
Discuss this article at the Economics Table inside the Diner
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.
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.
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.
Off the keyboard of George Mobus
Published on Question Everything on January 27. 2014
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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.