Human population overshoot–what went wrong?

There are seven billion people on earth now. I originally thought that the primary reason for the recent human population explosion was that fossil fuels enabled a larger food supply and better medicine, and thus a higher population.

Figure 1. World population from US Census Bureau, overlaid with fossil fuel use (red) by Vaclav Smil from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements, Prospects.

While the addition of fossil fuels is part of the story, after reading Craig Dilworth’s Too Smart for Our Own Good: The Ecological Predicament of Mankind, I realized that there might be another contributing factor. Animals of all types (presumably including humans) have instincts and learned behaviors that prevent population from rising without limit.

Dilworth talks about an experiment in which a few Norway rats were put into a cage of 1,000 square meters and provided plenty of food and water for 28 months. If they had produced as many offspring as theoretically possible, there would have been 50,000 of them at the end of experiment. If they had maxed out at the 0.2 m2 allowed for caged rates in laboratories, there would have been 5,000 of them. What actually happened is that the population stabilized at less than 200.

As I read about the mechanisms for keeping the population of most animals down, it struck me that there seem to be parallels in humans. Dilworth talks about many species being “territorial,” and how aggression among groups is one of the first approaches to keeping population down. When that fails (as with humans’ globalization), social power structures and hierarchies become more important. This seems to happen with humans also:

Paul Buchheit, from DePaul University, revealed, “From 1980 to 2006 the richest 1% of America tripled their after-tax percentage of our nation’s total income, while the bottom 90% have seen their share drop over 20%.” Robert Freeman added, “Between 2002 and 2006, it was even worse: an astounding three-quarters of all the economy’s growth was captured by the top 1%.”

This sounds exactly like the kind of hierarchical behavior observed in the animal kingdom when social species get stressed. If there is not enough to go around, resources that are available are concentrated in the hands of those at the top of the pyramid, marginalizing those at the bottom of the pyramid. If total resources are inadequate,  population at the bottom of the pyramid is reduced, leaving those at the top untouched.

In this post, I discuss some of the issues raised by Dilworth  and the parallels I see with humans. I also add a perspective of hope.

Craig Dilworth’s Theory: Too Smart for our Own Good

I won’t be able to do justice to all of the ideas in this fairly academic 500 page book, but let me try to explain some of Dilworth’s ideas.

Types of Species

Dilworth distinguishes between two types of species:

K-selected species: Species selected for Krowding tolerance. Their members are characterized by large size, slow growth and reproduction, few offspring with low mortality, parental care, relatively constant population size, and existence which is easily jeopardized by a new predation threat. Most mammals are K-selected, as are trees.

r-selected species: Characterized by small size, rapid growth and reproduction, short lives (less than 1 year), numerous offspring with high mortality, little or no parental care, and lack of territoriality, and populations characterized by exponential growth followed by crashes. Insects and annual plants are typical r-selected species.

With these definitions, humans are K-selected. Because humans are K-selected, they theoretically should have a stable population size.

Territoriality and other Mechanisms for Holding Population Down

In K-selected species, territoriality tends to hold down population size by restraining the number of breeding pairs. The territories chosen by instinct are large enough to ensure that populations do not grow to such a size that they undermine their own resource base. Thus, if territoriality is working properly, there is no problem with tragedy of the commons (excessive use of shared resources), because the territory selected by the male for his family group is large enough to feed the family, with much available food left over.

There are really two mechanisms at work in K-selected species: food availability and adequate territory. It really is Liebig’s Law of the Minimum that leads to adequate territory usually being the limiting factor for K-selected species. Liebig observed that if a crop needs several types of inputs (such as nitrogen fertilizer, phosphorus fertilizer, and potassium fertilizer), the crop yield would be determined by the scarcest resource, not by the total amount of resources. Thus, additional nitrogen fertilizer cannot substitute for some other type of fertilizer. In the case of K-selected species, such as primates, there are both food and territory requirements, but the limit on territory is usually reached first.

There are a number of  mechanisms for keeping K-selected populations in balance with the rest of the ecological system. For example,

  • Too high population tends to cause stress and leads to violence against neighboring groups. The winner gets more territory; the losers typically are killed.
  • Infants may be killed, to keep the population in line with resources.
  • Learned behaviors or instincts may limit when mating takes place.
  • High population will tend to attract predators (germs, in the case of humans)
  • If population is too high, hierarchical behavior may appear or increase. Because individuals who do not need resources get a disproportionate share of the total, there is less for those at the bottom of the hierarchy, helping to reduce population size more quickly than if resources are shared equally. Those at the top are spared.

With social animals, altruism becomes important, because the instinctual drives that keep the population in check must not be allowed to operate at too high a level within the family group. Therefore, within the home territory, social instincts tend to over-ride more basic sexual or survival instincts. Groups of the same species often share resources, look after young, and protect injured individuals.

In  most instances, populations with these (and other) checks and balances will tend to remain in “dynamic equilibrium” with the rest of the ecosystem. One exception to this rule is  in “pioneering” situations, when both food and territory increase, or when predators are removed. Human’s use of stored energy (both wood and fossil fuels) is in a way a type of pioneering behavior, because it allowed us to expand our food supply and eliminate predators.

Figure 2. World per capita energy consumption is now at an all-time high, thanks to the increasing use of coal. (Based on energy data from Vaclav Smil's, "Energy Transitions" and BP Statistical Data; population from Angus Maddison)

Humans are also different from other species in that our intelligence has allowed us to substitute learning for at least part of instinctual behavior. This substitution of learning for instinct, together with the use of external energy, seems to have led to over-population.

There are currently 7 billion humans on earth; Colin McEvedy and Richard Jones in Atlas of World Population History estimate that human population would be expected to be in the 70,000 – 1,000,000 range, based on a comparison with gorilla and chimpanzee populations. Clearly human population now far exceeds its expected share of the ecological system, as one among many animal species.

My interpretation of Dilworth’s theory applied to humans

Primitive Societies. Dilworth indicates that internal population checks (including abortion, infanticide, and prolonged abstention from intercourse) were almost universal in primitive societies. If twins were born, often one was put to death. If a second child was born before a mother was able to take care of it, it would be put to death. These population checks were helpful, but did not keep the population level. At least part of the problem was that new territory and food sources kept being added, because of humans’ inventiveness. Humans began using fire about 125,000 years ago, and emigrated out of Africa and settled new lands about 90,000 years ago.

Religions. Religions have played a major role in encouraging altruism within their own groups, with teachings such as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Religions  are also are a way of passing on traditions and building connectedness among members.

Modern religions have not done as well with population control, however. The command, “Be fruitful and multiply” is at counter-purposes with population control. When missionaries are sent to primitive groups who still practice infanticide, this has the effect of raising population. The practice of improving health care without providing free contraceptives and teaching about birth control also tends to raise population.

The “instinct” to fight those of other religions is helpful from a population control point of view, but most readers of this article wouldn’t find it an acceptable way to solve population problems. Unfortunately, if we were to try to parallel population control methods of animal species, death through wars with neighboring countries would need to become acceptable.

Hierarchical behavior. I mentioned that if population control doesn’t come by other means, hierarchical behavior may take over, to solve the problem. Hierarchical behavior was not known among hunter-gatherers, but once humans settled down and started accumulating property for agriculture, hierarchical behavior became more the norm.

Hierarchical behavior has increased recently. Immediate causes of the shift would include such causes as:

  • Greater specialization as processes become more complex. Jobs that are at the top of the hierarchy pay very well.
  • Globalization. Jobs at the bottom of the hierarchy may compete with foreign labor or workers in countries where wages are low.
  • More debt. Debt tends to transfer interest-related payments from those at the bottom of the hierarchy to individuals at the top of the hierarchy.
  • Tax schemes. Modern schemes favor the wealthy and corporations.

Charles Murray recently wrote the book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Murray explores the formation of classes that are different from those American has known in the past. The lower classes are losing many of the stabilizing influences they have had in the past–marriage; opportunity to attend schools with people of all classes; joining religious groups.

I might also note that economics, and the belief in economic growth as a savior for all, has become almost a new religion. If this “religion” is followed, there is little need for other belief systems. Economic influences are not new, however. Trade was started very early, even before the days of Abraham and Isaac in the Old Testament. This tended to break down barriers among groups, reducing the effect of territoriality.

Another source of belief systems is television shows. These seem to portray how family life operates and explain what is truly important (more stuff!).

All of these new influences conflict with our instinctual behaviors to stay with our family groups, and not live lives that deviate too far from what we have known in the past.

Hope for the Future

Dilworth doesn’t see much hope for getting out of our of current predicament well. He talks about the vicious circle principle. A particular lifestyle at some point ceases to provide enough food for a growing population, so we develop a new approach that is not really better–for example, farming instead of hunter-gathering, or applying chemicals for fertilizer instead of waiting for natural cycles to take their course. We end up with more people, but those people are not really better off, and we find ourselves further into overshoot.

I can think of a couple of possible mitigations for our apparently bleak future, or at least our response to it.

1. Higher Power Intervention.

If a person looks at how ecological systems work together, one cannot help but be impressed by how the whole system (except possibly for humans, which are out of synch) works together. Perhaps there is a Higher Power behind all of the religions of the world, who has devised the plan as a whole, and who has a continuing plan for humans. We cannot know this with certainty, but the hope can be helpful for some individuals.

2. Greater Flexibility and Focus on the Present.

I think of a letter I received from “Derek” who has spent considerable time in Kenya.   I put up a letter from him on The Oil Drum in April 2009. He talks about a very different life there.

What I experience there [in Kenya] is a society that does pretty well with VERY little energy, all things considering. This wouldn’t be ‘pretty well’ by any standard of the Western world, though. But survival – and happiness! – are pretty much possible. Oddly, a first-time visitor would think the Masai live quite horribly, but they are very happy people and wouldn’t want to change a thing.

It’s the mindset that makes most Kenyans experience a happiness most Westerners would not consider possible given the realities, as they see and experience them.

In Kenya, we do use electricity (hydro / diesel), if we can. We have constant power cuts. But that’s not the only limit. In fact, the vast majority of us, even the so-called middle-class, build our lives around limits. Limits are the basis for every decision we make, business or otherwise. It is, you could say, a way of life that is happy when it is not done in, and not unhappy if things go wrong.

People there – including myself – would celebrate every day that was a good day. And a good day is one where we got by. I would say, for 95% of Kenyans, life there is very much focused on the hour, and hardly ever on the future.

One secret Derek points out is how this works out, when there is a great mishap, like a child dying.

. . . I have also been witness to a great many situations where people lost their children, cried for a week, and moved on, had new babies, weren’t depressed – nor impressed. This is strange to me too, but that is the way it is. People in Kenya have a different view of things.

We have been led to believe that we can control our futures by going to the “right” colleges and getting the “right” degrees and investing in the “right” investments. It looks like these approaches are not going to work any more. Perhaps we need to have the flexibility to try new (to us) more traditional approaches. Along with this, we need the ability to move on, when things aren’t working. If a child or spouse dies, we will somehow need to move on quickly.

Another piece of what needs to happen is that we need to find a way to get more connectedness and altruism back into society.  This is part of what makes life in Kenya as positive an experience as Derek reports that it is. Religion has played a role in this in the past. It seems to be especially the marginalized groups of society that are losing this connectedness.

About Gail Tverberg

My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to financial problems for oil producers and for oil exporting countries. We are really dealing with a physics problem that affects many parts of the economy at once, including wages and the financial system. I try to look at the overall problem.
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153 Responses to Human population overshoot–what went wrong?

  1. Pingback: Human population overshoot–what went wrong? | Doomstead Diner

  2. Shawn Aune says:

    Another in this long thread…

    Spirit Science seems to be extremely popular 🙂

  3. timl2k11 says:

    I’m persuaded that society will break down in a very disorderly manner, i.e. we won’t even see it coming. What about you?

    • I think you may be right, but fortunately we don’t know. We can spend a lot of time worrying about these things, but I don’t think it will help a whole lot for planning. I expect contagious diseases will play a bigger role than we expect.

  4. timl2k11 says:

    Reblogged this on Sunset America.

  5. tampatiml says:

    Reblogged this on Tampatiml’s Blog.

  6. Justin Nigh says:

    Hi Gail,

    I’d be interested in getting your analysis of the following argument made by economist Jeff Rubin. I agree with his theory of an oil shock causing the GFC and while his suggestion future shocks will drive us to rengineer our economy to one that is local and regional and therefore less oil dependent, I wonder if the economy is flexible enough to make the transition.

    • Justin,

      Sorry I am so slow in responding (traveling, illness, thought the video was longer than it was).

      I agree with most of what Jeff Rubin says. I certainly agree that we are running out of oil we can afford.

      The one place I am somewhat iffy is on how the globalization situation works out. Higher oil prices will certainly make it more expensive to transport heavy, bulky items, long distances. For small, light-weight items, this is less of an issue.

      I am less sanguine that Jeff Rubin is on how this will work out. We optimize the amount of “stuff” we can make by combining cheap labor from one place, lithium from another, oil from another, iron from another, and transporting things around the world to produce the desired product. I think regionalization is likely to lose a lot. (Jeff may understand this as well, but not be talking about it.)

      As I look back at the ancient world (and probably every time in between), there was quite a bit of transport by barge and boat, within what now are probably regions. People realized that it is very difficult to survive with just the goods that can be produced from one particular location. When we didn’t have oil, we optimized the system to use whatever was available–animal power or coal. What we really need is new systems, optimized for entirely different variables than huge ships and long-distance air. This works pretty well, if we gradually build up to a system, as when people keep improving on sail transport and adding new ships. But now, it is almost impossible to go back. We don’t have the systems in place we would need, and I find it hard to believe that we will be able to create new systems fast enough, to adapt to a changing world.

      There is also the issue of too many people now. If regionalization loses total capacity, it will be difficult to feed the people now on earth.

      • Justin Nigh says:

        Hi Gail,

        No problem. Thank you for taking the time to watch the video and provide a thoughtful reply. I too have been busy lately and haven’t had a chance to respond. I agree with your analysis. I believe the complexities of the system are such that it’s beyond our control, and when the unravelling begins in earnest will be hard to stop or redirect its’ momentum. It’s nice to think perhaps a solution will be found at the 11th hour, and such solutions can’t always be anticipated so it’s not impossible. Hoping for the best and expecting the worst sums it up.

        TED has a couple of videos up at the moment which appear to be opposite ends of the spectrum. The first is a talk by Peter Diamandis on ‘abundance is our future’, the second a talk by Paul Gilding on our, by now, well dissected failure of the infinite growth/finite resource paradigm titled ‘the Earth is Full’. Peter strikes me as naively optimistic and seems to have tunnel vision in regards to his views on technology. He sends people into zero gravity and has created a rocket racing league; both obscene wastes of energy against a backdrop of dwindling supply. Paul is much more realistic but retains a twinge of optimism that perhaps is required to avoid people tuning out (other than the choir). The reaction of the crowd after each presentation is also telling. Peter gets a standing ovation. Is this because he has a more compelling argument, or is it because he is telling people what they want to hear? Both videos have created heated debates between the optimists and the realists on Facebook and the TED comments. Links to the videos are below.

        Paul Gilding

        Peter Diamandis

        • I listened to Paul GUiding’s talk. He doesn’t seem to understand the resource limit problem we are up against. All of his concern is focused on climate change (and some related issues like ocean acidification), and how we can overcome that (using resources I don’t think we have). He is only telling part of the story. With that part of the story, he can claim the possibility of a happy ending. So I don’t think that even he has the story right. I am not sure that there is any of this story that people would be interested in listening to (unless we could come up with a fake happy ending).

          • Justin Nigh says:

            He has demonstrated a recognition of the resource limit problem, specifically peak oil, in other talks, but I agree that he could be underestimating the implications and magnitude of the problem. You’ll have noticed he has a strong belief in the human ability to respond quickly and with enormous effort in the face of immediate crisis (which he says we’re entering now). He cites wartime efforts such as WW2 following the bombing of Pearl Harbour. He has also stated elsewhere that if we are unable to respond adequately to the crisis, it’s likely to end our civilisation. Essentially I would say he is on board with us, but in he interest of marketing the issue to elicit a response, he proposes a ‘fake happy ending,’ by holding onto a thin thread of hope that we’ll find a way to avoid collapse through such efforts. He also admits that whatever the outcome, the path is certain to contain much suffering. Given all this, I think he gets it, but is toning down the doom and gloom to avoid being ignored altogether, and despite this that’s exactly what’s happening with many of the comments on the video.

  7. As I said, in the ABSENCE of Nuclear Poisoning you don’t have a powerful enough vector, not even climate change is powerful enough. Homo Sapiens has lived through Ice Ages and in hot climates also. Just their locations would shift as far as what zone is habitable. The gas balance on Earth even in an extreme situation isn’t enough to produce runaway heating like on Venus. So much water would go up into the atmosphere a permanent cloud cover would remove heat from the surface. Albedo effect. It just can’t get that hot on Earth.

    Nuclear Waste as it is currently distributed out is an ELE waiting to happen. I favor collecting all the material, glassing it with silica so it doesn’t dissolve and dropping it into a subduction zone off of the coast of Antarctica. It wont go super critical and should only kill off very deepwater fish and anaerobic life forms that aren’t critical to the food chain.

    Left where it is, when the society breaks down, you’ll have a Fuk-U-Shima on every streetcorner. In theory though, it can be avoided.


  8. Since the Nesting was getting ridiculous again, I’m going to paste Gail’s last post, then reply here.

    gailtheactuary says:
    February 21, 2012 at 11:48 pm
    I am sure that there will be some living organisms on earth that continue to do quite well, especially if humans are much less numerous or cease to exist. It is our existence that has caused the death of or reduced habitat for many species.

    My guess is that the collapse in human population will be fairly rapid (20-50 years), after the financial system implodes, and it becomes much more difficult to transact business long-distance. We will need to relearn how to do things that we could do 50 or 100 or 1000 years ago, because the systems that were in place then are no longer in place. This will make it difficult to do things that were at one time taken for granted–operating huge fleets of sailing boats, for example.

    I expect that infectious diseases will likely become a problem quite quickly, even if food and water can somehow be handled, because of our high population now.

    The reason why I see a fairly rapid decline is because we don’t have systems in place (that I can see) to facilitate a transfer to a lower-energy world. In the past, we built systems gradually, expanding and upgrading as we went–everything from banking to trucks and trains to electrical systems to manufacturing facilities to healthcare. We don’t have a good way of going backwards, that I can see. If we scale back the transport system, the electrical system will suffer, if for no other reason than that it is not meant to operate at much lower capacity. It is still necessary to repair transmission lines, even if there are fewer users, and fewer roads servicing those transmission lines. And of course electric utilities must still pay back debt, regardless of how few customers they have. This is just an example–nothing really moves backwards well.
    20-50 years would be a mighty quick extinction.

    First off, this means even knocking off the last of the Inuit in Nunavut, the last of the Kalahari Bushmen, the last of the Aboriginal Australians, the last of the Amazonian tribes.

    From Wiki:

    “On 18 January 2007, FUNAI reported that it had confirmed the presence of 67 different uncontacted tribes in Brazil, up from 40 in 2005. With this addition Brazil has now overpassed New Guinea as the country having the largest number of uncontacted peoples.

    Besides that are numerous neo-Primitivists who already are practicing neolithic living. So, while perhaps you could achieve a 99.9999% Dieoff of Homo Sapiens inside 50 years, it is highly unlikely you could completely squash out the species simply through collapse of the Ag systems.

    Besides all these folks, there are also numerous EXTREMELY wealthy people who have underground Bunkers built complete with renewable energy power sources, hydroponic growing systems, and freeze dried foods with shelf lives of 50 years by themselves.

    Now, once 99.9999% of the Homo Sapiens population gets knocked down, the prey move back in much faster than the predators do. So by the time you emerge from your Bunker, there are caribou that have moved in to downtown Anchorage.

    In the absence of some disease vectors or Nuclear poisoning or sufficient Ocean acidification to knock down the phytoplankton and destroy the food chain from the bottom up, I do not think you possibly could wipeout Homo Sapiens in 50 years. You don’t have a vector strong enough to accomplish the task, and their are too many people still left who know how to live by the old ways.


    • Reverse Engineer, you make a good argument, and if the environment stays roughly the same, then I would agree with you. But there are several things that simply won’t stay the same: first is climate change. Overwhelming evidence shows that climate change is happening far more quickly than was predicted originally. What’s more, there is mounting evidence that we are about to pass, or already have passed, climate tipping points which lead to runaway warming – not in a hundred years, but in 10 or 15.

      Second, are nuclear power plants. Assuming Gail and many, many others are right and we have a rapid massive die-off, what happens to the 400+ nuclear power plants that are out there requiring significant amounts of energy and technology to keep them functioning? Even if we shut them down, what do we do about the millions of tons of radioactive waste that requires constant cooling for thousands of years? The plants are positioned in such a way that virtually every place on the planet will be doused with lethal amounts of radioactivity. So much for the aboriginals.

      Nuclear power plants are just one example of the chemical and biological nasties that the modern industrial technology has created. Alan Wiesman covered this fairly extensively in his book “The World Without Us”. A sobering read but definitely recommended.

    • You may be right about that. I was thinking about people living in New York City and Tokyo.

  9. Justin Nigh says:

    I came across this video and thought I would share (at the end of the thread). David Korten’s presentation to 39th Trinity Institute National Theological Conference on Radical Abundance: A Theology of Sustainability. While I think everyone should watch, Dave in particular, I urge you to give this your time and I believe you’ll be able to find some agreement with a great number of points made. It would be a shame to miss them in light of the religious context.

    I was inspired to see this conversation occuring in a church. While I myself don’t align with a particular religion, I agree with most of their central beliefs which promote the sacredness and value of all life. While we’re aware of some of the church’s shortcoming and failings, largely due to it’s being usurped as an instrument of control by the dominator culture, in my opinion it’s important we don’t also lose it’s messages of life with the understandable rebellion against religion that is all too common today. As intimated here, there is a spiritual element to our predicament and so religion has a role to play.

    I especially liked Korten’s suggestions of how to effect great change by referencing the women’s liberation movement. He presents the idea of two narratives; the public narrative and private narrative. The public narrative was that women had no rights and shouldn’t have any, while women privately understood this was wrong. The same could be said today. The public narrative says growth and greed are good, we should be in opposition to each other through competition and predation. The private narrative tells us this isn’t true, that cooperation is our inclination, what’s good for others is good for us, and our culture of growth is not sustainable. Women started by sharing this private narrative with each other in private gatherings. Slowly, as they realised they weren’t alone in their private narrative, it became their public narrative and the knowledge began to spread until they acted on the new narrative which then became the new norm. You may recognise this is not unlike Charles Eisensteins method that I’ve spoken of here before. The conversations we’re having on this very blog are part of this process and I urge you all to have similar conversations in your communities as well.

    This is the approach I believe is necessary if we’re going to come together to attempt any change of trajectory. There is an epic battle of ideas happening in the world today. The converging crises are bringing this about. Let’s hope the most beneficial idea to our survival wins. It begins with talking about it, then doing it, and finally being it. (scroll to the bottom of the page for the video)

    • Don Stewart says:

      Dear Justin
      I read your ‘broken computer’ post the first time and agreed with it.

      As for modeling the future, it seems to me that we have many different issues:
      1. Liebig’s law of the minimum. The failure of the first critical system or input is the death knell. In a complex machine such as a computer, there are many, many such components.
      2. Exponential doubling. Before the last doubling, the glass was still only half full. Which makes it hard for human’s to see the danger. This applies not only to use of resources but also to debt.
      3. The nature of human behavior. The way hormones control us in pretty predictable ways. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking: Fast and Slow is a pretty good layman’s introduction to all that.
      4. The thermodynamic principles which imply flow of energy from areas of surplus to areas of shortage.

      I will elaborate a little more on the fourth issue–thermodynamics. Adrian Bejan, a Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Duke University, has just published Design In Nature: How the Constructal Law Governs Evolution in Biology, Physics, Technology, and Social Organization. I haven’t yet finished the book, and am certainly no expert–so caveat emptor. The gist of his argument is that it is simply a law of physics that design emerges in the world to facilitate flows. Thus, a tree is a design which facilitates the flow of water from the relatively saturated ground to the relatively dry air. And if you examine the design of trees in detail, you will find that the tree tends to accomplish that mission pretty effectively in terms of the collection system (roots), the trunk, and the spacing of the branches and leaves which actually lose the water to the air. Bejan sees global trade, similarly, as facilitating the flow of goods and services through human societies. And he derives from his root theory the designs that we should expect and shows that they are what we see.

      I should note that he does not require the presence of any ‘Designer’. A river’s flow can be predicted from the root theory. He even shows that mathematical patterns such as the Fibonacci series and the Golden Mean are derivable from his root theory.

      One of the implications of the theory is that evolution generally does have a direction–toward more efficient flow and more complex organizations. This assertion is in violation of the current Evolutionary Dogma that evolution has no direction.

      Bejan, perhaps since he sees direction in Evolution, is optimistic about the future. He sees continual improvements in human ability to use energy flows. If hydrocarbons are impossible because of Global Warming, then we will just use solar energy in all its manifestations.

      I am not ready to make any grand pronouncements about whether Bejan and the cadre of scientists who subscribe to the theory are correct or incorrect. I see many, many different ways to interpret it all. For example:
      1. Immense stores of hydrocarbons were locked up in the Earth (and Solar System, if you are a True Believer) and, in the course of time, Humans evolved with the brains to facilitate the flow of that buried energy into the atmosphere. Our history is similar to that of trees.
      2. Number 1 is true, but it turned out to be a catastrophic mistake and resulted in the Sixth Extinction on an obscure planet in the Milky Way.
      3. Bejan is correct that evolution tends to result in more efficient facilitation of flows, but he fails to see the immense ‘gift’ that hydrocarbons have been. Take away the hydrocarbons and the increased facilitation of flows would not be nearly so impressive in terms of the world made by machines.
      4. The most complex substance we know about is probably healthy soil. The soil ecosystem required a couple of billion years of evolution, mostly by single celled creatures. Everything Bejan says about facilitating flows can be said about healthy soil. To then claim, as Bejan does, that Industrial Agriculture (which kills soil) is a great advance is evidence of insanity.
      5. The future of the world COULD be modeled as the thermodynamically directed dispersion of energy equally among all people. Just as a tree takes water from the ground and moves it to the air, globalization might take resources and distribute them equally. This would likely be welcomed by those who have traditionally been shortchanged on resources, and provoke violent responses in those who have traditionally been gifted with excess resources.

      There are many other interesting question that will occur to you if you take Bejan seriously. But that is enough for now. All this stuff indicates to me that forecasting the future is very nearly impossible. I think humanity is walking on a knife edge–and prudent people will focus on some basic issues and prepare as best they can.

      Don Stewart

      • Justin Nigh says:

        Hi Don,

        I haven’t come across Bejan’s work before so thanks for sharing. I was just watching some videos by an economist, Jeff Rubin, who believes that, in the near-term, increasing oil prices will drive behaviour toward more local economies as global trade is no longer cost effective, but that it won’t signal the end of the world just the end of globalisation as we’ve known it. This is probably one of the more optimistic visions of post-peak oil. I suspect improvements in energy efficiency and decoupling from fossil fuels would also be an implicit effect of this process. If goods don’t need to be transported around the world, the volume of oil required in such an economy would be much lower. It strikes me as a pattern of crude lower energy efficiency globalisation (now) which collapses back to refined higher energy efficiency local economies, and may be viewed as progress or evolution of the trade and economic system and the energy inputs into them. This pattern of expansion followed by contraction or consolidation before the next increase in complexity is not an unusal growth pattern. Just another idea to add to the list.

        I do agree forecasting the future of such complex systems can be difficult if not impossible. As you say it’s a tight rope we’re walking at this critical juncture in our journey. I think you’re right about focusing on what you can control. Even if things aren’t so dire as they seem, people are longing for a return to some of the more fulfilling activities we’ve left behind, so such a focus on basic needs is a bit of welcome relief regardless of the outcome. Most of us know we’re living beyond our means, and a return to living within them might be a positive thing even if we had unlimited energy today.

        • Don Stewart says:

          Dear Justin
          I am in a Permaculture class with a group of mostly mid-20s kids. The teacher of the class has been instrumental in helping people build 12X12 houses (144 sq. ft) and was immortalized in the book Twelve by Twelve. There is a similar movement in the US which you can find with a search on ‘tiny houses’. Many of them are around a hundred square feet and are on wheels. The teacher also helps Habitat for Humanity build simple houses which minimally comply with zoning and building and environmental codes.

          The teacher was talking about the regulatory hoops anyone building a 12X12 has to jump through (such as swearing that you do not intend to live in it–which troubles the religious people) to live like Thoreau lived almost 200 years ago. I asked about the tiny houses on wheels. The teacher was not very forthcoming on that subject. Apparently, if you have one of these and are living in it and have evaded the notice of the Authorities, it is best to keep quiet about it.

          In our area, there are areas of clay soils which cannot pass the percolation test for a septic tank. But the rules require either a conventional toilet hooked up to a city sewer system or else a septic tank. There is no provision for a composting toilet such as you might find on a boat. Since the Official Regulations sound absurd, the Officials came up with another option (drip lines) which cost roughly 35,000 dollars. Simple living, indeed! Yet I can show you dozens of composting toilets scattered around–you just have to keep yourself under the radar.

          So…as you say, many people are simplifying their lives in ways they find gratifying despite the best efforts of the Authorities to force them back into conventional channels.

          Don Stewart

      • It sounds like Bejan gets at least a little of the story. It is hard to see how he gets a happy ending out of it though–we head toward 10 million people, an even more industrial agriculture system, and even more distortion of the natural processes. Somehow, we keep appropriating more energy to help us do this, but the energy we appropriate doesn’t add to global warming. Perhaps he thinks the “can” can be kicked down the road farther–but how does this not lead to a crash as well, perhaps a bit later?

        • Don Stewart says:

          Dear Gail
          Bejan is an interesting person to study. Born in Bulgaria, living under the Soviet system, and choosing to emigrate to the West. He sees nothing to question in the Western lifestyle–cars and airplanes and shiny appliances are just the latest and greatest examples of his particular brand of evolution and its direction toward ever greater perfection (Airplanes are an advance on birds, automobiles and advance on walking).

          It’s interesting that he starts from some of the same observations as Permaculture: conservation of or maximum utilization of energy and materials. He does not seem to have much interest in some of the other Permaculture principles such as ‘no waste’, ‘respect for people’, ‘respect for the land’, and ‘work with nature, not against it’. He doesn’t have much taste for religion, but other than that he probably admires Rick Santorum. If you were to question him about Global Warming, he would probably opine that we can fix it technologically by deploying the appropriate earth based or space based systems. Just as he thinks industrial agriculture is a ‘fix’ for the flaws of organic agriculture or Permaculture. He probably also thinks that The Toxic Triad (big agriculture, big food, and big pharma) are cures for Chronic Disease).

          Having just recently read his book (and thus perhaps not having a completely balanced perspective), it seems to me:
          1. His observations on energy use and conservation and their connection to Design are on the money.
          2. His lack of any religious or spiritual or otherwise non-self centered system of values makes him dangerous.
          3. His embrace of pretty rigid hierarchies makes him the kind of man I probably couldn’t have polite discussions with.

          Don Stewart

  10. Andrew of the Bay Area says:

    One of humanity’s little peculiar and asinine tendencies is to constantly attempt to avoid and deny that which it truly is: an animal. Capable of vicious, hateful and depraved acts under bad circumstances, such as lack of food.

    To me, religion or a value system of similar sorts, has historically held this back among individual communities. The wars between different communities are almost a part of the process of population control. Despite the growing hatred of religion in this country (and it IS hatred and intolerance), it will live on past some of the more modern and urban new religions (of secularism) which are merely the result of oil wealth and short-sighted thinking.

    It will be interesting to see how much white communities in the country (most communities in the country in the U.S.) are concerned with racism in the future. Ha. I am sure glad I am white!

  11. Justin Nigh says:

    I listened to a radio podcast today that featured a guest named Dave Gardner who has produced a film about our religion of growth. The film is called GrowthBusters and while I haven’t seen it yet, the trailer looks like it is very much worth watching. Holding screenings in your community is promoted by Dave as a way to get the message out about what growth is doing to us. It’s presented in a way that will hopefulyy appeal to a wide audience. See below for the trailer. Feedback from those who may have seen the movie is welcomed.

    • David Harney says:

      Hi Justin,

      GrowthBusters on DVD (New Version, 90 Minutes, Personal use & groups up to 20) Ships by 28 Feb. $19.95 plus $3.95 S/H

      In the clip you referenced, there is a comment “The first step toward curing an addition is to recognize that you have a problem” (or words close to that). I still think this is the crux of the issue and even the best of solutions are worthless without this first step. Unfortunately, there is not much evidence that this problem recognition is forthcoming – perhaps a movie like this will help.

      Another interesting question arises if one really believes that mass extinction (however slow or fast) is inevitable: what kind of personal agenda does one adopt? Do you spend time/money on this movie? Is activism ultimately a futile gesture and a waste of time (other than its value as a hobby)? It seems that many of us commenting here speak of enjoying the realities of our daily life and not getting too stressed about events beyond our control. However, there are lots of practical implications associated with this viewpoint. If you want to enjoy your life (plus life of family and friends) do you stay politically active and vote for people you believe will avoid war, protect the environment, etc? Do you give money to charities that try to save lives in other countries? Do you spend time/money on preparation for hard times or self protection issues? Or, do you just go about your own established personal routine (whatever it is) and attempt to be flexible when things change? Or, maybe you just expect to die early? Or what?

      I don’t think there is a way to avoid making a decision. Making no decisions about these issues is actually making a decision.

      • Actually, pushing for drill-baby-drill would seem to have the possibility of putting off the crash to the extent that doing so is possible. But is this the right approach, ethically? The downslope looks pretty bad, regardless of timing or preparation.

      • Justin Nigh says:

        Hey Dave,

        I couldn’t agree more that the crux of the issue is first raising awareness and getting acknowledgement. People don’t change until they make such acknowledgements and have a desire to change. This often comes with a personal crisis. For example a heavy smoker that suffers a stroke that isn’t life threatening but jolts them into acting to quit. I think this came for a number of people with the GFC and we see the results in the Occupy movement, so I do believe awareness is increasing.

        I think it would be foolish to fiddle while Rome burns in case we’re wrong. Right or wrong in terms of the outcome of all this, the culture we’ve developed is one in which many people are unhappy so taking steps to exit the culture or remove oneself from it as much as possible is in my opinion a positive action, if only for personal mental health. While the fate of the species may be questionable, it’s important for people to feel like they have a purpose, otherwise they tend to get sick and die. Personally I’ve made steps to escape the ‘matrix’ by quitting my 9-5 job, consciously reduce our consumption of luxury goods, grow a % of our own veggies, use the car as little as possible, make a number of our own goods like bread, roasted coffee, pesto, hummus,etc. I’ve also started a business doing something I enjoy and feel is making a contribution to society. Initially, a sign of the growth cultures’ tenacity, I wanted to make this business a big success and take it nationally. I suppose the motivations behind it were fair; wanting to make enough money to have the freedom to visit my family in Canada more often, possibly splitting my time between Australia and home. Now I’m thinking I might just take it slow, reduce my work week to maybe 3 days and spend the rest getting involved in my community, volunteering in the local permaculture group, etc. while making a modest income that allows for the basics and not much more. I’m also inclined to buy at least one copy of the GrowthBusters movie and have contemplated sending some copies to the local council, government, and mining mogul (whose rotund appearance would indicate he has as little self control when it comes to food as he does with the desire for more of everything material), at least just for a laugh and if it elicits more than that it’s gravy. I’m relatively young at 33 so I might witness a lot of what is to come and as mentioned previously, not planning or preparing at all and getting caught out by it goes against the survival instinct. If things work out, well I still believe the lifestyle I’m working toward is positive in either scenario.

  12. Sky says:

    I guess I am wondering if there’s another negative feedback loop that might occur, the re – emergence of some strong instinct perhaps, something not in the present ‘World 3’ model? One can only hope!

  13. Sky says:

    In the Limits To Growth – ‘World 3’ simulation runs I’ve seen, a decline in population appears as being inevitable, except in resource and behavioral scenarios that seem very unlikely. Since there is a delay between initial resource decline in relation to actual population decline, it appears that a drop in living standards will certainly precede the downward population trend. Since many ‘World 3’ runs depict the rate of decline as being about the same as that of the growth phase, and occurring over many decades, is it possible that social and psychological factors (instincts perhaps?), could effect a significant decline in birth rates? Delayed cognition and reaction looks like it’s going to trip civilization into a big fall regardless…
    At least we can be inspired by the notion that much lower energy societies can live productive lives and be quite happy, as Gail mentions here, or as Nate Hagens has reported on TOD many times.

    • I have considerable reservations about how well the modeling in World 3 is done. The financial system is not modeled in World 3, so constriction needs to come from other sources. When modeling was done back in the 1970s, leaving out the financial system (and particularly the effect of debt, and debt repayment) was not a huge obstacle, because the intent was simply to figure out approximately what would happen when. Now that we are closer, it seems to me that the model is seriously distorted. The way the modeling is done seems likely to produce a decline that is both later and slower than it would be, if the financial system were included in the model.

      I have talked to some of the folks involved with World 3 about this issue. At the time of the discussion, we were not able to come up with a solution.

      I would consider the simulation results to reflect a “best case” scenario, as if debt and the financial system is never a problem.

  14. plc, I lost track of where the specific comment I’m replying to is (damn nested threads). But it doesn’t really matter. You declare that “doomers” are delusional and I agree – that is, if you use the definition given by a friend of mine: “warning of potential doom does not make you a doomer. But participating in activities that make that doom more likely: that makes you a doomer.”

    How anyone can look at the overwhelming data that is all around with respect to population overshoot, global warming, peak oil (and virtually peak everything else due to aforementioned overshoot), and still think that everything is going to just keep right on trekking happily onward is truly delusional.

    Perhaps you don’t understand the exponential function at work here. I suggest that you watch this excellent video series by Dr. Albert Bartlett:

    • Stu Kautsch says:

      “How anyone can look at the overwhelming data”…
      Upton Sinclair’s quote “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
      This might also apply to an earlier comment by Gail (too deeply nested to reply to) about banksters not understanding the finite nature of our world.
      Funny about the nested comment problem – we usually don’t see it on this blog but we sure did *this* week!
      Touchy subject, but it does have to be addressed.

      • Despite the fact my last reply to Gail only got 1 word per line or so in the Nest, I still went for it! LOL.

        Happens all the time on Zero Hedge of course. To resolve it you need a different kind of platform than just a Blog. I am currently working on this problem and hope to have the right kind of setup in place soon.


  15. Lizzy says:

    I found this article really interesting, as always. In so many ways I yearn for the simplicity of life and thinking in Kenya. Last weekend I went on a very well-attended (several hundred there, central London) course where we were all taught how to live with the little conversations in our minds, how to overcome our doubts about ourselves and so on. It was good. After about 3 hours of this, though, I thought, what is this? This is so self-indulgent. We are so removed from the reality of feeding ourselves, keeping ourselves warm etc, that we spend time in this way. Just yesterday a colleague and I were talking about a friend who suffered a miscarriage and took years to recover. The dead foetus was buried in a formal ceremony.

  16. OldStone50 says:

    I will not claim that the question is not fantastical, but this seems to me to be an opportunity to ask it of another random group of people. I’ll check back in a few days to see if anybody answers:

    Assuming that an acceptable, majority approved and utilized method for direct management of population size is being implemented, what population size would you, as an individual, consider to be ideal size to manage for? And what criteria did you use to arrive at that number?

    Thanks for all your replies!

    • Justin Nigh says:

      I’d suggest 1-2 billion. The main criteria being population levels pre-fossil fuels. I’ve read that 1 billion was the population prior to the discovery of oil and I’m adjusting upward based on some areas of the earth were still being developed and settled, as well as for newly developed Ag techniques like permaculture which can increase yields if done correctly and requiring a larger % of people being involved in food production.

      • Bicycle Dave says:

        Hi Justin,

        Your thinking seems logical (a little plug for solid reasoning). Even if you double that based upon some magical factors and use 4B, we still have two outstanding issues: how to get a critical mass of people to understand the issue; and what might be OldStone50’s “acceptable, majority approved and utilized method”?

        • Justin Nigh says:

          Hi Dave,

          Many of our cultural beliefs and actions are based upon stories. A lot of those stories, like the one expressed by pjc above, are reaching the end of their usefullness. I believe the only way to change our beliefs and corresponding actions is to write a new narrative. The best and most effective stories are those that don’t directly challenge the status quo. People don’t want or like to be told they’re wrong. We need to create stories that recognise the old ones while advancing the new ones. I will use Charles Eisensteins example here of how this might be achieved. While it may not directly tackle the population issue, I believe it addresses the root cause of it, which is a belief in the separate self, a consciousness floating in a physical body that has to compete with other separate selves for resources. This drives competition, the sense of man being above rather than part of nature, and discourages the co-operation I believe we’ll need to be a sustainable species. Eisenstein points to actions that make people question this narrative, that makes them stop and think, wait a minute, if that just happened maybe this isn’t the only way. A simple example of such actions would be to pay for someone elses meal at a restaurant, or to give them something of value without expectation of receiving something in return. This gets people thinking in ways they may not otherwise and perhaps will lead to developing the answers to your question.

        • We can start by decapitating Banksters.


          • Justin Nigh says:

            Tempting but the banksters are us. We would probably do the same in their position. The problem is the way money is configured to encourage greed. How we use money needs to change to reflect different values.

            • No, sorry, the Banksters r NOT us.

              Money is Configured by somebody, it doesn’t configure itself. Those who write the rules and who control the flow of credit are the folks Responsible for this mess, and they are the ones who should Pay the Ultimate Price for using their control to enrich themselves and enslave everyone else. They cannot possibly be sent to the Great Beyond with too much agony, the slower the better. I advocate for strictly LEGAL executions, replacing English Common Law with the Law of the Inqusition and the Auto da Fe.


            • Justin Nigh says:

              This sounds a lot like revolution. They don’t have a good track record for substantial change. They simply replace one hierarchy of control with another. Getting as many people to change from within until critical mass is reached to affect change without is in my opinion the only effective option.

            • Justin Nigh says:

              You rightfully state money doesn’t configure itself. But consider this. Money has been configured by people, yes. The predominant belief of our culture is to operate in one’s own best interest. We all operate on this premise. The banksters who configured money did so on this premise. If the premise is changed to one that recognizes the opposite is true, that what is good for you IS good for me, then money will have to change to reflect the underlying values. If the underlying values do not change, then you’ll just get more of the same once the revolution is over.

            • Well, if you want to change an underlying system of values, the best way to do that is to ELIMINATE anyone who holds an opposing set of values, now isn’t it? What you gotta do here is demonstrate to people in a very firm manner that Greed in fact does NOT PAY, because if you exhibit such tendencies, you end up DEAD.

              I agree tha Revolutions have a poor Track Record. This because IMHO Revolutionaries have been way too Wimpy, and besides that the Playingn Field hasn’t been level enough for a long time for Revolutionaries of this type to have any real chance at winning. The Greedy folks had all the best Hardware, and besides that had places to go escape to with their horde of Capital.

              Once the Oil is gone, the Playing Field will be much more level. Robespierre has a bad rep in history, but his problem mainly is that he did not go far enough, becuase he could not reach outside the borders of France to Exterminate ALL the Vermin. Now that the Infestation has gone Global, there is no place for the Rats to go run and hide, so now we can bring in the Orkin Man EVERYWHERE simultaneously to do a massive and LEGAL extermination of the Vermin masquearding as Homo Sapiens who call themselves Banksters.

              Look, lets face it somebody gotta GO here, so if you want a new society based on better principles, the ones that gott Go FIRST are the Banksters. Start at the top and work your way down until you reach a sustainable level. Trust me, if holding onto any Wealth at all will earn you a One Way Ticket to the Great Beyond, anybody who has any Wealth at all will be LINING UP to Give it Away as fast as possible. If you just hold onto a little bit, like what you can carry with you in Backpack or with a Bicycle and Trailer, you are probably pretty safe.

              Revolutionaries through History simply have been too soft. Not so this time Methinks. The time of the Orkin Man has ARRIVED. The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth. Right AFTER the meek get very, VERY Angry.


            • I wouldn’t be quite so hard on the banksters.

              A lot of their problem is that they don’t understand that we live in a finite earth, and what consequences that has. So they build models (which they really believe) suggesting that growth can go on forever, and be the solution to all of our problems.

              Unfortunately, there are a lot of benefits, if this growth could really exist. It is the (theoretical) availability of this growth that enables pension plans. People believe that the funds they are setting aside will protect them in the future. It is this belief in theoretical future resources that enables the system. As long as most people hold on to this belief, it props the system up–at least until the financial consequences of debt defaults overwhelms the whole system.

        • Robin Datta says:

          what might be OldStone50′s “acceptable, majority approved and utilized method”?

          As Nicole Foss (Stoneleigh of The Automatic Earth) has stated more than once in audio interviews, Dick Cheney’s assertion that “Our way of life is non-negotiable” is quite valid, because Nature does not negotiate.

          • James says:

            Perhaps what he meant is that our way of life is non-negotiable with the rest of the developed and undeveloped world. In other words, we will burn most of the rest of the oil while everyone else goes to hell. A fair warning for the rest of the world, “U.S.A. we’re number one.” We will not share the world’s remaining oil, we will burn our unfair share until the rest of you are absolutely destitute, and then we will deal with nature.

      • Robin Datta says:

        From Paul Cherfurka’s Population The Elephant in the Room

        Taking the carrying capacity effects discussed above into account, I initially set the bar for a sustainable population at the population when we discovered oil in about 1850. This was about 1.2 billion people. Next I subtracted some number to account for the world’s degraded carrying capacity, then added back a bit to account for our increased knowledge and the ameliorating effects of oil substitutes. This is a necessarily imprecise calculation, but I have settled on a round number of one billion people as the long-term sustainable population of the planet in the absence of oil.

    • OldStone50 says:

      Well, so far I seem to have received two direct answers to my question:

      > 1 to 2 billion [a pretty broad range! But seemingly based on the idea that this range is the max that would be ‘sustainable’ without fossil fuel, but with using current technology.]

      > 1 billion [more specific than above, but based on very similar reasoning]

      Although this sample was both self-selecting and absurdly small, it does seem to embody a common narrative: the objective is to reach a maximum pop size within the criterion of ‘sustainability’. So my next challenge is to ask what is the compelling argument that demands the maximum (whatever criteria are used)? Please explain the intended goal.

      Thanks again, and I hope I can still get any responses at all!

      • I think one of the issues is that humans tend to be inventive. Even if the population got down to 1 billion, we would soon find a way to kill off even more animals, or otherwise pull more resources out, so that we could overshoot again, before collapsing down to a yet lower population. This lower population would be necessary because the resources would be even more depleted than now. Sustainability has never been a human characteristic.

        • So you think this is an Extinction Level Event? How many reduction cycles do you think it will take and how long for a complete wipeout of Homo Sapiens?


          • Justin Nigh says:

            Craig Dilworth seems to think it is based on his comments in the following interview.


            I was thinking about his vicious circle principle and whether it applies to all humans. Perhaps humans with a different ‘operating system’ might escape it. That brought to mind the Australian Aboriginals. Popular belief is their culture was unchanged for many thousands of years. According to the article below, that’s not the case. Their population was growing during the last 5,000 years of the Holocene before Europeans arrived. Perhaps our species’ mode of operation really is screwed. In his theory, we create technology solutions to our resource problems, but those solutions always provide a resource surplus. The surplus allows for a larger population and the cycle repeats indefinitely. Even in permaculture this is the case. Seen in this light it, perhaps makes the odds of permaculture saving us no more likely than other technologies we’ve developed. This would suggest that any form of technology is detrimental to our long term survival.


            • David Harney says:

              Hi Justin,

              Perhaps humans with a different ‘operating system’ might escape it

              Very interesting interview. Our raw brain power (thanks to our genes) is not likely to change in any meaningful timeframe. A big part of our “operating system” however, is courtesy of our memes (cultural influence). Although genes change very slowly, memes have the potential to change much faster (but seldom do). You can see from the above reaction to my comments about religion, how invested we tend to be in our memes. I’m even more discouraged after that exchange to think that we can upgrade our operating system to human.nature 2.0. I would have thought that the belief in an un-provable supernatural realm would be almost non-existent in a group like this that is otherwise able to transcend conventional thinking. Apparently the fact that fundamental religious tenets (like the existent of a god) that are inculcated in our brains at the same time we are learning language (when we have no critical thinking skills or intellectual defenses) is not relevant to most people who are trying to figure out why we might become extinct.

            • Justin Nigh says:

              Hi Dave,

              I am more inclined to accept your description of spirituality that doesn’t seek to claim absolute truth or create the divisions which organised religion is well known for. Such spirituality tends to go beyond language and as soon as you’ve described it you’ve lost it. While many eastern philosophies including Advaita Vedanta and Buddhism express these concepts I choose not to align myself wholly with one or another.

              I am having trouble finding evidence we will escape extinction. Perhaps this is alright. Nothing lasts forever and we’ve had a good run. Is it sad? Absolutely. At the same time it isn’t, and neither; it just is. Maybe PJC is right, maybe I’m right. Whatever the case, being attached to a particular outcome only creates disappointment. One thing is certain, everything will be destroyed when the sun goes supernova. I will continue to enjoy the beauty and wonder of life, without the need to believe there is a purpose or destination other than just being.

            • Our Sun isn’t big enough to go Supernova. It will expand into a Red Giant then burn itself out.

              Needless to say though far as living organisms on the planet go, this is the swan song.

              The more relevant questions are of Timelines, not the absolute outcome here. Are these cycles going to take decades, centuries or millenia to play out? Or will the Final Bell ring on Homo Sapiens in the lifetime of your children? Or in your own? This makes a pretty big difference to most people.


            • I am sure that there will be some living organisms on earth that continue to do quite well, especially if humans are much less numerous or cease to exist. It is our existence that has caused the death of or reduced habitat for many species.

              My guess is that the collapse in human population will be fairly rapid (20-50 years), after the financial system implodes, and it becomes much more difficult to transact business long-distance. We will need to relearn how to do things that we could do 50 or 100 or 1000 years ago, because the systems that were in place then are no longer in place. This will make it difficult to do things that were at one time taken for granted–operating huge fleets of sailing boats, for example.

              I expect that infectious diseases will likely become a problem quite quickly, even if food and water can somehow be handled, because of our high population now.

              The reason why I see a fairly rapid decline is because we don’t have systems in place (that I can see) to facilitate a transfer to a lower-energy world. In the past, we built systems gradually, expanding and upgrading as we went–everything from banking to trucks and trains to electrical systems to manufacturing facilities to healthcare. We don’t have a good way of going backwards, that I can see. If we scale back the transport system, the electrical system will suffer, if for no other reason than that it is not meant to operate at much lower capacity. It is still necessary to repair transmission lines, even if there are fewer users, and fewer roads servicing those transmission lines. And of course electric utilities must still pay back debt, regardless of how few customers they have. This is just an example–nothing really moves backwards well.

            • Justin,

              Thanks for posting this interview with Dilworth. He explains the situation well.

              I think your point about permaculture is right too. One of our problems is that we need to plan to produce more resources than we need in any given year, so as to store up a surplus if weather conditions are bad for a year or two or three. To some extent, if this surplus is not needed, it can be “spent” on things that need not be repeated – pyramids, cathedrals, stone statues on Easter Island. But if the surplus results in surplus population, then that population must be fed endlessly in the future. With dwindling resources, that doesn’t work.

          • I think we are in the midst of the Sixth Mass Extinction, where the extinction relates a large number of species. It is the overshoot in human population and our impact on other species that is driving this die off.

            Because of our major role in this extinction, I think that there is a significant chance that when human’s overshoot and collapse is finished, humans will be extinct. Fortunately, we cannot know precisely what will happen, or how long it will take. The process may take hundreds of years, or I may be wrong altogether.

            • St. Roy says:

              Hi Gail:
              I agree. It may take a few hundred years, but the extinction path will be evident to all before the end of this century when hominid numbers will be considerably less than they are today. But as Dilsworth points out in his book, humans, even with their ability to foresee this calamity ensuing, are incapable of action to avoid it. Ala the Easter Island folks.
              St. Roy

      • OldStone50 says:

        Well, I’m back to see anybody’s responses – consensus seems to be that, sooner or later, we’ll all be dead. Ok, that’s easy to agree with.

        There also seems to be a consensus that humankind will never pull together to rationally manage either its population size or the closely aligned behavior of unbounded consumption of resources. In short, we seem to be a very pessimistic bunch, here, about humankind, and there certainly seems to be reason enough to be pessimistic. So do we sit back and watch with schadenfreude or do we say, what the hell, might as well go down tryin’!

        I would advocate the latter, i.e., they’ll have to pry my belief in cooperation from my cold dead hand.

        Let me be explicit here. The target we should be shooting for is minimization, not maximization. What is the minimum population size we can get down to before we lose too much (whatever we decide that is) technological velocity and capacity? What is the minimum non-‘renewable’ resource consumption we can achieve as a species? This is a contest to see who can sneak through the woods and leave the hardest to find trail – are you up to it buddy? Can you compete?

        My initial target is 10 million population size. Yes, that’s still pretty darn big, but there may be problems maintaining technology below that level. When we get down there, we can see if we can go lower. We have the technology to do so, we only have to give up the absurd, even suicidal, belief that having babies is a right that is beyond restriction.

  17. Tracey Trisko says:

    You write “Dilworth” then “Dilbert”. Who is “Dilbert”?

  18. Alexis says:

    Thanks for this interesting essay, especially the potential role of hierarchical tendencies for curbing down population of the submitted. I would expect inequalities in access to resources to have to grow very sharply for the population limitation effect to kick in, however: these inequalities would have to be raised to feudality-level or even slavery-level. Somewhere on the way, of course the risk / chance (depending on one’s position in the food chain) of violent revolution would become a factor… Not clear if domination of submitted populations as harsh as the Nazis dreamed to dominate Slavs is possible in a stable way. Who knows?

    One little correction to “World per capita energy consumption” drawing: the scale should read Megajoule per capita per year, not Gigajoule. World annual energy consumption is presently circa 12 billion tons oil equivalent, that is 12E09 * 42E09 joule, which for 7 billion population yields 72 gigajoule per capita per year, not 72,000.
    However that doesn’t change the basis of your argument.

    • I started out with energy in EJ (exajoules) in total, and was trying to convert it per capita. I will have to look at that again. Unfortunately, I need to catch a plane now, so it will have to wait a bit. Thanks for pointing this out.

  19. A metaphysical thread on Overshoot Parameters morphing into a discussion of Religion. Throw in some studies of Rats and their behavior and Atheists conceptualizing we can THINK our way out of any problem and you just have a marvelous recipe for a good debate 🙂

    I’ll contribute my 2 cents here. On the biological level, nothing “went wrong” here. Homo Sapiens evolved to top of the Food Chain and gained so much control over so many resources of the earth that as a species grew to the point of squashing out all others. Tribal Cultures that practice Infanticide to maintain a population don’t do this happily, they do it because they are forced into it by resource constraints at various times. if you are not forced into it, you don’t do it. If multiplying your population can help you to squash out another population, that is the preferable route. Homo Sapiens aren’t Deer, they are Predators able to make War on each other.

    Although Religion becomes more powerful and prevalent in times of great stress and comes up with means for people to deal with such stress and principles that in theory can relieve the stress (Do Unto Others…), it does not obviate the real parameters for all living creatures in a Finite World. Anyone who is TRAPPED inside the Finite World tends to use Religion as a means of justification of behaviors, but its not necessary to do that. Just it is how most folks do behave, because they are TRAPPED in the “real world” defined by their 5 senses and their perceptions.

    Step outside your perceptions and into the eternal world of existence, religion becomes much more meaningful, but also more personal. Much more powerful also, because it allows you to transcend the parameters of corporeal existence. Its hard to do because you are so impacted by the data inundated by your 5 senses, and ever more difficult because more of that data is made available all the time. Information Overload. If you let yourself be swamped by that, you will never see the truth. Calm yourself down, stop processing information for a bit and many things become apparent that are not apparent when you are swamped by sensory and infomation overload.


  20. Bicycle Dave says:

    Hi Gail,

    As you know, we are not going to agree on the value of religion in our current predicament. However, I do agree with your comment:

    I might also note that economics, and the belief in economic growth as a savior for all, has become almost a new religion

    From my POV, I don’t care if the belief system is about an “invisible friend” or an “invisible hand” – either way it is a delusion because the god/afterlife notion is predicated upon the existence of a supernatural realm and free market stuff ignores the physical realities of “Our Finite World”. In either case, there is zero scientific proof that these belief systems deal with the simple concept called “truth”. If one does not accept the value of the scientific method in searching for truth, then of course, discussion is futile from my perspective.

    Both religion and various economic theories have served certain constituencies very well – in both cases it is totally demonstrable that power and wealth have accrued to those controlling these ideas. And even the people being exploited by these belief systems have benefited in some circumstances at various points in time. In my own case, I have friends and relatives that find solace in religion or hope that they will become the next highly successful capitalist. I never express my opinions to them because they are just the product of our culture, not the profiteers or the people who could actually change the system. Gail, you have the honor of being a primary recipient of my criticism of religion (probably an unwelcomed honor!)

    I find the fundamental flaws in today’s versions of religion (including Eastern religions) are twofold:

    – They are an anachronism. They obviously had some value in past centuries or this meme would not have survived – they served some real world purposes in centuries past. Now, they are more like a vestigial appendage that is threatening our survival. As you have said, population overshoot is our most intractable problem facing the planet and the long term survival of humans. Few mainstream religions preach birth control as humanity’s number one priority. That message is diametrically opposed to their own growth imperative. The idea that religions provide comfort to people in pain or provide for some kind of community structure is just one side of ledger. On the other side of the ledger is the dysfunction of religious wars, the disruption of stable communities via missionary work, and the everyday divisiveness promulgated in communities around the world. If you believe, as I do, that human cooperation is a fundamental prerequisite for any strategy to mitigate the coming crisis, then religion is not your friend.

    – Religion is based upon “Faith”, which by definition, is a belief without proof – basically a rejection of the scientific method as a means to judge any degree of something being true or false. I’ve no interest in engaging in arguments about faith vs science – I simply can’t see how different faith based belief systems will permit homo sapiens to cooperate on the big issues facing the planet. I can see how the perceived benefits of religion (mostly emotional comfort and sense of community) can be replaced with non-religions constructs – but I really can’t envision religious leaders promoting the idea that we urgently need to humanely reduce human population to some kind of long term sustainable number.

    It seems to me that “Going back” to some kind of religious paradigm that existed centuries ago is a dangerous form of nostalgia – the world of 2B humans with untapped resources is gone. A world of 7B -> 9B with depleted resources represents a totally different problem that needs a totally different worldview – unless we feel collapse is inevitable and resistance is futile . Also the idea that religion or other new-age nonsense can keep us “happy” reminds me of a morphine pump in a hospice care unit.

    I feel that the real question facing humanity is whether or not we can get beyond our inherited genes and memes by force of our intellect and come to grips with the real problems facing humanity and the planet. I see religion as an obstacle, not a facilitator. I realize this blog focuses more on issues of debt/finance/economy, but I will contend that “Our Finite Planet” is still where the real focus ought to be.

    • Justin Nigh says:

      Bicycle Dave,

      I know you’re open-minded so you’re going to love what I’m about to say 🙂 While you may not believe in the ‘supernatural’ you must consider recent findings in physics, discovered using the scientific method, that indicates it may be impossible to have a truly objective view of the physical universe. It’s impossible to separate the observed from the observer, because the very mechanisms of observation influence the results. In other words, what we experience as reality is only one possible way of understanding it based on our faculties of perception. Experimentation with psychedelic substances (which alters, expands, or diminishes (depending on your opinion) these faculties) appears to substantiate these findings, as does many Eastern philosophies which have been saying the same thing for thousands of years before science ‘caught up.’

      In this view, the answer to the question “If a tree falls in the forest but nobody is around to hear, does it make a sound?” would be “no.” It creates air movement but requires the faculty of hearing for the air movements to be translated into sound.

      Have a look at the following for more details.

      You may also be interested in a book called Biocentrism which delves further into the implications of these findings.

      • Justin Nigh says:

        I would like to add to the above.

        While I agree that organised religion has arguably overstayed it’s welcome and contributed to much of what we can consider negative today, science too is not perfect and in it’s own way has provided negative effects. The cartesian belief of dualism in which mind and matter are separate has led to an approach that treats the natural world simply as objects and ‘stuff.’ It disregards connections and enables the eradication of those ‘things’ (like mosquitos, or plants we’ve categorised as ‘weeds’) we see as undesirable or unnecessary (as a result of the cartesian worldview). This has been incredibly damaging to our ecosystem and has as much to do with the issues of “Our Finite World” as does the negative attributes of religion.

        I don’t think science has all the answers. I don’t believe science is the pinnacle of development. In fact, if you truly believe in science, this should be a given. We can never ‘know it all’ but through increases in intelligence and consciousness, science will be replaced with something that evolves the scientific method and integrates the useful findings of both science and spiritual realms.

    • I think there is a purpose in religion, completely apart from whether the narrative given is “right” or “wrong”.

      It is not a given that a person believes all of the stuff (or even most of the stuff) in the narrative. A person can find helpful philosophies (and not so helpful philosophies) in the teachings. Thinking about which philosophies make sense on a regular basis can enrich a person’s life. So can the friends a person connects with through religious groups. The music can be uplifting as well.

      This has nothing to do with the scientific method. If I go to a Sunday School class, we will likely talk about something like the likelihood that the walls of Jericho had already fallen down, before Joshua supposedly marched around them, or that the “promised land” was already occupied by other people. God told the Jews to kill all of the people and animals in the promised land (which would make sense, if there was a problem with too many people and animals occupying the same area–the territoriality issue), but archeological evidence indicates that they in fact mostly intermarried–not what they were told to do. I am sure that you are aware that not all churches take the religious documents at face value–some do, but quite a few don’t.

      I look more at the teachings, and which of them make sense for me. “Forgive one another is important.” Spending a lot of time bearing a grudge is not helpful. “It is more blessed to give than receive,” is another.

      Women are more concerned about altruism than men, in general. That may be why female members outnumber male members of church.

    • sponia says:

      Cart before the horse, Dave. Religion is not based on faith; it is the other way around.

      As for the interconnectedness of everything, see this new story in Scientific American:
      “Quantum Entanglement Experiments Expand to Include Eight Photons” at:

    • Bicycle Dave says:

      Gail’s essay is about the causes of human population overshoot. I thought this comment of hers was a great discussion point:

      Humans are also different from other species in that our intelligence has allowed us to substitute learning for at least part of instinctual behavior. This substitution of learning for instinct, together with the use of external energy, seems to have led to over-population.

      I often wonder if this same intelligence factor that led to over population can also be useful in humanely reducing population – and how that might happen (or not).

      But then Gail said this:

      Perhaps there is a Higher Power behind all of the religions of the world, who has devised the plan as a whole, and who has a continuing plan for humans……Another piece of what needs to happen is that we need to find a way to get more connectedness and altruism back into society….. Religion has played a role in this in the past.

      And then I took the bait (probably foolishly as seldom does anyone change their mind about religion) and hit the keyboard with my little rant. Which resulted in some less than appreciative comments about the value of science:

      Even worse than science is economics.

      Clearly, science is not perfect and has a history of flaws. But, to plagiarize Churchill: “It has been said that science is the worst way to discover the truth except all the others that have been tried”

      And, yes I’ve listened to the Deepak Chopra and quantum mechanics arguments along with the contention that church-going is a harmless social event with uplifting music. The point of Gail’s essay is that the human population is in serious overshoot and the planet cannot support our behavior indefinitely – certainly not to the end of this century. Gail suggests that religion might be helpful or, if not, then just a harmless form of socializing. I contend that religion, especially as organized in the US, is not harmless – even though I agree with Gail that many people are comforted and connected/supported by religious organizations. Some small examples that prove the power of these organizations can be seen in today’s political news: Movements to limit or ban birth control, “personhood” referendums, anti-gay legislation, Planned Parenthood attack – all issues that directly impact the subject of this essay and all issues with powerful organized religious backing. The problem with the harmless support of religion by people who are not dogmatic, is that these same people seldom take an activist stand against these dogmas that actually encourage population growth – certainly there are no Republican candidates who are voicing opposition to the things I just mentioned.

      It’s interesting that contributors to this blog often have no problem predicting massive die-offs and yet resent the suggestion that we might criticize huge organizations that promote breeding with little regard for population growth.

      I think the academic study of the history of religion is very important and certainly there are good ideas to incorporate into our private and public philosophies – and the same can be said , even more, for many non-religious academic studies. If anyone is interested in a more articulate presentation of what I’m trying to say, I recommend reading: Dawkins, Dennet, Harris, Hitchens, Stenger, etc.

      I realize that I’ve once again found myself engaged in a religious sticky-wicket – so, I’ll just try to slip away from the subject with a simple question: what (if any) organizations/institutions do you think could be most helpful in educating people about the population issue and bringing about changes that might result in a humane, but significant, reduction in human population over the next few decades?

      • I am not saying that I agree with what the “religious right” is saying, or for that matter, what any other particular group is saying.

        What I am objecting to is the view that “all religions are bad” or the belief that if a person is part of a religious group, they must reject scientific views.

        • Bicycle Dave says:

          What I am objecting to is the view that “all religions are bad”

          This is such a broad statement that its really not possible to respond to it directly. At one extreme, we have someone like the Reverend James Warren “Jim” Jones who’s church is usually dismissed as a “Cult” even though he got his early training in Methodist and Baptist churches. Near the other end of the spectrum is the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama who promotes peace even though his origin dates to 1578 and the Mongol ruler Altan Khan who probably owes his Buddhist religion to Genghis Khan who engaged in wholesale massacres of the civilian populations and is thought to have started the transition from Shamanism or Tengriism by consulting with Buddhist monks and other religions. In between, are any manner of beliefs with un-provable assertions of truth and a very wide variety of practices. So, declaring “good” or “bad” for all is not something I would address.

          However, Wiki notes this about Spirituality

          Secular spirituality emphasizes humanistic ideas on qualities such as love, compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, responsibility, harmony, and a concern for others, aspects of life and human experience which go beyond a purely materialist view of the world, without necessarily accepting belief in a supernatural reality or divine being.

          Given the part “without necessarily accepting belief in a supernatural reality or divine being” and dropping the word “necessarily” – I’m a big fan of this version of Spirituality and would personally extend it to include “the simple joy of living”. And this is not just an anthropological phenomena. We speak of a “spirited” horse and wonder at the spirit of Balto, the lead dog in the 1925 serum run to Nome. I love the message in Avatar where the Na’vi people’s overriding concern is the care of their planet – Pandora. That is an example of a religion I couldn’t criticize!

      • Robin Datta says:

        Movements to limit or ban birth control, “personhood” referendums, anti-gay legislation, Planned Parenthood attack – all issues that directly impact the subject of this essay and all issues with powerful organized religious backing.

        Powerful organised religious sects. The common ground of religion includes neither deity nor soul. For the state to cozy up to such sects is the establishment of a preference for certain forms of religion to the exclusion oh others. 

        • You make a good point. It is the fact that this particular version of religion is being put forward that is a major problem. There are many religious people who have no objection to birth control, early abortions, gay marriage, Planned Parenthood, and other approaches that would help with the population problem.

          • David F Collins says:

            Thanks for being a voice of sanity on this issue, Gail. Although by and large I have appreciated most of the commentary by my namesake on the bicycle, he regularly goes off track, derailing previously thoughtful and enlightening dialog (it can be enlightening when I find myself in strong disagreement). But damning all religion the alleged abuses of certain practitioners (please note my «fair and balanced» wording) does no good that I can detect.

            My wife and I go to church religiously. Our pastor is gay, in a committed relationship. Our parish’s ethnicity varies (my wife and I, between us, have more a tad of such variety in our blood). The rants by my namesake on the bicycle, and others of his ilk, are why I do not recommend sites like this to as many people as I might. It grows harder to find the kernels of value in the ever-increasing volume of chaff and tares.

            Are there not blog-commentary sites for religion-haters to blather?

            I am closing off now, to read a good book: «ARGUABLY: Essays», a collection of writings by Christopher Hitchens.

            • You are welcome.

            • Bicycle Dave says:

              Hi David,

              Sorry you feel that way – I didn’t intend to offend you. Gail’s essay is about population overshoot and what went wrong to cause this problem. Gail suggested that religion might be helpful and I argued the reverse. I admit that this often becomes a messy argument.

              But, puzzle this: if I had argued about the role of science in causing this problem (regardless of my position) would you have characterized me by saying “and others of his ilk” or labeling my comment as “blather .. chaff and tares” or suggesting I take my comments elsewhere ?

              I try very hard to stick with ideas and to never criticize a person (and Gail is very good about this also). I would never criticize you personally for your religious practice. Although I would encourage you to think about the role that religion plays in this population issue and I advocate activism for policy changes in the major religious organizations that have a very powerful influence on our government policies. What you consider blather I consider a very serious population issue.

              Gail has the prerogative to delete my comments and a simple email from her suggesting that I go away would be honored – I’ll leave that up to her.

              Good to see you reading Hitchens – one of my favorite authors.

            • We need a variety of perspectives, which is why I have been leaving your posts up. Also, sometimes it is helpful to have an opposing position to respond to.

            • David F Collins says:

              There are serious matters concerning the abuse of religion. For instance, in today’s (2012/02/18) New York Times:
              The NYT article dances the usual journalistic balancing act. It makes no mention of a plain fact that continued population growth is unsustainable and an act of cruelty and abuse to future generations. As such, it is a violation of the Summation of the Law, which is basic in the Abrahamic traditions and overrules all other commandments. As such, those who are called «Fundamentals» can be seen by some (like me) to be in serious error by insisting on a natalist tenet. And arguing against natalism by denigrating their belief(s) and tradition(s) does and will do no good. And in like manner, I see no point in further discussing this perspective here, even though the topic is indeed germane.

            • There was a time when the need to limit population was actively discussed in the media, about the time US families dropped from big families to smaller families, in the 1960s. This was about the time birth control pills became widely adopted, and there was a big interest in writing about the new advance. Families in the US had been having very large families. It suddenly became fashionable to have smaller families.

              We now need some equivalent thing to happen. Somehow, people need to see that growing population is not good. It is hard to see how we get to that point, now, though, because populations of Europe and America are not growing much any more (at least compared to the past). The places that are rapidly growing are the “developing” nations, and it sounds really bad to say, “You should stop having as many children,” to some other group. I think that is as much of the issue, as any, in the population problem today.

          • Justin Nigh says:

            The intent, as I see it, of the religious sects referred to here is simple; to create division. Divide and conquer is the strategy. As long as we’re squabbling over these issues we’ll never see the overarching similarity of what we are that would allow us to work in concert on the issues, like the population problem, that we would all benefit from.

      • Now you are speaking of a real dilemma. The crisis is that we know change is coming – no, the crisis is that we don’t know what change is coming. How do you prepare for the completely unknown? It is similar to facing death itself. Any recommendations would by necessity be based only on faith.
        The central human issue is ‘moral’ as well. Knowledge is a two edged instrument – that is, it cuts both ways, usually at the same time. Any sufficiently powerful tool is also a weapon. The only difference is the intentions of the person wielding it. No one was afraid of box cutters, before 2001.
        The direction forward is not clearly marked. I think a certain amount of exploration, and possibly a good deal of backtracking might be required.

    • Umberto says:

      you say: “I feel that the real question facing humanity is whether or not we can get beyond our inherited genes and memes by force of our intellect and come to grips with the real problems facing humanity and the planet”
      Isn’t that – our intellect – what brought us into this mess in the first place? Our over reliance on our limited perception and over estimation of what we as humans can do is IMHO exactly to blame for the problems we face (sprinkle over that the usual greed and selfishness and you are right there).
      You are focusing an religion as a distinct entity, which can be separated from our other ways of thinking and reasoning. I think you are mistaken. You just have to replace the word “religion” with the real meaning what it is: a “Believe system”. If you do that, than all of sudden you will realise, that you – or anybody else for that matter – always views anything you hear or experience based on your own believe system.
      This is obviously true also for science.
      Why can it be that people in the USA “believe” to a lesser degree that GW is real than people in Europe? Or how can it be that a lot of people to not “believe” in evolution (besides the point that evolution is not “scientifically proven”. Therefore it is only a theory which at this point in time cannot be proven).

      Gail states a bit further down: “I look more at the (religious) teachings, and which of them make sense for me….”.
      I am not sure if she realises that this is also a major part of the problem. Everybody creates his own “Believe System” according what he/she “wants” to hear or believe, regardless what is the truth (you point that out also).
      This is why we have more than 2500 different Christian denomination in this world, based on the bible – more or less. People go shopping for the church and the message they “want to hear”, and the priests cater to them, because it means money, regardless of what is “Truth”.
      Lets frame it in an other way:
      Just imagine if in a country everyone chooses and picks what parts of the law they would like to adhere do – absolute anarchy is the unavoidable outcome.

      As I have stated on other occasions, there is – IMHO – just one possible scenario under which the human race – and this planet – has a chance to survive:
      1.) One Government for the entire earth
      2.) One set of Law, which everyone has to adhere to – no picking and choosing
      3.) No special treatment for any group, race or nationality – total equality for everyone
      4.) Absolute living “within” the bountarys of the ecosystem – including animals, plants ect.

      Of course I know that most people will say this is impossible. But this is exactly what the message of the Bible is.
      Time will tell if my “believe system” is the one with the most truth in it.


  21. Pingback: What goes wrong when growth ends before its limits? « Reading Nature's Signals

  22. Jan Steinman says:

    I’m delighted to see an actuary delve into the realm of ecology and spirituality!

    I’m reminded of Herman Wouk’s The Lomokome Papers, in which a population limited by resources becomes self-limiting through The Law of Reasonable War. When competing factions cannot work out their differences, they go to “virtual war,” in which by random lottery, they go to death chambers so that population can be stabilized without the destruction of infrastructure that comes with “real” war.

    Regarding happiness, Dan Gilbert (Stumbling on Happiness)has done some fascinating work. He posits that we can “synthesize” happiness — a year after winning the lottery or losing the use of their legs, lottery winners and paraplegics are about equally happy.

    So the challenge is to lead happy lives in the light of whatever happens. And that comes back to Gail’s observations. I’ve voluntarily cut my income by a factor of 40 in the past decade, and I’m happier!

    Yes, what might be called “bad things” are going to happen. Any one of us can choose to be happy through the process. Or not. Your choice. Do watch the Dan Gilbert TED talk linked above, and start working on your happiness!

  23. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail
    Thanks for the provocative post.

    Psychologists and politicians know that framing is everything. Is it a tax increase or just letting the old tax break expire? The distinction between those two mental states is night and day. So consider a few scenarios:

    1. The Kenyans are offered the opportunity to gain great wealth (like the Americans) but to become miserable and sick both mentally and physically. Will they take the trade?
    2. The Americans are offered the opportunity to gain a joyful life (like the Kenyans) but will lose their material wealth. Will they take the trade?

    History gives us mixed examples. The Plains Indians reverted to a hunter gatherer lifestyle of carefree independence and abandoned the more wealth producing agricultural lifestyle when they got horses from the Spaniards. Many relatively primitive people in the world today resist the efforts of Bill Gates and Bill Clinton to ‘improve and modernize’ them. On the other hand, Westerners have obviously made their choice. Japan, once Admiral Perry sailed into the bay, did a 180 and never looked back.

    My personal choice is to look on the bright side of Permaculture and community and joyfulness and frugality. But I am also aware of just how hard it is for me to avoid the framing that society drums into me at every opportunity–loss of wealth.

    For a vivid description of what it can be like to live in a low energy, stable population, and rich culture, one might want to look at:
    Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan [Hardcover]
    Azby Brown

    I want to note one religious factor which was operating in Japan at the time. The religion was Buddhism, which states that souls are immortal and are reborn after death. So an unwanted child was ‘sent back’ by the midwives. ‘Sent back’ to where? I presume to be born again into better circumstances. So I would hazard the guess that, in those several hundred years of stable population, the religion supported the ecologically sound choice. Let it be clear that I am not making any factual claims for reincarnation, just making an observation.

    Don Stewart

    • Robin Datta says:

      Buddhism, which states that souls are immortal and are reborn after death….

      From The Diamond Sutra: A New Translation: Chapter 14

      Because if they continue to hold onto arbitrary conceptions as to their own selfhood, they will be holding onto something that is non-existent. It is the same with all arbitrary conceptions of other selves, living beings, or a universal self. These are all expressions of non-existent things

      The Three Features of Existence:

      The Three marks of existence, within Buddhism, are three characteristics (Pali: tilakkhaṇa; Sanskrit: trilakṣaṇa) shared by all sentient beings, namely: impermanence (anicca); suffering or unsatisfactoriness (dukkha); non-self (anattā).

      In Indian philosophy, the concept of a self is called ātman (that is, “soul” or metaphysical self)In Indian philosophy, the concept of a self is called ātman (that is, “soul” or metaphysical self)

  24. pjc says:

    “We end up with more people, but those people are not really better off, and we find ourselves further into overshoot.”

    Ummm…. we end up with more people, because less people are **dead**. Not sure how this figures into “not really better off”.

    Suppose you have two population groups of 100 babies. By age 10, one group has been reduced by childhood mortality to around 20 children, 15 of whom are fit and atheltic, and 5 of whom are crippled.

    By age ten, the other group has only experienced 10 fatalities. Of the 90 remaining, 15 are fit and athletic, 5 are cripplied, and 45 play lots of video games and are not particularly fit, and 25 are obese.

    I think by Gails perverse reasoning she would reckon the second group to be “not really better off” … but that would be considered psychotic by most people.

    By hey – a certain amount of aloof, disdain for the masses is part of the whole “finite world” worldview.

    • OldStone50 says:

      But inversely, how do you confirm unequivocally that group two is better off? Simply because there are more survivors? Is longer life for individual members of the group the absolute measure of success and better off-ness for the group as a whole? That could be argued as true for each individual within the group, perhaps, but does that argument hold for the group itself? Why?
      What if the cost of group two’s survival rate is that all the members of that group have to be in a strictly controlled, artificial environment with severe constraints on what is allowed? Does that change things, better off-nesswise?
      Finally, let’s take a third group, but one that has only 10 members to start with and of which 9 survive childhood and 1 is crippled. How does group three compare in better off-ness with groups 1 and two?

      • pjc says:

        “Simply because there are more survivors? ”

        Let’s see …. I think you’ve got it there!

        Oddly, most people prefer life to death. And see a society in which people die more frequently as being worse.

        What a weird affectation, huh? Pretty hard to fathom….. Those silly Westerners with their “anti-death, pro-life” prejudices! Don’t they realize they’re being ethnocentric!

        • Dan in KC says:

          I was going to post a different reply – but after looking at the rest of this thread it is clear that your sarcasm is a well honed shield to protect your world view that anyone projecting concern about the future trajectory of human society in the face of peaking resources must be trying to “get” something from you – perhaps to convince you to give up everything you hold dear. However, reality has a way of making itself known regardless of how confident you are that everything will continue with Business As Usual.

          I don’t think anyone here ‘wants’ to see an increase in infant mortality or a decrease in lifespan but that seems to be the way you want to spin Gail’s post (by the way – very rude word choices : ‘perverse’, ‘psychotic’ but I suspect that is all part of the shield you put up – it must be scary to worry about what might happen to your children in the future, mine are grown but I do worry about the futures of my great grand nephews and nieces,

          Talking about the potential for a reduction in human population (in whatever form or direction that may take; starvation, disease, war) is not the same as promoting it or wishing it into existence. Perhaps there is too much ‘acceptance’ of this happening for your taste, I can respect that perspective, but the discussion also serves to help explore avenues for mitigating the impact. In any event, Good luck with keeping that shield up!

          • pjc says:

            There certainly seems to be misanthropic slant to these types of posts, what with the “we can’t keep saving every preemie” ramblings.

            There seems to be a notable lack of celebrating the improvements in human health technology in these sorts of posts. Not one whiff of “it’s great that babies don’t die so much, but here are some new problems that are raised as a result”.

            As to “Business As Usual” — what year should we expect to see global infant mortality decline? I’m happy to wager.

            • Justin Nigh says:

              It would seem you wish to obliterate death. Death gives life meaning and cycles energy back into the system which allows for it’s operation to continue. By resisting the very nature of the system that both creates and nourishes, you move further away from any sense of inner peace and belonging. Would you also be in the camp that applauds seeking eternal life or immortality? This desire to overrule all the natural systems is a rebellion against what we are and only serves to create the very suffering you wish to abolish.

            • pjc says:

              So, rooting for the continued decline in infant mortality is somehow a Faustian wish for immortality?

              My guess is you have no clue what the childhood mortality numbers even are … most doomers and “modern life is horrible, Kenya is wonderful” types can’t be bothered with such statistics.

              At any rate, it’s around 6% of kids die before age 5 globally. It was over twice that 40 years ago. That’s our “predicament” – not that people are greedily reproducing more – it’s that kids are dying at less than half the rate they used to.

              In the industrialized world it’s around 1/10th that rate. About 0.4% or 0.5%. (The US is abound 0.7%, Canada and Australia are slightly better, some European countries are way down at 0.3%).

              Kenya, the example here, is almost 9%.

              I suppose if the global number fell below 1% it might be reasonable to say “ok human health is pretty excellent – we ought to start thinking about some other priorities, like saving the snapping turtle or what have you”.

              Good luck telling people a backslide towards Kenya is something they should accept philosophically, as the price for being less materialistic and less anthropocentric.

              At any rate, I’m curious with re: to this disdain for “Business as Usual”. When can I expect to see the childhood mortality numbers stop their decline and start to increase? In a year, within 10 years, when?

            • Justin Nigh says:

              I suspect your mortality numbers are a lagging indicator and just because they continue to accellerate doesn’t necessarily suggest they’ll keep doing so. Once the oil that has fueled that growth is taken away the trend would be expected to reverse, possibly faster than it ran up. I don’t profess to have a crystal ball and won’t walk into the trap of predicting when this will occur; what exactly are you trying to achieve by demanding such a prediction? You assume that a so called backslide to a less materialistic and anthropocentric life is something people will have to accept. Again this stems from your belief that humans are in control of nature. It’s not a matter of acceptance when nature shows it’s power.

            • pjc says:

              “what exactly are you trying to achieve by demanding such a prediction? ”

              Declining childhood mortality is irrefutable proof that a doomer scenario is not occuring.

              That’s the game you play with doomers and other delusionals. You say something like.

              “Ok the end is coming? When exactly?”

              Delusionals, when asked to give concrete proof that their delusions are real, sputter and flail around.

            • Justin Nigh says:

              I’m neither a doomer nor delusional. There is plenty of evidence that we’ve damaged the environment that supports us, eroded the quality of our topsoil, caused the extinction of untold species. How is this a lack of evidence? I’ve yet to see you provide evidence that irrefutably denies any of the above. A power down or die off is not suggestive of ‘the end’ at all. But if you are denying there are some difficult times ahead it is you sir who are delusional because it dismisses plent of facts detailed on this blog and elsewhere.

            • pjc says:

              “How is this a lack of evidence? ”

              Things are always getting both better and worse. If you only look at the things that are getting worse, than it’s easy to argue we’re falling off a cliff. If you only look at the things that are getting better, it’s easy to argue that there is nothing to worry about.

              If you take a really big, important statistic, that everyone agrees is very, very important, like childhood mortality, and say “so long as this is getting better, then the good changes appear to be outweighing the bad changes”, then you are making a reasonable attempt to see the world as it really is.

              That doesn’t mean there aren’t other problems or the world is covered in marshmellows. But so long as kids keep dying less, things are basically OK. Veil of tears and all that, but basically ok.

              My beef with this post is it’s sort of backsliding on infant mortality. This whole post is saying “meh, 9% of kids dying before 5 isn’t really so bad. If we live in harmony with nature we can accept 9% of kids dying. Look at Kenyans”.

              Nope. Not buying it – that’s crazy talk.

            • I will have to admit that I do not see a need to get infant mortality down to a very low level.

              If nothing else, there is the issue of genetic diseases. There is no point in increasing the number of people in the group who have serious problems of various sorts, to become parents in the next generation. There is also no point in increasing the number of children who live, but have serious disabilities–need to be cared for all of their lives. Even the fact that the baby is born very small would seem to increase the possibility of the same problem occurring in the next generation. Being a part of a large multiple birth group would also seem to increase the chance of giving birth to more multiple births in the next generation (unless engineered through in-vitro fertilization).

              In a world with lesser resources, we will need to match up our resource use to what is available. Taking care of a disabled infant for a lifetime takes huge resources–perhaps the time and energy of two adults (because of the need for 7 day care) plus the need for modified homes, special transportation, not to mention more frequent hospitalizations. If we don’t have enough to go around, this is not a cost society can really afford.

              Nature provides a fairly high level of miscarriages, to deal with babies who have defects that are incompatible with long-term survival. I see a fair amount of infant mortality as an extension of this. Most parents can have another baby, if this is their choice, so I do not see this as a huge burden on the family.

            • Justin Nigh says:

              When I used to work in computer systems support, I would on occasion get a call from a colleague reporting their computer would not start. It powered on but the operating system failed to load. Not uncommonly the person would remark, “but it was working fine yesterday.” I found this curious and would reply, “well it always works fine until it stops working.” Systems can very quickly and suddenly go from a working to non-working state.

              Up until this system failure, one could reference the metric “it turns on and works every day” as an indication that all is well. However, upon further examination and questioning, such as, “did you receive any error messages recently?,” I would often find there were warning signs of the failure. For example, the person might tell me they got a message that the hard drive was running out of available disk space, which if heeded, could have prevented the failure whereby the operating system was unable to load due to lack of hard disk space.

              While your metric of infant mortality may be a good indicator that the system is working, focusing on this metric to the exclusion of other metrics that may serve as warning signs of impending failure can have disastrous implications.

              Personally I prefer to pay attention to the warning signs. I would rather be in the camp that prepares for potential system failures and be wrong, than be in the camp that doesn’t and is wrong, because my camp has less to lose if we turn out to be incorrect.

          • pjc says:

            Sorry typo.

            “Business As Usual” for me means a continued decline in global infant mortality.

            When do you expect this happy trend to reverse itself? In just a few years? This year? This decade?

            It certainly doesn’t appear to be happening right now – in fact, proportionately, the improvement in childhood health is accelerating.

            • Dan in KC says:

              I assumed that was what you meant to say. However – I don’t do annual predictions (that is Gerald Celente’s schtick). While it is true that infant mortality has declined I will point out that the dramatic decline observed from the 1800’s to the present also corresponded with the greatest increase in per capita world wide energy consumption. This extra energy was used to free up resources (time) which facilitated the efforts ‘society’ could extend towards medical research to develop better medicines and techniques as well as contributing towards better pre and post natal care of both the baby and mother through better nutrition and rest.

              As per-capita energy declines (through both increases in population and flattening out, or declining energy production) then both the ‘rest’ component and nutrition component of the mortality reduction will be compromised. A huge number of individuals in the US are already unable to pay for their medical insurance and if the trend for society as a whole is to cut back on medical and social support networks because it does not have the excess resources (energy) to apply in that direction then the improvements we have seen in infant mortality will begin to reverse. The advances already made in medicine will still help immensely – but if people cannot pay for the medicine then what do you think will happen?

              My ‘broad’ expectation is for global infant mortality improvements to first flatten out (similar to the flattening out of our energy production) then begin to show a reversal…When per-capita global energy production is half of what it is today I think there will be a clear reversal in the global infant mortality improvements (maybe not twice what they are today – but clearly worse than they are today). This will also be coupled with an observed reduction in life expectancy.


    • Stu Kautsch says:

      “would be considered psychotic by most people”??
      In what culture? Many primitive societies would agree with Gail, and some of them had a longevity much greater than what we have experienced so far.
      Also, if group two ceases to exist in the near future, there will be *zero* individuals. *Then* who is better off?
      Not becoming extinct trumps all other considerations.

      • pjc says:

        “longevity much greater than what we have experienced so far”


        Ummm…. nope.

        Pre-technological societies have higher fatality rates and lower life expetancy.

        Sure, some members live to a ripe old age. But as a whole, without some fairly complex medical interventions, people will die pretty young.

        Some Westerners (usually ones with limited experience in youthful mortality among relatives) are somewhat blithe about this, as is Derek who spent time in Kenya.

        Since childhood mortality is so much more common in Kenya, the society is better adapted to cope with it. But I think it takes some serious moral relativism to think this is some sort of “fair trade”.

        The overwhelming majority of world population is going to see declines in childhood mortality as an unallowed “good thing”, and an increase in childhood mortality as a “bad thing”, and thus will see societies with high childhood mortality as being “worse”.

        Just saying – Westerners preference for Western lifestyles isn’t based around a love of “Dancing with the Stars”. Most people understand at some gut level (even if they aren’t familiar with the formal stats) that pre-technologicial life comes with some very serious drawbacks. Like a significantly increased liklihood of an early death, or of watching your children die. You’re not going to get them to accept this by saying “in a week or two you’ll be over your kids death and will be so focussed on daily survival as not to care”.

        • Stu Kautsch says:

          The longevity I was referring to is the society itself. A society that lasts 10,000 years is superior to one that lasts 200 years.

          • pjc says:

            Yup, this whole “almost always, all of your kids will outlive you” thing is a relatively new deal. So whether or not a society that achieves that can last 10,000 years or not is an open question, since a low level of childhood mortality is a fairly recent achievement.

            “A society that lasts 10,000 years is superior to one that lasts 200 years.”

            Something like infant mortality is a clear statistic that can be objectively measured. The question of “how long a society lasts” is something open for debate. The are more speakers of “Romance Languages” now then at the height of the Roman Empire.

            Personally, I suspect low infant mortality will be like farming – something that sweeps the globe and is maintained for more than 10,000 years (while various beauracricies rise and fall). But I will concede that I don’t know this for a fact, it is only a prediction.

            • Justin Nigh says:

              What evidence do you have that our world’s resources are not finite; specifically oil? I don’t think anyone here would welcome a die off, just that it is viewed as an inevitable consequence of overshoot. I don’t think it’s fair to criticise someone for looking at the facts, when the facts reveal something we don’t want to hear (don’t shoot the messenger). While I agree that the earth is abundant in resources, I don’t agree we’ve used them conservatively or efficiently which presents us with the finite situation we’re in. I recognise your response includes an element of emotion and I commend it because I think it’s important to consider all things, including people, to be sacred. In fact I believe we find ourselves in this situation because of a lack of the sacred which has led to a wastage of resources and diminished appreciation for all life. I would argue that our great numbers are not borne of any sense of sacredness but rather of a selfish desire for more, bringing people into the world whom can’t be supported.

            • Justin Nigh says:

              Some further thoughts on this topic.

              Do you think that increasing the number of people diminishes or increases their value? Do we not consider the rare to be more valuable than the abundant? I don’t know about you, but I certainly feel less significant in a world of 7 billion, ever increasing. People become more easily expendable when there’s an abundance of them. A feature that fascists could easily abuse. Furthermore, when there is a lot of evidence that suggests more people beyond a point does not improve our species survival rate, as an ambassador of the species, as we each are, I’m not comforted by our expedition into overshoot due to the implications to our long term survival on both macro and micro levels.

            • pjc says:

              “I don’t know about you, but I certainly feel less significant in a world of 7 billion, ever increasing.”

              So we should welcome the die-off because it will promote the self-esteem of the survivors? That’s an interesting, albeit twisted, world view.

              I feel significant because my two kids, wife, and rescued pit bull all love me to bits. Sorry if the decline of death in the third world somehow impairs your mental health.

            • Justin Nigh says:

              I clearly stated in my post that I don’t welcome the die-off, but see it as inevitable given the facts. Would I like to see a world where billions of people could be supported without detriment to other equally relevant creatures who also have a right to existence? Of course. Sadly that hasn’t been borne out in the facts. Am I suggesting we enforce such a die-off? Not at all. Do you only place value on human existence? If the extinction of even more species and their habitats is a side effect of our population growth, do you feel that’s acceptable? While you claim I care not for the lives of people in Africa, your argument would suggest you care not for the numerous species who no longer exist in ANY numbers as a consequence of our numbers.

            • Justin Nigh says:

              Your last comment about feeling significant I believe supports my argument as to why people selfishly want more children. Why should your self-esteem come at the expense of reducing resources available to others?

            • pjc says:

              “Your last comment about feeling significant I believe supports my argument as to why people selfishly want more children”

              The population stabilies with 2 kids per couple. Actually, it would decline slightly, since some kids will never couple, or will be infertile, etc.

              At any rate, your welcome to think of me as “selfish” if you want. Personally, I think that whole “giving your time and energy to another person makes you selfish” notion pretty looney, but have at it.

              “If the extinction of even more species and their habitats is a side effect of our population growth, do you feel that’s acceptable”

              Pretty much. If the whole planet turns into a parking lot I’d be upset, but any rational assessment of acreage is that the planet is mostly unpopulated by humans.

            • Justin Nigh says:

              There is a critical flaw in your belief (yes it’s a belief because it’s not supported by the evidence) that anything short of turning the world into a parking lot will not have serious implications for the stability of the ecoystem. The flaw is your argument is founded in a premise of humanity being above or outside of nature, which is increasingly unsubstantiated. Numerous scientific disciplines like ecology and even agriculture support the opposite. While perhaps beneficial short term, such views are unsustainable. What you haven’t understood is that we don’t need to pave over the Earth to affect other species; the mass extinctions are evidence of this. The amount of square footage humans occupy is not corrolary to the amount of damage we do. There are force multipliers, like pumping large volumes of waste into the environment, which do a great job of disrupting ecosystems and changing habitats even if we don’t occupy them physically. You also conveniently ignore the interdependence of all creatures and assume humans can carry on in some sort of vacuum where they have no bearing on our survival. How can an increase of a single species numbers and overall standard of living compensate for the diminishing diversity of organisms? If you understand network theory, which is what the ecosystem is, you’ll know that diversity improves the robustness of the network and removes single points of failure. You seem to believe other species are expendable and our natural systems will simply carry on operating without them but fail to recognise the system developed to where it is because of them. Might this belief be based on yourself being human, and having significant bias toward humans over other creatures? No no, it couldn’t have anything to do with that.

              You certainly have some interesting viewpoints, those that could be argued caused the very mess we’re in, while you also seem to ignore there’s any mess at all and encourage and cheer on business as usual.

            • pjc says:

              I’m not going to argue about whether or not the “power-down die-off” is inevitable, or even likely. Clearly, we disagree there.

              ” I would argue that our great numbers are not borne of any sense of sacredness but rather of a selfish desire for more, bringing people into the world whom can’t be supported.”

              Well, that’s pretty much wrong. Any objective reading of the demographic patterns show human population has risen because of the exact opposite trend. I.e. population balance was historically maintained through premature death of offspring. The human population rose because people were dying less, not because they were reproducing more – which is basically the opposite of the “people the world can’t support”.

              In fact, fertility rates tend to drop with industrialization – again, the opposite of your premise. Hence, the Gates Foundation strategy to control population by promoting industrialization – hoping to see the rising health and declining fertility that’s been seen in the industrial world recreated in the third world.

              But hey, you folks are so much smarter than Bill Gates (and Warren Buffet, whose fortune is mostly going to the Gates Foundation). Those two are pretty dim.

            • Justin Nigh says:

              There are all kinds of intelligence. Some intelligence gets us into more trouble than others. We’ll have to wait and see if Gates’ attempts to use mechanisms of control, which got us into our predicament in the first place, will prove successful. While industrialisation may serve to reduce fertility rates, it also serves to destroy the ecosystem on which our long-term survival depends. I also don’t believe snide remarks are going to win you any agruments.

            • Justin Nigh says:

              It’s abundantly clear that you are anthropocentric and that’s something we’ll never agree upon.

    • pjc says:

      Quoting Gail.

      “I will have to admit that I do not see a need to get infant mortality down to a very low level.”

      Yep – that worldview would be considered psychotic by most people. I’m glad the bulk of humanity doesn’t share your priorities.

      I can only hope that if 9% of your childbearing frends and relatives had experienced the loss of a child you wouldn’t be so heartless.

      At any rate, just let’s bear in mind that modern industrial society isn’t all about “greed and more stuff”. Reducing global infant mortality to a low level is a collective priority of society at large.

      • Justin Nigh says:

        Your rejection of nature is heartless.

        • pjc says:

          Well, let me put it this way – if you think Ron Paul’s “let’s abolish the EPA” idea is disturbingly popular right now, just wait until some of the predictions in this post start to materialize.

          Long before the infant mortality rate in the US approaches that of Kenya, the EPA will not only be abolished, but so will will the Nuclear Regulator Commission, the ANWR drilling restrictions, any restriction on fracking, and any restriction on the Keystone Pipeline.

          Heck Barack Obama is running on an “all of the above” energy platform right now. If some of these doomer scenarios start to pass, you’ll see how low “save the snapping turtle” is on the totem pole of priorities.

          • Justin Nigh says:

            If that’s how events transpire they will only accellerate our mutually (humans and other species) assured destruction due to a lack of understanding that we indeed, as much as popular opinion believes otherwise, depend on those species and earth systems for our own existence.

          • I think I am more concerned about Rick Santorum, who opposes birth control and has 7 living children. We do not need him as an example of how others should lead their lives.

            • pjc says:

              Sure, Santorum is a creep.

              It’s actually quite bad for America that this clown is doing as well as he’s doing in the Republican primaries. The Republicans are going to win presidential elections in the future (probably not this one) and they ought to be nominating people who are more appropriate. The fact that they are freaking out over nominating someone centrist enough to be governor of MA is a bad sign.

              Most people in industrialized society, when left to their own devices, chose to have small families. The numbers are pretty clear on that, to the extent that most long term demographic predictions show the population peaking and declining based on soley on increased industrialization and availability of birth control.

              I don’t think the Santorum’s of the world will tend to have much sway. He couldn’t even hold on to his Senate seat. His views on homosexuality alone make him politically obsolete.

      • St. Roy says:

        Lost in the nesting, I reply to your comment about the heartless post on infanticide:

        Per Dilworth (thank you for introducing me to this book), population checks, including infanticide, are pretty normal throughout human history and are more or less practiced now in China. Let’s not make value judgements on the current norms of our society. Cultural values are in constant flux – ala women’s suffrage being just one of many. With the severe overshoot we are going to experience with less accessible fossil energy, I suspect that infanticide will become quite normal.

      • Not everyone records infant mortality the same way. Many countries omit babies viewed as too small to live, so the data we have isn’t really consistent from country to country. (Whether it is consistent from year to year is another issue–perhaps it is.) This is an article called Global Infant Mortality Ranking Called Compromised.

        • pjc says:

          Your point being what exactly?

          This is a technical issue akin to determining whether or not Michael Phelps or Jeremy Lin is more physically fit.

          It has no bearing on the observation that both Phelps and Lin are fare more fit than Kevin Smith or Jorge Garcia.

          Again, the industrialized standard is for a very low infant mortality rate compared to what “low energy consuming” societies can achieve. Lots of babies that grow up to be very healthy and productive adults (i.e. the back-country skiing, marathon running, pediatrician who I roomed with in college) will die in a low-energy-per-capita world under anything remotely resembling current technology.

          People are going to rally strongly around maintaining a high energy world society as a result.

          Again, it’s not about “big cars and triple sized hot tubs and fast boats and super fancy jeans and big-screen TVs”. The pro-energy people have some strong human heath arguments that are going to trump any effort to “power down”.

          • Justin Nigh says:

            I’m re-posting a previous post that I believe either got lost in the nesting or was just ignored. I think it’s relevant to your comment about people rallying to maintain a high energy world society. I don’t see evidence of a problem (to the extent discussed on this blog) being acknowledged by those who would do such rallying, let alone acting in any significant way that isn’t more of the same (the same that has been modelled and shown to be running out of time).

            When I used to work in computer systems support, I would on occasion get a call from a colleague reporting their computer would not start. It powered on but the operating system failed to load. Not uncommonly the person would remark, “but it was working fine yesterday.” I found this curious and would reply, “well it always works fine until it stops working.” Systems can very quickly and suddenly go from a working to non-working state.

            Up until this system failure, one could reference the metric “it turns on and works every day” as an indication that all is well. However, upon further examination and questioning, such as, “did you receive any error messages recently?,” I would often find there were warning signs of the failure. For example, the person might tell me they got a message that the hard drive was running out of available disk space, which if heeded, could have prevented the failure whereby the operating system was unable to load due to lack of hard disk space.

            While your metric of infant mortality may be a good indicator that the system is working, focusing on this metric to the exclusion of other metrics that may serve as warning signs of impending failure can have disastrous implications.

            Personally I prefer to pay attention to the warning signs. I would rather be in the camp that prepares for potential system failures and be wrong, than be in the camp that doesn’t and is wrong, because my camp has less to lose if we turn out to be incorrect.

            • pjc says:

              Well, the infant mortality metric isn’t arbitrarily chosen to be misleading. It goes to the heart of the population growth referenced in this post.

              Moreoever, infants and young children are the most vulnerable to a stressed environment (in addition to the elderly). So if you’re worrying about humanity committing suicide, you’d expect infant mortality to be a leading indicator, not a lagging one, as a more stressful, less healthy environment should impact them first.

              Other than that, your overall post seemed sort of facile, so I ignored. Yes, some indicators are misleading, but, in terms of the strict lens of human health, this one isn’t.

              Overall, you sort of sound like someone in the late 19th century screaming about the demise of the buffalo herds. There was a tremendous, and mostly pointless, loss of animal diversity when the great plains was turned into farmland, but it was irrelevant to human health. It was bad for the buffalo, it was bad for the tiny slice of humanity that lived off the buffalo, but not bad for humans at large.

              At any rate, predictions of some vaguely futuristic doom and myopic obsession with only bad news doesn’t really interest me, or lend any insight into modern society. I think almost everyone agrees that declining infant mortality is a positive sign that represents “progress”. To my mind, the extent that the posters on this board see it differently explains the marginalization, rather than prescience, of their overall world view.

            • Justin Nigh says:

              I often find people who like to criticise someone use words that actually describe themselves. Facile, delusional, psychotic are all words you’ve used which may very well be projections of your own psychology rather than anyone else on this blog. The emotion you’ve expressed is also a likely factor in your obscured view of the predicament.

              There are many examples in history where the majority misses major trends and the minority sees them clearly. You’ve criticised Gail and others for their heartless and cold assessment of the potential for a large reduction of population, but yourself express the same in your comment about the ‘tiny slice of humanity that lived off the buffalo, but not bad for humans at large.’ This has been our argument, that if the loss of some human life to preserve the species at large were required then it would be considered justifiable. It also seems you have no problem being ‘heartless’ about the plains Indians; a people who I obviously hold a much higher respect for than you do the invading Europeans. Again an example of people calling another group (in this case ‘savages’) what they themselves are.

              I believe your understanding of systems theory and biodiversity leaves something to be desired. While the loss of the Buffalo may not have been catastrophic, there is a tipping point or critical mass that is reached which can take down systems quite rapidly. We are now seeing die offs in bees which play an important role in pollinating our crops. Where does one draw the line on which species are key to our survival or not? It would seem more prudent to take a holistic approach that respects and preserves all species as that would be more likely to preserve those that are important than crashing about like a bull in a china shop, hoping we don’t break the ones that only have value to human existence. The problem is your ethics only apply to humans and it’s this arrogance that is so disappointing.

              It’s probably not worth continuing to discuss this matter. Both of our positions are clearly defined and we’re unlikely to agree on any significant terms. I may be wrong or you may be wrong as to the outcome of all this; either way I don’t think much glory is to be had in either of us being right. I think the actions taken come down to what we place value on and the gulf between ours is perhaps too large to reconcile. How we live our lives is more important to me than the outcome and I can’t live a life that puts my species above and at the expense of all others so that we may escape any and all forms of discomfort. The shining city on the hill will be a very lonely place and I’m happy to stay down here with the ‘savages’ and animals.

            • pjc says:

              “I’m happy to stay down here with the ‘savages’ and animals.”

              That would be true only if you and your loved ones don’t avail yourself of modern medical technology, which I very much doubt is true.

            • Justin Nigh says:

              You can doubt all you please, while conveniently ignoring my more significant points, but the fact is I take a preventative approach to health by eating a balanced, healthy diet, and getting plenty of regular exercise. This element alone goes a long to way avoiding many modern ailments, something that if everyone did would drastically reduce such requirement for medical technology and the vast wasteful budget involved. I can’t recall the last time I used antibiotics as I’d rather allow my immune system fight off the bugs than rely on a crutch that weakens it over the long term. I’m not perfect but I do as much as I can. The system is so pervasive it’s near impossible to avoid, so go ahead and try to find faults that allow you to ignore the overarching philosophy of less is more.

  25. Great post, Gail. A general hypothesis is that culture evolves to fit the energy pattern of the time. The mores of culture, religion, and even politics are our cultural DNA and tools by which civilizations self-organize. Do we need a new religion to guide descent? Or can we resurrect the old values of living within nature from the religions that we have? Is spirituality a part of the science of descent, and if so, how? How does the nature of equality and freedom change over time within cultures operating with surplus energy, versus those with less energy?

    I’ve been following a lengthy discussion on the topic on one of the permaculture forums.
    The Sturm und Drang is a reflection of our times?

    • Bicycle Dave says:

      Thanks for the Prosperous Way Down Link – got me hooked as soon as I saw the Avatar picture (my favorite movie)! I’ll definitely check it out.

      I looked briefly at the permaculture link, but I need to read more. I agree with an opening comment: I would be one of those who would “walk away” if there was even a hint of some underlying belief system that was not based upon solid, peer reviewed, mainstream science.

    • I think we will always need multiple religions–even if people are working off the same document, they seem not to come to the same conclusion as to what that document says.

      But it does seem like we need some changes of emphasis. Somehow, we need to recognize that there are limits, and we need to work within them. It will not be possible to keep every premie alive, and every great-grandma on a respirator, and encourage families to have an unlimited number of children. Somehow, we need some more up-to-date belief systems incorporated.

  26. Ed Pell says:

    Evolution in action. There are segments of human society that are K-selected and segments that are R-selected. There are segments that steal, lie, and deceive. There are segments that kill, steal and occupy. There are segments that are kind, honest, and truthful.

    The sheep are going to need to learn to understand the wolves if they want to survive.

    • Jan Steinman says:

      “The sheep are going to need to learn to understand the wolves if they want to survive.”

      And vice-versa, no?

      Wolves don’t survive for very long after they have eaten the last sheep.

      • Owen says:

        True, but that’s no reason not to eat the sheep.

        That’s why you get treated for disease. You’re going to die eventually, yes, but why hurry it.

        Eat the sheep. Live longer.

  27. Les D. says:


    I’m not surprised that Kenyans live happily on almost nothing (by Western standards). I read somewhere a while back that a survey of the standard of happiness in different countries had Nigeria scoring much higher than the U.S. Now I haven’t been to Kenya, but I have been to Lagos in Nigeria. It’s the sorriest excuse for a functioning city I’ve ever visited. And I’ve spent time in some of its competition in that field: Karachi, Jakarta, Manila, and Mexico City. But every Nigerian I met in Lagos — from a cabinet minister to a street vendor trying to sell me a “genuine Italian-made Rolex watch” for $20 — appeared to be happy.


  28. Robin Datta says:

    The non-theistic religions (Buddhism,  Jainism and Advaita [“non-dual”] Vedantic Hinduism) do not postulate a “Higher Power”. The reference to “The One without a second” found in many places in Hinduism and at least once in Kabbalistic Judaism (Sefer Yetzirah chapter 1, verse 7). This implies the exclusion of the duality of “I” and “G_d” (and everything else).

    The idea of the interconnectedness of all things is acknowledged in Buddhism as Interdependent Co-origination, but has its roots in earlier Vedic traditions that describe the universe as “The Net of Indra” (Indra being the chief Vedic deity) in which each entity is a node in the net, being connected to all other nodes through the strands of the net. 

    The altruism of Eastern Traditions extends to all sentient beings, with even plants and inanimate objects existing within the spectrum of Universal Consciousness. Hence the Buddhist vow to strive until the last blade of grass realizes “enlightenment”. 

    A central theme of the Eastern traditions is to reside in the here and now, while operating as much as possible outside preconditioning and prejudice. 

  29. Gail, your essay (and the work which you reference) raise some interesting ideas. However, at this point, I don’t see any way out of this predicament other than drastic die-off. I think the chance of a higher power helping out is about as good for us as it is that a higher power will save bacteria in a petri dish. When the food’s gone, it’s gone.

    I like the insight you share with respect to greater flexibility. And while I agree that we need more of it to cope with what’s coming, I don’t see any way that will help prevent die-off. The question now is when and how much.

    • Maybe it is just as well that we don’t know when and how much. The timing looks like it is all too soon. The question then becomes how things work out. Some things may continue working for a while, even if some very basic things are missing, like imports, or even money in general. Things we own like clothing will continue to “work” for a while, until they wear out. Some of these things may soften the blow.

    • St. Roy says:

      Dr. House:
      I agree. Once you understand our energy predicament and the 2nd law of thermodynamics, it’s very hard not to conclude that a major human die-off will take place during the 21st Century. Paul Chefurka’s article, ” Population, The Elephant in the Room” probably best encapsulates this future. I am just now reading Craig Dilworth’s book, “Too Smart For Our Own Good” that provides much more detail on the process of how populations decline.

  30. paul says:

    The Kenyan life style is, it seems, more likely to persist than the recently developed American lifestyle, which has hardly ever come to terms with resource limits. But …
    Does the lifestyle of the 1% have much future? They are far removed from actually doing anything except rentier usuary, and consumption that it is hard to see how thay can fend for themselves in a resource limited world. I can’t see them forming family groups that stake out a claim to some fertile territory and defend their tenure of it with pikes and clubs. More likely wherever they go, they will become the prey of choice for more primitive predators. It is not a happy future for anyone, IMHO.

    • I am not sure it is a good future for anyone, but there will probably be some people with power. These people with power will probably not correspond to those with high incomes now, but there may be some overlap. The people with power will make sure that they and their families get a disproportionate share of what resources are available.

      Quite a few wealthy are likely to lose their paper riches. Even physical riches can be taken away, for example by law changes or by high taxes.

    • Rebecca says:

      Rich folks are buying up the old farms in my neck of the woods — claims to fertile territory are already underway. To say nothing of my neighbor’s replica of his ancestor’s Scottish castle.

  31. Both you and George Mobus have recently written about the spiritual aspect of the transformation this world requires.

    I recommend a google search for #EtherSec 🙂

  32. badocelot says:

    I’m reminded of John Michael Greer’s discussion of K-selected and r-selected species in his book “The Long Decent.” While humans are a K-selected species, we’re living in an extremely r-selected society. Greer made a nice analogy between our society’s reliance on oil and a society of rats in an area where a grain truck has overturned and spilled its contents: in the presence of a sudden glut of food, they overshoot and finally starve, taking the carrying capacity down some with them.

    As regards religion, there’s a deadly interaction between doctrines formulated in an era before technology and cheap energy made severe overshoot conceivable and their tendency to take on aspects of the cultural zeitgeist, including faith in eternal material and economic progress. Traditional Christianity throughout history tended to veer toward various forms of asceticism, forbid loaning at interest (the foundation of the modern economy), and the early church fathers would be aghast at the modern “family values” rhetoric — they promoted celibacy.

    Not that there weren’t problems — I know I don’t want to go back — but they weren’t the problems the Christian Right are giving us with their denial of Peak Oil and climate change. It’s when the two mix and the belief in progress gets transfigured into the belief in a God-given right to consume that you get the particular form of short-sightedness we’re seeing.

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