Humans Seem to Need External Energy

Strange as it may seem, humans seem to have evolved in a way that we have a need for external energy, such as energy from burning wood or fossil fuels. While the evidence is not 100% certain, it appears that we learned to use fire long enough ago that it is now  necessary for our food to be cooked. Otherwise, in many climates, we would need to spend half the day chewing our food, and we would not be able to do much besides gather food and eat it. (People on raw food diets get around this issue by using a blender, which also uses external energy.)

There are other evolutionary deficiencies as well: How do we deal with our lack of fur? How do we deal with our evolutionary dental problems? How do we deal with “survival of the fittest”? If we want our children to live, we continually need more food for our growing families. Cooked food gives more choice of food supply. We don’t think of humans as having instincts, but like dogs, we have a tendency toward hierarchical behavior, and this affects our need for (or at least “want for”) external energy.

An additional issue, now, of course, is that the world’s population is over 7 billion people. Even if we had not evolved to require using external energy, cooking our food makes many more types of food available, and is from this point of view much more practical than raw food. Cooking food does not in itself take a huge amount of external energy, but once we had learned the skill of using external energy, it opened new doors for other applications.

In this post, I will explain how these and other evolutionary issues relate to mankind’s need for external energy, such as wood, or gasoline, or electricity.

Humans’ Need for an Outside Energy Source

According to Todar’s Online Textbook of Bacteriology, energy is important for all living organisms. Plants and animals literally can’t live without a source of energy. Except for humans, plants and animals get all the energy they require from natural sources: from the food that they eat, or from sunshine through photosynthesis. Some organisms derive the energy they need through oxidation of inorganic compounds. Because of these natural mechanisms, these species have everything they need for survival, without requiring clothing or shelter, or other types of goods.

We can see how different humans are from other animals by comparing ourselves to large primates such as chimpanzees. Large primates spend much of their day gathering and eating raw food. They are not as intelligent as humans, and they mostly live in trees, so as to be able to avoid predators. This limits their choice of food supply. Their total number is far smaller than humans, because they need to stay in habitats to which they are adapted. The number of large primates varies by species (100,000 to 200,000 chimpanzees, about 130,000 gorillas, and fewer than 250,000 Gelada baboons according to the National Primate Research Center), but is always far fewer than the 7 billion humans in the world.

The shift away from behavior similar to that of other primates seems to have started after humans learned to control fire and learned to cook food. Chris Organ and others have shown that for a primate the size of humans, cooking food decreases the amount of time that must be spent chewing food from 48% of daily activity to 4.7% of daily activity. With so much more free time, the way an animal spends its time can change dramatically. Those changing to cooked food could do more hunting, and because of this change, include more meat in the diets. This would improve diets in another way.

It is well-known that cooking makes grains much easier to digest. Grains are a major agricultural crop, so cooking helped enable the transition to agriculture, around 10,000 BCE.  With the transition to agriculture came the possibility of much higher world population.

Harvard biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham in “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human” sees evidence of evolution of adaptation to a cooked food diet as early as 1.9 million years ago. When Homo Erectus appeared at that time, teeth and guts were smaller than in predecessor species, and brains got larger. He speculates that the energy that had previously gone into digestion might have gone into brain development.1

With  the evolution to smaller teeth, smaller gut, and bigger brains, humans have a real need to cook at least part of the food they eat. So outside energy for cooking food is one real need for the 7 billion people on our planet today.

Other Reasons Outside Energy Is Desired

Humans evolved without fur. Richard Wrangham in Catching Fire argues that fire allowed humans to evolve without fur, because a hairless animal can warm itself by a fire. A hairless animal is at an advantage chasing animals because it can dissipate heat much more quickly, allowing a hairless animal to catch one with fur by chasing it until it drops of heat exhaustion. The down-side of having no fur is that humans need at least some type of protection from the outside elements, especially if humans move to locations outside the tropics. Such protection might come in the form of clothing or shelter, or both. Outside energy would be helpful in creating food and shelter, but not as essential as for cooking food. Here again, being able to cook was helpful, because the reduced chewing time permitted more time for creating clothing and shelter.

Humans evolved with little defense against predators, except their intelligence. While other primates could climb trees, humans could not. They couldn’t fly or swim either.  Here too, outside energy sources were helpful. According to Wrangham, if early humans were gathered around a campfire, and a predator approached, one means of defense was to swing a fiery log at the predator. A group of humans could be protected from predators overnight by having a watchman with access to burning logs stay up all night. Eventually, humans learned how to use outside energy sources to build transportation of many types: automobiles, trucks, boats, and airplanes, to make up for deficiencies in the area of self-transportation.

Humans gradually found other ways that energy could be used to help overcome their evolutionary deficiencies. About 75,000 years ago, humans discovered that by heating rocks before they made tools from them, tools could be made more efficiently, and with a sharper edge (KS Brown et al, 2009). They later discovered that metals could be created with the use of external heat, expanding the type of tool that could be made. Humans evolved with hands that were more dextrous than those of other animals, so being able to produce good tools gave humans an advantage over other animals.

One deficiency of human evolution is that our tooth enamel has not evolved to withstand a diet high in starches. (PS Unger, 2012) Dentistry, which uses energy in many forms, including metal for tools and electrically operated X-ray equipment, helps provide solutions to these evolutionary deficiencies.

Humans, with their upright posture and large head sizes (because of large brains) have tended to have difficulty in childbirth, resulting in many deaths. Modern medicine helps overcome the problem of excessive mortality in childbirth. It, too, uses a lot of external energy, including metal tools (created using heat), sterilization, and medicines made from petroleum products.

Humans Outwitted Survival of the Fittest

In the natural order, each mother gives birth to more offspring than are needed to survive to maturity. This tends to work very well, because the offspring that are best adapted to the environment tend to survive to adulthood. As changes occur, such as a change in climate, or an increase in a particular type of predator, the offspring that are most able to handle the new environment are the ones who survive.

Humans, because of their intelligence, have found ways to defeat survival of the fittest.  As areas get overpopulated, humans have moved to areas where they have a better chance of survival. Humans have found ways to increase food supply, through the use of fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, and refrigeration, all of which require fossil fuels. They have developed trade, so that so areas with shortfalls can benefit from surpluses elsewhere. Humans have developed a world financial system, which has helped enable world-wide trade. The financial system has also allowed investors to pay for goods after they are put into service, so that the cash flow resulting from an investment can be used (after the fact) to pay for the cost of the investment. This enables investment, and faster use of resources, including energy resources.

One of the reasons for continued upward population pressure is the fact that humans have evolved to live beyond their reproductive years. In their declining years, humans often need assistance, either from their offspring or from a public pension program, or both. Because of concern for their own old-age, people without pensions tend to have enough children so that there is a significant chance that a child of the right sex will survive to adulthood. With improving medical care, this tends to lead to ever-rising population.

As an actuary (but not a pension actuary), I am aware that even when there are public pension programs, fewer children can cause funding problems. Public pension programs are typically transfer programs, where today’s taxes on working citizens pay for today’s benefits to retirees. If the number of retirees becomes too high relative to the number of workers, it becomes very difficult to pay a reasonable level of pension benefits to retirees. The use of “pay-as-you go” funding reflects a reality of life: whatever goods and services are available in a given year will have to be split between retirees and the current working population. If there are fewer workers relative to retirees, funding becomes very cumbersome for the workers.

The pressure of continuing population growth is a major reason for the need for supplemental external energy. The additional population needs to be fed, housed, and clothed. The additional people also needs jobs, and in today’s world, these jobs require external energy inputs.

Controls Built Into the Population System

Nature builds a number of controls into the system, so that overpopulation will not occur. The most obvious one is limited food supply. We have found ways around this problem, thanks to the use of fossil fuels for fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, irrigation, cultivation, and fast transport to market.

Figure 1. World population was able to increase greatly, once fossil fuels started adding to food supply about 1800.

Thanks to the wonders of fossil fuels, world population has been able to rise to 7 billion.

Besides limited food supply, there are a number of other controls in the system. One is infectious diseases. If humans live in close proximity to each other without adequate sanitary precautions, infectious diseases become a problem. In today’s world, these are not much of a problem, because we have built water and sewer systems, and have developed antibiotics. Doing these things required external energy sources, generally oil and other fossil fuels.

Craig Dilworth in “Too Smart for Our Own Good” says that there are instinctual behaviors that would normally act to prevent overpopulation. One of these is territoriality. Primates and most mammals are what are called K-selected species.

In K-selected species, territoriality tends to hold down population size by restraining the number of breeding pairs. We have all seen territoriality, if we have male cats or dogs. They mark out their territories, and defend them.

The territories chosen by instinct by K-selected species 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 a number of related 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 (another instinctual mechanism) 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.

Humans have managed to overcome territoriality to a significant extent. One mechanism is language, since it allows humans to communicate with one another. Another is trade. If an outsider is of some value to us because of goods we gain through trade, then an individual is less likely to kill the outsider when he comes into contact with him. Another is religious beliefs that encourage respect for human life, and thus prevents killing of infants. The availability of sufficient resources, as has mostly been the case since World War II thanks to fossil fuels, may also act to reduce territoriality.

The Role of Hierarchical Behavior

A person often hears the comment, “We would have plenty of resources, if we would just share them more equally.” Yes, that is true, but as mentioned in the previous section hierarchical behavior is an instinct, put in place in other species to help keep population down. If individuals at the top hoard more of the resources, then individuals at the bottom of the hierarchy are starved out–part of survival of the fittest, that humans (including myself) find so objectionable.

Hierarchical behavior, if combined with a taxation system that helps transfer money to the poor, seems likely to lead to greater use of resources. If nature had been allowed to run its course, the portion of the population that nature considers excess would have been starved out. With the combination of hierarchical behavior and taxes to protect the poor, we have (from an energy demand perspective) the worst of both worlds: lots of people at the bottom of the hierarchy, who thanks to the transfer payments have the financial ability to buy goods and services made with energy products, plus we have all of the people at various distances from the top, who want to gather as much of the resources as they are able to, in an attempt to get to the top of the hierarchy.

The Connection of Energy With the Economy

Apart from all of the biological issues associated with the need for energy use, there is an economic aspect. External energy is needed for any kind of manufacturing (except the simplest home handicrafts, such as picking reeds and making baskets from them). It is needed for any kind of transportation of goods or people, except walking or transport based on animal labor. External energy is used extensively in today’s production of food, even when produced organically. A person would expect there to be a connection between the amount of energy available, and the amount of goods, such as food or new homes, produced.

Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is a measure of how much goods and services an economy is producing. In the version I am using here, it is “real” GDP, which takes out the effect of inflation. Thus, if an economy grows by 1%, there are 1% more goods such as houses built and food sold, on average during that year. Having more goods and services available is especially helpful if population is growing, and new members need to be fed and housed.

When we look back over the past 2000+ years, we see a pattern of gradually increasing GDP growth. (See Table 1 below) The rise in growth seems to match up with increasing external energy. Although data on energy usage is not available prior to 1820, we know from other sources that there was a gradual growth in other types of energy usage prior to that date, such as the burning of peat most, water power, wind power, and a little coal usage. I will talk more about this in a future post.

Table 1. GDP Growth based on Angus Magnuson Estimates of World GDP since 1 CE. Energy Growth estimates are based on estimates by Vaclav Smil in Energy Transitions: History, Requirements, and Prospects. Energy amounts prior to 1820 are really unknown, but are shown as “0”.

If we look at the long term, we can see that the really big increases in GDP growth (that is, over 1% per year), all came after 1870. That was about the same time that energy growth started ramping up over 1% as well, because of the growth in coal usage. (Of course, economists who have only looked at GDP growth since World War II would consider GDP growth of 1% very low. They would prefer GDP growth of 3% or more a year.)

It is not surprising that GDP growth is a little higher than energy growth on Table 1, because GDP reflects growth in “goods and services”. Goods take energy to produce and transport. Services, such as financial services or the cutting of hair, can often be done with little energy input. To the extent that part of the growth in the economy is services, less than the full amount of energy is required to produce the corresponding  GDP percentage growth. There may also be savings through more efficient use of energy, for example, through more energy-efficient cars, trucks, or light bulbs.

We can also show the GDP growth listed in Table 1 as a graph, shown below as Figure 2, below.

Figure 2. GDP growth from the first column in Table 1, graphed.

The Relationship Between Energy Growth and Population Growth 

The impression a person gets from looking over the long history is that as more energy products became available to society, people found ways to put them to use that allowed more goods and services to be sold. With more goods and services available, it was possible to feed and clothe more people, so the “survival of the fittest” issue referred to above became less of a problem. If we compare Figure 2 with Figure 1, we can see that the spike in population coincided with the rapid rise in GDP, in the last couple of centuries.

We can also look at the relationship between population growth and GDP growth more closely using estimates by Angus Maddison going back to 1 CE. Here we find that prior to 1820, about 80% of GDP growth was absorbed by population growth. It is only since the growth in the use of fossil fuels, and especially since World War II, that rising GDP has been far above population growth, permitting a sustained rise in standard of living.

Figure 3. World average growth rates in population, energy, and GDP based on data of Angus Maddison (GDP and population) and Vaclav Smil (energy).

Can We Reduce Human Demand for External Energy?

It’s clearly not easy to reduce human demand for external energy. (One exception: If you are an economist, it is very easy to reduce demand for external energy. All you have to do is either (1) increase the price of that energy, so the poorer folks can’t afford it, or (2) reduce consumers’ incomes (perhaps by laying them off from work), so they can’t afford it. Either of these will reduce demand, according to their definition of demand. When you hear the term “demand destruction,” this seems to be what is meant.)

But what if we really want to cut back on the amount energy that the world’s population wants, at a fixed price, without reducing the buying capacity of consumers?

Here, I think the first issue in stopping demand growth is stopping the continued rise in the world’s population. As long as the world’s population is rising, even in lesser developed countries, there is going to be a continuing need for more food, clothing and housing. This is an issue we don’t seem to be able even to talk about. It may offend people.

Figure 4. World Population by Area, based on data of the US Energy Information Administration. FSU is Former Soviet Union. EU is the European Union-27.

Second, there is room for making vehicles more efficient, for insulating homes better, and for making other similar changes. But getting large savings in this manner is not as easy as it looks, partly because an initial investment is involved, and partly because when people find that they can save money by the change, they are likely to spend the money they have saved on another product that also requires energy to make, such as taking a vacation. When the overall picture is considered, the net savings are lower. This issue is common enough that it has a name–Jevons’ Paradox.

Third, a country can easily make its energy consumption appear lower by “offshoring” heavy industry (which uses lots of energy), and changing to more of a service economy. If it still continues to use products created by heavy industry, just importing the products rather than making the products itself, it is not at all clear that there are savings for the world as a whole. If we look at Figure 3, we can see that energy consumption definitely rose more rapidly in the 2000 to 2010 period than in the previous two ten-year periods. The 2000-2010 period is a time-period when much industry (and jobs) shifted to Asia. While there was some energy savings in countries that sent manufacturing overseas, the energy consumption of developing countries in Asia grew more rapidly than the energy savings, resulting in higher overall growth in world energy consumption.

To a significant extent, we start finding ourselves with what I call a “Whac a Mole” problem. (In the Whac-a-Mole game, a person is faced with trying to whack down a mole that keeps popping up from one of five holes, but whenever it is whacked down into one hole, it reappears in another one.) Especially with oil which is high-priced and internationally traded, we have a situation where if one buyer chooses to buy less oil (or gasoline, or diesel), there is a good chance that some other buyer, perhaps in China or India, wants to purchase it. It all comes down to financial issues, which I will discuss in future posts.

The energy demand issue is a frustrating one. The more you look into it, the knottier the problem seems.


[1] Richard Wrangham’s findings are disputed by some anthropologists, because we do not have direct evidence of human cooking as far back as he indicates. They also believe that there might be other explanations for his findings, such as greater eating of meat. Wrangham in a 2009 paper argues that the early date isn’t really necessary for his finding to be true; even 250,000 years ago would be sufficient for evolutionary changes to take place. He also argues that compared to chimpanzees, humans seem to be adapted for a higher-quality diet because they “exhibit higher energy use, but have reduced structures for mastication and digestion”.

138 thoughts on “Humans Seem to Need External Energy

  1. If you are persuaded by Gail (or your own observations) that a crisis is imminent, you might want to spend a little time contemplating the ‘tea kettle boiling’ apparatus in this link I posted earlier:

    Some historians of tea think that its historical popularity is due to the fact that boiled water doesn’t taste very good. Add tea and you have a fine beverage. Why did people need to boil their water? Because if they were using surface water, it would likely give the humans who drank it various diseases which prevented them from working up to their capacity and thus threatened their life. (There is a thin margin for survival in an energy poor world.) Should a collapse actually occur in the near future, you may not be able to depend on municipal water supplies. Most of us don’t have wells or springs in the back yard nor do we have roof top water harvesting (as we all should). So we may be dependent on surface water for drinking. So having a ‘tea kettle boiler’ such as a lot of Chinese apparently have might be a very good idea.

    It also makes sense to plant your yard with some herbs for making herbal teas.

    Don Stewart

    • I think boiling water, in a world where water is often contaminated, is going to be just as important as being able to cook food.

      I discovered the “tea” plant is not cold-tolerant. Getting caffeine may be a problem.

  2. Fall is a good time to get some hands on experience with fermentation. Here are two events in my neighborhood. I am sure most of you can locate equivalents near you unless you live in a dreadful, high-class neighborhood.
    scan down the page and click on the kim chee workshop description

    And learn to make wine from our native Muscadine grapes:

    Greetings from the Carrboro Farmers’ Market! Mark your calendars for a
    very exciting DIY wine making (and vinegar) class with Benjamin
    Vineyards on Wednesday, August 29th at market! Reserve your space

    Wine Making Class (and vinegar!) with Benjamin Vineyards
    Wednesday, August 29th (4pm and 5pm)

    Andy Zehman of Benjamin Vineyards will be demoing all the steps of the
    wine making process in this class. You’ll be able to learn and see
    everything that goes into making their Muscadine wines. Participants
    receive instructions on the winemaking process and will take home a
    bottle of Benjamin Vineyards wine. Andy will also cover simple steps
    to vinegar making in this class! Classes will be offered at 4pm and
    5pm, and the class fee is $12.

    There are lots of beer making classes around (people used to make it in the bathtub)…I just don’t have information on one at hand. As I noted earlier, making kim chee is just like making sauerkraut which is just like fermenting eggplants or red peppers, etc. So these two classes give you the basics of preserving vegetables and of converting fruit into an alcoholic beverage or vinegar. A beer making class would teach you how to convert grain into an alcoholic beverage. The other big category is making cheese out of milk, which I know very little about. I know people who do it, and I don’t think it is complicated.

    Don Stewart

  3. Pingback: Humans Seem to Need External Energy « Economics Info

  4. Restart from above due to the Nesting Problem.

    From Gail:

    “I agree–the issue is that society needs external energy. It is always possible to show that a few people, who choose to live in a particular way can live without external energy (especially if they have the benefit of knives, shovels, needles and perhaps thread, and a few other tools). It is even possible that the Inuits could live without external energy, in one particular environment, for fairly short life expectancies.

    But there is no way that 7 billion people could live without external energy. We have too many hereditary deficiencies, and external energy makes things so much better, especially with so many people.”-Gail

    No argument that the Agrarian-Industrial lifestyle needs external energy inputs in many forms. That is not how you phrased the titling of your article though. You Titled it :”Humans seem to NEED external energy”. You did NOT say “Humans need external energy in order to keep 7B alive on the planet in toasty warm McMansions”.

    You then made the argument that because of the way our Jaws are constructed, we have to Cook Food, which is clearly invalid because stone tools substitute for powerful jaws. Enzymatically speaking, your stomach can even adapt over time to eating heavily tainted food that has been rotting a while. Back in Jolly Old England in the 16th Century, it was common practice to hang Pheasants out for a couple of weeks to let them rot before eating them, though yes they did cook them after that. Anyhow, Carion eat rotting food and so can we, but it takes getting your stomach used to it.

    Then you attempt to Minimize the possibility of Humans living in the absence of External Energy input by grudgingly admitting that , OK, a few Inuit who lived short lifespans may have done it, but hardly anybody else did, which again is not valid. The few Inuit who still live close to subsistence lives are merely among the very few left as Ag and then industrialization marched around the globe and wiped them all out.

    You are fabulously good with numbers Gail, but your Anthropology arguments have more holes than Swiss Cheese. Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, the Potlatch society Tribes of the Pacific Northwest in aggregate numbered close to 1M Human souls at their Peak. They lived for over 10000 years throughout WA and OR up through British Columbia to Southern Alaska. They never burned down all their trees for fuel, for smelting metal or for making ceramics and glass OR for Ag, even though they did practice Horticulture besides doing conventional H-G living.

    On a more recent migratory level the Polynesian Naviagators who moved from Tonga to New Zealand to the Society Islands to Rapa Nui and eventually to the Big Island of Hawaii did not with the exception of Rapa Nui destroy their environments over 500-1500 years of time either. Again these were basically Paleolithic people although their navigation technology was quite amazing. They did use and control Fire, but again just using fire to cook with does not burn down forests anywhere they grow reasonably fast.

    In terms of what actual Population of the earth is sustainable utilizing Energy on a pay as you Go basis no quicker than it gets replenished, it is far less than the current 7B, but not so small as it was when only H-Gs populated the planet. Just simple techniques of harnessing Solar Energy to cook your food and harnessing Wind power to pump water around magnifies the carrying capacity by a couple of orders of magnitude would be my best WAG.

    What does that Population Number look like? 100M Human Souls might be a valid estimate IMHO. Is that a nasty knockdown from 7B? You betchya, but it is not an Extinction Level Event in this case.

    If Human Life is to be extinguished on Planet Earth forever more, its not because we “need” external energy inputs to live. We do not. It will come either we so Poison the environment it can no longer support ANY Homo Sapiens at all, which could come as a gift from either the Fossil Fuels industry or the Nuke Puke industry. The other possibility as has been mentioned before is that of Ocean Acidification, which probably is not Anthropogenic in origin but may continue over the nxt 50 years to such a degree that it will knockdown the phytoplankton and all higher animal life will suffocate from lack of oxygen. This is not an energy related problem really though we are likely exacerbating that problem now.

    People need to be educated that we CAN live very low per capita energy usage llives, and stop believing in pipe dreams and Skittle Puking Unicorns. Anybody who would like some chance at being among the few who make it through this Zero Point would be well advised to follow the lead of Peter Bauer and others backing away from Industrial Civilization. It is on its way out now, and nothing will save it. All to the good there, it and Ag were a blight on the Planet for so long as they have been pursued. They can be pursued no more.


    • I agree, 100,000,000 might work.It might take quite a few years to get there too, so from our point of view, be better than that.

      Perhaps I should put it a different way. It is so much more optimal (from a time chewing point of view, and from the kinds of foods that can easily be eaten point of view) to incorporate cooked food into the mix of foods we eat, that nearly all groups will choose to cook their food, if the fuel is available.

      If the fuel isn’t available, there may be a few places that people with our tooth structure and gut structure can live, and consistently eat raw food, but these can be expected to be few and far between–mostly groups that get quite a bit of their nutrition from fish.

      • I don’t expect Cooking to stop as long as any Homo Sapiens walking the earth have acess to SOME form of cooking it, and they pretty much always will since you can make a Solar Oven quite easily, and besides that once the population gets knocked down enough eventually there will be regrowth, assuming the climate doesn’t go completely whacky. Depending which way it goes long term, survivable zones might be in the far north in the case of runaway Warming, in the case of an Ice Age follow up (my general hypothesis) it’s back to equatorial regions for survival.

        I just jumped all over the Cooking thing because it was representative of the whole Theme you pursued that Homo Sapiens has evolved to NEED external energy inputs, when in fact we have not evolved to that point at all. The number of people the planet can support as long as there IS additional energy Input available is of course much larger than in its absence, but that is an aggregate numbers problem not an evolutionary existential one.

        One thing I won’t let go of here though is your obsession with the mastication abilities of the human jaw and teeth. This has way less to do with Cooking and Energy than it does with the use of Tools. Long as you have at least Stone Knives available, you can mince up even the toughest stuff into tiny pieces you can swallow whole if you have to. Once inside the powerful acidic environment ot the stomach, about no food cannot be digested, even raw grains. You can grind up grains to fine powder with rocks and digest them raw.
        Problem there is more a hydration one than anything else.

        Where cooking really comes in handy is on the Poisons end, a lot of plants are not edible prior to cooking because they produce enzymes which are taken up too quickly through the intestine and can kill you outright if you eat them raw. Everybody knows abotu the Mushroom problem of course. On the other hand, there are some plants you can ONLY eat raw, if you cook them there is conversion to some poisons also indigestible. Getting to know how to identify which are which is a lifetime study sort of thing. I’ve been jamming it into my head for the last 3 years memorizing as much as I can on this topic.

        Animal flesh does have the bacteria and parasite problem, but outside of pens in a normally clean environment, this is a very minor issue. The issue with some wild game is that they go and feed in dumpsters and the like, this can get them all full of festering bacteria. The further out you go, the less problem you have with this.

        Far as getting from here to there in terms of Population Die Off, it could be a Fast Crash St. Mathews Island scenario, or it could happen over the longer term of a century or more, but either way it is not good. A slower knockdown will mean more wars and human misery for a longer time. Under about no conditions short of Cold Fusion riding in over hill here can I see how a massive population knockdown can be avoided over the next century.


  5. Gail
    Just a few thoughts on our human need for external energy. If we step back 10 yards and look at it, I think we find:
    1. Plants depend on energy stored as carbon and other nutrients stored in the soil and on sunlight.
    2. Animals depend on energy stored in plants.
    3. Humans have learned additional tricks:
    A. We have learned to mine energy from the earth.
    B. We have learned to use energy more efficiently. For example, we invented knives, which are considerably more efficient than ripping with out hands.
    C. We have learned to increase photosynthetic activity. For example, maximum photosynthesis occurs in the disturbed ecosystem as opposed to a climax forest. Annual vegetables and forestry practices such as coppice maintain a disturbed ecosystem and do not let it progress to climax.
    D. We have learned to harvest the energy of gravity–particularly with water.
    E. We have learned to select or breed plants with differing photosynthetic paths to match our disturbed ecosystem methods of production.
    F. We have learned to design our home and work spaces to take advantage of solar energy (both additions of energy when it is cold and radiation of energy to outer space when it is hot)
    G. We have learned how to harvest the energy in atoms.
    H. We have learned how to accelerate the use of low entropy and thus harvest more energy now–with less energy later.
    I. We learned to hunt more efficiently, thus increasing our ability to feed on other animals.
    J. We have learned a myriad of tricks for increasing the success of domesticated plants and animals–plant and animal husbandry.
    K. We learned to wear clothing to protect us from UV and also to keep us warm in cold climates.
    L. We learned to cook food and to ferment it to decrease the energy we spend in chewing and digesting.

    (You can add to this list to suit yourself.)
    As we practiced these energy liberating strategies, we changed both psychologically and physiologically. Just as a lion is dependent on the herd, so we are dependent on many of our energy strategies. The Lion cannot live on grass, and humans cannot now live without our energy tricks. Both the Lion and the Human evolved from a single celled creature in the ocean, but we cannot rewind that tape.

    If you look at the list above, and the evidence you have presented, a reasonable conclusion is that mining energy from the earth has enormously distorted the number of humans on earth, the rate at which we lose our low entropy inheritance (minerals washing into the sea, etc.), the extent of our Overshoot, and the poisoning of the planet with heavy metals and industrial chemicals. You can also add to this list.

    Suppose that we simply stopped mining additional energy from the earth and quit trying to harvest energy from atoms: no more fossil fuels or nuclear reactors, sequestering carbon with plant husbandry techniques, recycling all nutrients such as calcium and phosphorus with plant husbandry and waste disposal techniques. (The cessation of mining and nukes might result from depletion or financial collapse or desperate resource wars or international agreements). How many humans could earth support?

    That is a very hard question to answer for several reasons. First, the earth is no longer climatically the earth we evolved to live in. Second, the earth has been significantly depleted of stored energy in the form of minerals and soil carbon during the reign of fossil fuels. Third, the oceans have been poisoned during the reign of fossil fuels. Fourth, Liebig’s Law holds–we have to identify the most limiting factor and work from there. Fifth, soil fertility has been significantly destroyed during the reign of fossil fuels. Sixth, while humans physiological and psychological inheritance is the same as it was before fossil fuels, the stock has changed. Adults are accustomed to a very different life now, and reverting back to an earlier paradigm (or a new paradigm reflecting the changes just mentioned) may be very difficult for many people. Seventh, while there is no doubt that humans in the industrial world have lost skills in many of the energy tricks, at the margin our knowledge is increasing. SOME people have significantly advanced the art of energy harvest on all of those fronts over the last 40 years. The fact that the vast majority have ignored the advances and relied on the brute force of fossil fuels does not destroy the knowledge gained. We now have a knowledge distribution problem, rather than an ignorance problem. How effective can we be in distributing knowledge?

    Is all gloom and doom? Well…if you are a certain sort of person, you might think that a few billion fewer humans is a pretty good outcome. But I don’t think it is worthwhile to debate that question. Charles Hugh Smith had an excellent post a couple of days ago on Sick Care. He asserted that the present system is unsustainable and, therefore, will not be sustained. He opined that the Public will end up financing preventive care and nothing else. He doesn’t debate the morality of the taxpayer refusing to pay for the fourth bypass surgery for the cheeseburger addict–he just claims it won’t continue because it can’t continue. I think that a similar attitude is probably appropriate in terms of population. Humans will do the best they can with all those novel tricks up at the beginning of this post (excluding mining and nukes) and we will just see how the population thing works out.

    Don Stewart

    • That is very good. I think though, that the problem is more than distribution of knowledge. It is also somehow changing ownership/ access to land so people can have a chance to act on this knowledge. It is not going to matter too much if people in apartments know how to farm–they have to have someplace to put it to use. I suppose of the knowledge is “gathering” as well. Such knowledge might even be helpful for the apartment dweller.

      • Gail
        Both Peter Bane and David Holmgren, who advocate Garden Farming, agree with you on the land reform issue.

        Will you permit a flight of fantasy? John Michael Greer thinks that the US is about to be defeated in a war. When the US defeated Japan in WWII, General MacArthur became the ruler of Japan. He redistributed the land from the very rich to the ordinary people. Perhaps, in defeat, we will be so lucky as to get a General MacArthur as our ruler.

        Don Stewart

        • There have been quite a few other places where that has happened, as new rulers took over. That can work both ways though–if someone buys property, they could find that it is one that is confiscated.

    • “The Lion cannot live on grass, and humans cannot now live without our energy tricks.”-Don

      I think I have covered this pretty well in my dialogue with Gail. Humans CAN in fact live without the “Energy Tricks”, just not nearly so many of them can exist on the planet simultaneously.

      It’s all about the juxtapositon of resources against population. Knock Down the population enough, then the earth replenishes faster than the consumption occurs. Same with all Predator-Prey cycles really. We just blew out the curve when we accessed fossil fuels, but we did not “evolve” to be incapable of existing without them. I am perfectly capable of existing without them, as long as there are not 7B OTHER people all competing for the same limited resources.

      Homo Sapiens are not Lions, though neither one can eat Grass and gain nutrition from it. Takes an Ungulate to do that. The variety of things a Human CAN eat, even RAW are immense really. Its just a Numbers Problem, not an Evolutionary one. People are not a whole lot different than Bears in what we can eat. Both Omnivores. Bears got Big Teeth and Claws, Humans have Big Brains and Tools. Generally speaking, Humans got it all over the Bears, even without the Guns. Just if there are too many of us, we knock down all the prey too fast and graze out the land like sheep run amok.

      This whole concept that we have evolved so far we NEED External Energy Input is just WRONG. We Do NOT. Anyone who has spent a decent amount of time hunting and fishing knows this. You just need to be able to find enough food and clothe and shelter yourself. The Energy stuff is just Bonus to make you more “comfortable”.



      • Dear Reverse Engineer
        Since all plants and animals that I know anything about use energy tricks, I don’t think it is very useful to debate whether we could live without them. We can go back to such basics as the capture of a microbe to live inside our cells to become our energy generator. That is an energy trick that most living things now use–but it wasn’t always that way.

        Lions use pack hunting as an energy trick. Could Lions survive without pack hunting? I don’t know. Pack hunting changes the behavior of the herbivores which changes the nature of the grassland and changes the climate. Would Lions survive in the world as it would change if they gave up pack hunting for some reason? 99.9 percent of species have become extinct, so the probability is ‘No’.

        Take the Eustace Conway story about the wilderness and the knife. If there was a resurgence of the Black Death which killed all the humans except for a couple of dozen who happened to be sailing in the South Seas with Dmitry Orlov. They land finally, to see deserted cities and abandoned farms. They have no useful tools at all. They are urban people used to buying food at the grocery store and fuel comes in a pipe or a wire. Would they survive? Probably the 99.9 percent solution, in my opinion.

        Don Stewart

        • We’re not talking about Mitochondria or what will happen to Dmitri and his crew.

          The Energy Trick under discussion is the use of Fire, and whether on an Evolitonary level Homo Sapiens is incapable of Life without it. Gail makes the case that we cannot live without it, I make the case we can, though we likely never will have to. Where do you stand on this question?


          • Dear Reverse Engineer
            I do know that the dental evidence and the length of the gut evidence support the notion that humans long ago diverged from other primates in an environment of ‘soft food’–presumably cooked.

            Other than that, I am not qualified to say much on the specific question of fire. We have also bred ‘soft food’ by manipulating wild plants to domesticate them in ways we find pleasing. Today, many chain restaurants run meats through something like a cement mixer to soften it. This both pleases the customers and also means they have to chew very little and so finish faster and so turn the table over faster. Whether our domestication efforts have softened food sufficiently that we can now dispense with cooking, I don’t know.

            All this soft food, of course, might be one of the contributing factors in the epidemic of chronic disease. There was a recent study in Asia which found that the introduction of fast food is leading to rapidly worsening health in that area..

            Don Stewart

          • Dear Reverse Engineer
            One more thought on the evolutionary path. Someone once told me that a gorilla in captivity will eat soft food in preference to the tough leaves and stems it would have to eat in the wild. (Gorillas in captivity also generally have vascular diseases–those in the wild don’t.) Now suppose, way back when, humans discovered fire and discovered that they could make soft food by putting it in the fire. So all the humans are quickly cooking their food to make it soft–because of an innate preference. The teeth and gut needed to deal with hard, wild food would no longer be needed. And so they disappear to be replaced by teeth and gut designed for softer food.

            Give the chain restaurants a few more thousands of years and maybe human teeth will disappear?

            Don Stewart

          • I find this distinction between “hard” and “soft” foods to be pretty arbitrary really. Nuts are quite hard and I can eat them. Basically I just compare myself to the Average Bear (Yogi) as to what he can eat and what I can, and we both can eat the same things, raw or cooked. Bears don’t eat Leaves and Grasses, we aren’t set up to digest Cellulose like Ungulates are.

            Far as my Habitat is concerned, what can I eat that is around up here to eat?

            1-Fish-Check, can eat them raw or cooked
            2 Caribou/Moose-Check, can eat them raw or cooked
            3-Berries-Check, can eat them raw or cooked
            4-Potatoes, Carrots, Lettuce, asorted Wild Tuberscheck can eat them raw or cooked
            5-Pine Nuts-check, can eat them raw or cooked
            6-Worms, check can eat them raw or cooked

            No grains are grown up here to any extent, so they would not be part of my diet if they are not being shipped up here. No citrus fruits either. I can scrape the inside of the Bark of different trees to get some vitamin rich nourishment, though it has no real calorie content I can digest. The calories though come from the fish oils, the animal fat and the carbs from Potatoes and some other tubers that grow in this climate.

            What are the “hard foods” here me or my fellow Bears cannot digest raw or cooked? How much of this stuff do I need to Chew anyhow? I have a very good Knife that will last me the rest of my life for sure, and probably another generation or two past. I can cut anything up into teensy weensy little pieces to eat with minimal chewing involved. Even if I ddi not have said knife, making one from stone 7 bone is not that hard, though it takes practice to make a real good one. Something future Homo Sapiens may have to do, but I will not. I got a nice Knife forged from Kraut Stainless Steel! LOL.

            Besides that, I really do not HAVE to eat any of this stuff raw unless I want to, Plenty-o-trees still around to burn for fuel, and you don’t even have to cut any down just for cooking. You pick up fallen deadwood for it. You just do not BURN all that much to cook a meal. Its when you make BIG fires to Heat shelters and to do things like bake ceramics you start burning fuel faster than it grows.

            Its all about NUMBERS and the fact Homo Sapiens kept inventing things to make himself more comfortable, but NECESSARY for living? No WAY. It is quite possible to live in balance with nature, but you have to WANT to do it and realize if you don’t you will screw yourself in the end. Some people did live this way for THOUSANDS of years with virtually no damage to their environments. They RESPECTED Mother Nature and did not TAKE more than she could GIVE to them.

            This thread bothers me because it amounts to an APOLOGY for the conspicuous consumption fo energy by Homo Sapiens under the cover that we HAD to do it because we EVOLVED in such a way we could not live otherwise. This is complete Poppycock, and the anthropology shows that to be so. Hard vs Soft foods? This is just nonsense. As to what your gut can digest once you get yourself used to it, I suggest you spend a few years as an OTR Truck Driver and eat Truckstop food for a few years. If you can digest that shit and not DIE, you can eat ANYTHING. LOL. Seriously I had a couple of cases of food poisoning so bad I literally thought I would DIE. I NEVER had diahreah and vomiting so bad eating anything else, including worms.


            • When cooked food is part of the mix of food eaten, a lot more people can inhabit the earth than without. Population pressure explains a lot if it.

              The places that where people can live on the diet you are suggesting are pretty much cold places. Maybe a few people can live without fossil fuel in cold places, but I am willing to bet not many. If you had to live in a jungle somewhere, you would be eating a lot of greens–leaves or vegetables–and those are difficult to chew. Go to a zoo sometime, and see how much of the time a chimpanzee spends chewing. If you ate similar food, you would too.

            • Your comment is an inspiration, but what you or I ‘can’ do is hardly relevant to a generalised statement of how mankind has evolved, or to the general meaning of ‘need’. We had better hope the powers that built the weapons industry and explore Mars will recognise the need of the masses to live in cities until their numbers shrink enough for them to spread out and find/grow stuff without angering the land-owners who can now own 1000 times what they need for their families, without censure.

              However the statement ‘humans need external energy’ is about as enlightening as saying ‘humans need to breath’ And what the hell ‘saving the earth’ actually means remains anyone’s guess. Let us hope people with power will decide what needs doing to save humanity from itself, and just get on and do it. The ‘people’s opinions about what should be done are making me very tired – not because the opinions are wrong (always), but because small groups of action takers have to decide for themselves.

          • Posted a response here but it did not take. Its up in the OFW discussion thread on the Diner.


          • I didn’t make the case that you have the same set of foods in the Jungle, or that all habitats and climates are equally well endowed with food stuffs Homo Sapiens can consume. I just demonstrated that the concept that Human beings NEED external energy input to survive is a canard.

            Nor did I disagree that the carrying capacity of the planet for homo sapiens is increased in the presence of external energy inputs. That is self-evident.

            Insofar as your persistent reference to Chewing is concerned, I am not a Chimpanzee and if I lived in that climate I would be digging up a somewhat different set of tubers on the veggie end and grinding them up to meal with some rocks. I would not use my teeth at all for this task as a Chimp does. Similar with leaves, they can be ground into a Pesto Sauce. Just about any of this can be made into a mash and left out in the sun to ferment as well. I can come up with endless strategies for making the food palatable without chewing or burning anything. Besides, you can always use animals as Converters. If you raise some Goats, the goats eat the Grass, you drink the Goat’s Milk. Where is the NECESSARY Energy input there Gail? Where is the chewing problem there?

            The only issues as far as long term survival for Homo Sapiens are not evolutionary limitations of “required external energy input”. They are realted wholly to Overpopulation and poisoning the environment. Climate change and Ocean acidification may render all these arguments moot though anyhow. If the Phytoplankton collapse, nothing above the level of the Tardigrades will make it through that Zero Point.


    • You would be surprised how many people would accept nuclear power if the alternative was an early death.

      There’s an interesting bit of news going the rounds – an artificial membrane that can extract uranium from seawater at only about 5 times the cost of mining it.

      Since the contribution of fuel cost to nuclear power is about 0.5c per kw/h this is significant. 2.5c is still a reasonable price to pay.

      The estimated resource of uranium in seawater if used efficiently with breeder and reprocessing is enough for the current population of the world to all have Western levels of energy for about 5000 years.

      Which may be enough time to actually make a fusion reactor that works, giving is anther 50,000 years on top of that.

      In short there is no primary energy crisis at all. almost Nuclear power at 10c-15c a kwh represents a ceiling on energy prices. No power should cost more than that, and if it does, you are being gouged.

      It doesn’t solve the issue of transforming a carbon based society into a nuclear electric based one, but it does show that access to cheap energy is not the main issue.

      • Leo
        I am just plain tired of nuclear. I can’t listen to cornucopian stories about any more. I listened to them 60 years ago in the Atoms For Peace traveling exhibit. Energy was going to be ‘too cheap to meter’. If there was an inconvenient nuclear war, then a 1952 housewife in high heels and apron would just sweep the polluted dust into a dustpan and drop it outside in the garden. Then onto quite a number of years later when a bicycling buddy was an engineer at Hanford. He assured me that the big bosses were assuring him that everything was quite OK. We now know they lied. My friend died of cancer.

        There used to be a saying that ‘gallium arsenide is the future of transistors…always has been…always will be’. I have the same thoughts about nuclear: ‘the way to really cheap energy…always has been…always will be’. Nuclear plants have never supported themselves commercially. Oil, of course, also gets hefty subsidies in the form, most notably, of massive military forces.

        At my stage in life, I am vastly more interested in living with very little fossil or nuclear energy. Life can be very good without much of either.

        Don Stewart

        • Sorry Don. Next time I will try and post something that fits your emotional needs, rather than what is based on facts

  6. These thoughts are a little bit of a tangent from this particular post, but are relevant to the body of Gail’s work.

    Dan Ariely is an experimental economist/psychologist who is now at Duke. His latest book is called The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty. It is full of fascinating insights into human behavior which is not rational by conventional economist standards.

    Dan establishes early on that the amount of cheating we humans (as a group) do is a function of two conflicting goals. First, we want to maintain our self respect as ‘an honest person’, but, second, we also want to gain material advantage when we can. The only way to keep us all honest is to design life such that cheating is impossible. If cheating is very difficult, then only a few people will put out the effort to cheat.

    (My comment. As we have financialized much of what used to be in the household economy (food production, child care, home remedies for health care, entertainment, clothing, etc.) we have increased the GDP and we have increased the cost of controlling the cheating that happens when things are financialized and we have increased the opportunities for the government to tax us. We have also decreased health such that the number one disease in the world is now clinical depression.)

    Then Dan gives many fascinating examples (from experiments) about what increases and decreases cheating. For example, being creative makes you more likely to cheat both because you are able to figure out how to do it technically and because your left brain is more agile in coming up with explanations for why your behavior really isn’t cheating. And you will cheat more if your co-workers also cheat, and particularly if your boss is cheating. If someone you respect is cheating, then you will cheat more–but if you see a member of a despised group cheat, you will cheat less (as, for example, when Carnegie Mellon students see a person wearing a University of Pittsburgh sweater cheat).

    (My comment. We have reached the questionable position in this country where both candidates for President are, by word and deed, condoning cheating in a wide variety of actions by everyone from Wall Street to the Department of Justice to the monthly Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. And the current President has made a point of punishing whistle-blowers. We DO have clever, creative politicians who are able to come up with ever more elaborate justifications for why their actions are not really cheating–I imagine they sleep well at night.)

    Ariely’s colleague Ed Balleisen has a forthcoming book Suckers, Swindles, and an Ambivalent State which describes how each new technology enables new kinds of swindles. For example, the Post Office enabled people to sell non-existent products by mail order. The solution was stringent Mail Fraud laws. Now imagine the swindles in Mortgage Backed Securities.

    (My comment. Our solution…failure to prosecute but try to bail everyone out with taxpayer money.)

    Ariely also comments on the general decline in the quality of decisions which are arrived at by a group. Then he gives a vivid example of fraud in the Accounting profession which was enabled by the group nature of the report.

    (My comment. Corporations are extremely fond of calling people ‘team members’. Study Ariely’s example and see if you can think of why a corporation might like to have a malleable ‘team’ as the production unit rather than an individual who will bend the rules just so far but refuses to go beyond the line where they can’t feel good about themselves. Are fast food employees able to keep their self-respect only because ‘everyone else is doing it’?)

    Ariely points out that each new technology requires anyother layer of rules to control the inevitable new opportunities for dishonesty.

    (My comment. Think about Tainter and the collapse of complex societies. Every new set of rules increases the complexity. Old rules which have become obsolete are seldom repealed. If a rule is repealed, it is generally aimed at increasing the opportunities for fraud by Crony Capitalists–think of the repeal of Glass-Steagall. So rule repeal is not free.)

    A final thought. So Gail has certainly convinced me that the current system of financialization of everything is going to collapse. I think we will revert to a production mode where very much more will be produced by the household economy. We will inevitably lose something in terms of glittery products and the promise of perpetual growth and the illusion that many people will not have to do physical work. But we will also cut out enormous amounts of fraud and the overhead of trying to regulate the fraud away and we are likely to be a lot more healthy both physically and sociologically and psychologically.

    Will we be better off or worse off?

    Don Stewart

    • I guess cheating isn’t sufficiently part of my way of thinking to relate very well to it. I do agree that more rules increase complexity, and usually new rules are added on top of old rules.

      • Gail
        Actually I do have a comment about about your probable willingness to cheat. Ariely found that Accountants are the most honest profession he looked at. Where they get into trouble is when they are subjected to group pressure–such as those who work for ratings agencies or perhaps those who work for regulatory bodies where, as Bush II insisted, the banks were their ‘customers’.

        I would expect Actuaries to be at least as honest as Accountants. And you are working alone. So I expect you are a paragon of honesty.

        Still….there is that 1 percent chance…so I will keep my wallet close to me…(smiley face)
        Don Stewart

        • With actuaries (as with any other profession) there is pressure to write reports that say what the client or management of the company wants to hear. On the “casualty” side, which is where I worked, I don’t think there was a lot of cheating pressure. If there was “bad news” to report, actuaries would try to choose assumptions that don’t overstate the amount of the bad news–and may err in the direction of understating it. Casualty actuaries have tended to be interested in peak oil.

          On the life-pension side, I expect there is pressure to use high interest earning assumptions (especially on pensions), so that pensions look like they will work out. I would have a problem working in life-pensions.

          The question of talking about peak oil/low interest rates came up at an actuarial committee I am on (mostly life-pension people, except for me), and the response by one person was, “But the message isn’t one our management wants to hear.” I expect that it will be very difficult for the committee to say anything useful, because people understand on which side their bread is buttered. I haven’t heard from the committee in a while–the committee seems so far to be a waste of time.

          Even at that, there are some life actuaries interested in the issue. I was asked to write an article for a British actuarial publication that goes to actuaries of all types. I wrote the article; it hasn’t been published yet.

  7. Gail
    If by ‘not part of my thinking’ you mean that you don’t think about cheating other people, then I have no comment. If you mean ‘I don’t think it is anything worth paying much attention to’, then I would just point to the financial crisis, peak oil and the gas bubble. And a lot of other phenomenon where you have shed light in murky corners. If you think that most of your daily transactions are fraud free, I would point to the study that dentists perform a poor procedure in one quarter of the cases involving certain fillings, and the longer their relationship with the patient, the more likely they are to select the poor procedure. Details in Ariely’s book.

    Ariely also applies the term ‘cheating’ to self deception–which you see all around you all the time. Ariely discusses the ease with which we convince ourselves that our self-justification story is true.

    Don Stewart

    • I am sure my transactions are not fraud-free, but that is not something I focus on. There are a long list of other things that pretty much pass me by too–wars; who is running for what office and what they are saying; television shows; sports events; most music; latest fashions; etc.

      With 24 hours in a day, a person kind of has to limit their focus to a few issues. Leaving out some unpleasant ones perhaps biases my analyses somewhat, but it seems like that is what works best for me. When I learned the ten commandments, I also learned Luther’s set of meanings.

      The Eighth Commandment.

      Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

      What does this mean?–Answer.

      We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, [think and] speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.

      With this focus, I probably overlook a fair amount of cheating. It saves me the grief of wrongly thinking badly about people. It is not really for other people’s benefit; it is for my own mental health.

      • Gail
        You may be pleased to hear that at the end of his book, discussing possible remedies, Ariely points to some traditional religious practices. A brief quote, and then the results of a study:

        From the social science perspective, religion has evolved in ways that can help society counteract potentially destructive tendencies, including the tendency to be dishonest. (Then he ties in daily religious practices with his experimental evidence that reminders at the point of temptation are incredibly effective.)

        Following the physically painful approach of Opus Dei, we decided to conduct an experiment using a more modern and less bloody version of cattail whips–so we picked mildly painful electric shocks…We asked some participants to write about a past experience that made them feel guilty, some to write about an experience that made them feel sad, and some to write about a neutral experience….We set the machine in the lowest possible level of shock, and asked participants to press the switch, increase the level of shock, press the switch, increase the level of shock, and so forth until they could no longer stand it…In the neutral and sad conditions, the degree of self-inflicted pain was similar and rather low, which means that negative emotions by themselves do not create a desire for self-inflicted pain. However, those in the guilty condition were far more disposed to self-administering higher levels of shock.

        Back to me. Ariely concludes by noting that cheating (including self-deception) is an irrational act that we are frequently not conscious of. But there are some methods which have been shown to be effective in reducing it. So he recommends more research on countermeasures. Earlier in the book, he tells the story of a lawyer who was scrupulously honest in terms of billable hours. Consequently, he had a lower income than the other lawyers but was happy with his honesty. But he was also generating less money for the senior partners. So when the cutback came, he was fired. I don’t think Ariely has proposed anything to reform organizations such as law firms. We should also remember than research shows that sociopaths tend to rise to the tops of large organizations because they are willing to do anything to succeed. It might be very difficult for the head of a big bank to write any story about events which made him feel guilty. Ariely’s subjects are overwhelmingly ordinary people who CAN feel guilt.

        Don Stewart

        • On the refusing to write up hours question, my son who is mildly autistic had a job years ago grading computer programs that college students had written. He was amazingly fast at this–could grade a homework assignment in something like 2 or 3 minutes on average, with very high consistency from paper to paper–students who had copied from each other nearly always got the same score, and he often noticed the similarity. More than one person suggested that he write down more hours, because other graders took much longer to grade papers, but he refused.

  8. All energy is external until it becomes internal to the system and is degraded with the release of heat. If you unravel all of the complexity, what you end up with is high-grade sunlight being converted into chemical bonds and motion and then being degraded into heat that flows into space. What we see around us is real biochemical pageantry but it is just a slow path for energy to spread out into the coolness of space. Like dust devils, we’re picked up, given a spin and dropped back down again as concentrated energy hits the earth and then spreads out into space.

    As sunlight is degraded and sent back to space, a lot of strange things can happen with matter. The spinning skittles of the ecosystem bounce back and forth, searching for their sustenance and trying to avoid being eaten. Humans, being just another arrangement of cells, having evolved to technology, also learned to fear the death that sculpted their bodies and minds. Lots and lots and lots of death left you spinning on the stage, and you can see that death and you can see the flow of energy, the direction of time, and there’s nothing you can do about it, nothing, except believe the game will continue on some ethereal sphere. Your technology is helpful, but ultimately impotent. The skittles keep spinning, more every day. Will you hit a 100-point pin, be bounced off the stage or simply fall for lack of success? Will your genes have another spin? Does it matter, since the ultimate purpose is dissipation of the sun’s energy into space and this can be achieved with or without “consciousness”, with or without human form?

    As pathetic as it seems, this is probably the greatest game in the universe and your participation is obligatory. You’ve done been spun. Now what are you going to do? Sit around and eat and evolve heat into space? Watch the boob tube? Remember, you won’t be spinning forever.

  9. Gail has asserted that humans need fire in order to survive. Purely by accident, I happen to be reading something today which sheds light on the question. The book is The Forest Unseen by the biologist David George Haskell. Haskell first observes some Buddhist monks making a mandala, which reveals the whole universe in a small circle. There are other religious and mystical traditions which find that small things reveal mighty principles. Haskell goes into an old growth forest in Tennessee and throws down a ring roughly a meter in diameter. He will observe life inside the ring many times during the coming year. He calls the ring his Mandala.

    Entry for January 21st, The Experiment

    A polar wind rips across the mandala, streaming through my scarf, pushing an ache into my jaw. Not counting the windchill, it is twenty degrees below freezing (probably C?). In these southern forests such cold is unusual….Today’s cold will take the mandala’s life to its physiological limits.

    I want to experience the cold as the forest’s animals do, without the protection of clothes. On a whim, I throw my gloves and hat onto the frozen ground. Quickly, I strip off my insulated overalls, shirt, T-shirt, and trousers. The first two seconds of the experiment are surprisingly refreshing, a pleasant coolness after the stuffy clothes. Then the wind blasts away the illusion and my head is fogged with pain. The heat streaming out of my body scorches my skin.

    A chorus of Carolina chicadees provides the accompaniement to this absurd striptease. The birds dance through the trees like sparks from a fire, careening through twigs. They rest no more than a second on any surface, then shoot away. The contrast on this cold day between the chicadees’ liveliness and my physiological incompetence seems to defy nature’s rules. Small animals should be less able to cope with the cold than their larger cousins. The volume of all objects, including animal bodies, increases by the cube of the object’s length. The amount of heat that an animal can generate is proportional to the volume of its body, so heat generation also increases with the cube of body length. But the surface area, where heat is lost, increases by only the square of length. Small animals cool rapidly because they have proportionally much more body surface than body volume.

    (insert discussion of Bergmann’s rule–members of a species at the northern limit of the species range will be larger than those farther south in the range)

    Bergmann’s rule seems remote as I stand naked in the forest. The wind gusts hard and the burning sensation in my skin surges. Then, a deeper pain starts. Something behind my conscious mind is trapped and alarmed. My body is failing after just a minute of this winter chill. Yet, I weigh ten thousand time more than a chicadee; surely these birds should be extinguished in seconds.

    (insert discussion of Chickadee defensive mechanisms such as insulating feathers and shivering) Yet all this impressive protection merely slows the inevitable. Chickadee skin does not burn in the cold like mine, but heat still courses out. A centimeter or two of downy fluff buys just a few hours of life in the extreme cold.

    My usual heat generating chemical reactions are now totally inadequate, and my muscles’ shivering paroxysms are the last defense against a falling core temperature. Muscles fire seemingly randomly, pulling against one another so that my body shudders. Inside, food molecules and oxygen are burned, just as they are when muscles cause me to run or life, but now this burn produces a rush of heat. The violent shuddering of my legs, chest, and arms warms the blood, which then carries heat to the brain and the heart.

    (insert discussion of shivering in Chickadees–and how shivering accounts for half their energy expenditure on a cold day and a description of the enormous amount of food they need to find every day in order to survive)

    As I stand shaking, fear surfaces. I panic and dress as fast as I can. My hands are numb, and I grasp my clothes with difficulty, fumbling with zippers and buttons. My head aches as if my blood pressure has suddenly soared. My only desire is to move quickly. I walk, jump, and wave my arms. My brain signals: make more heat, fast.

    The experiment has lasted only a minute, just one ten-thousandth of the duration of this week of arctic air. Yet my physiology reels. My head pounds, my lungs can’t grasp enough air, and my limbs seem paralyzed. Had the experiment continued minutes longer my core body temperature would have dropped into hypothermia…Stripped of my clever cultural adaptations to the cold, I’m revealed as a tropical ape, profoundly out of place in the winter forest. The chickadees’ insouciant mastery of this place is humbling.

    I will replenish my reserves when I retreat to my warm kitchen, drawing on the winter-defying technologies of food preservation and transportation. But chickadees have no dried grains, farmed meat, or imported vegetables.

    (insert detailed discussion of how much chickadees require to survive, the difficulty of finding it, the sometimes cooperative efforts with other species, the danger from hawks, and the fact that half of them will not make it through the winter and selection of the fittest will have taken place. Discussion of hierarchy among the flock–the dominant get to eat first and are sleek, the subordinate eat second and must store more fat–which makes them a more tempting target for the hawks.)

    End citation. You will note that this biologist essentially agrees with Gail: we need fuel and we need transportation. I can visualize scenarios involving less fuel and transporation, but, especially considering the graphic nature of Haskell’s description, it seems unlikely that any significant number of us could survive without some fuel and some transportation and some civilization from which to import necessities we can’t get locally..

    Don Stewart

    • If we could survive as hunter gatherers without fire, it seems to me it would mostly be a relatively small number living in the tropics, where the biodiversity is greatest and the need for heat to keep low is least. In fact, I think that is where hunter-gethering held on longest.

      There is a question whether we could also live in without fire in relatively cool areas with enough fish and berries and not too many predators. It seems like one issue that would be keeping warm enough; another would be keeping predators away (without knives, guns, etc.)

      • Gail
        It is very hard for most of us to keep Liebig’s Law in focus as we consider alternatives. For example, consider knives–which Eustace Conway identified as quite important. We need a source of ore (which in the olden days was a pretty rich ore) and we need some heat (which we can get from a wood fired furnace with a little skill) and we need something to shape the knife with. It also helps if we have something to hone the blade on. Why is the knife important? Because we can’t count on industrial methods of insulation (Haskell’s insulated overalls) and will need to rely on feathers and hides and such which as a practical matter need knives to utilize. We 21st century humans are not used to thinking in such fundamental terms. So what is Liebig’s limiting resource? My vote is for the ore–we can’t find rich ores anymore because we have exhausted all but the low grade ores. But there could be something else which is limiting, such as the knowledge of how to forge a knife blade. Or maybe it is the population of fur bearing animals.

        Or maybe the limiting factor is our perspective. September 15 is the hundredth birthday of Woody Guthrie, more or less. A large assemblage of local musicians will perform a celebration. One of his songs, which those of you a certain age will remember, talks about a lonesome valley:
        You’ve gotta walk that lonesome valley
        You’ve gotta walk it by yourself
        There’s a path that leads to glory
        No one here
        Can walk it for you
        You’ve gotta walk it by yourself
        And so we get a fairly clear distinction between the notion of doing the right thing and doing the crowd pleasing thing. The ‘realists’ will say that unless you can get the crowd to go along, you are wasting your time. Woody disagreed. Which is right? We do know Woody was hounded by the Congress. And generations have pursued phantoms.

        We also hear a song from kentucky many years ago:
        Daddy, won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg county
        Down by the Green River where paradise lay
        Well I’m sorry my son
        But you’re too late in asking
        Mr Peabody’s coal train
        Done hauled it away.

        So…is paradise available when fossil fuels or other industrial sources are unavailable? Many of the people who subscribe to this blog do not think it is. Jesus and Buddha and Mohammed would have said that it was right at hand. Which is correct? What will the majority think? What is the sane perspective for an individual or family or small group?

        Don Stewart

        • The richest source of iron ore available to 22nd century hippies will be the rusting scrapyards of wind turbine carcases, oil tanker hulks and Detroit cars…

          ..and it will be a lot richer than any ore you might have found in the iron age Weald..

        • I think knives are likely to be a problem when our current supply is gone. Metal ores are of too low quality today, and recycling mixed metals is not going to work well. We may have to get along with poor quality knives, if that is all we can come up. Maybe someone else knows more details than I do.

          I remember the “You gatta walk that lonesome valley” song well.”

        • The sane perspective is to believe things won’t be as bad as many say, nor as good as a few hope – learn how to use simple tools now, and start collecting useful rubbish rather than the sparkly rubbish you mostly collect now. Learn to keep your mouth shut and eyes open. Do more for yourself and for other people. Buy some good knives now – they will last your lifetime.

  10. Human’s DO need external energy.

    That’s why, if it comes down to it, every last bit of coal will be mined, and every last bit of shale will be fracked, because on some fundmental level, people understand this is preferable to a “power down”.

    I personally don’t think it will come to that, as fracking is keeping coal in the ground now, and UGC will be the next phase for coal, and solar powered/nuclear powered synthetic methane will probably be the next phase after that…..

    But when push comes to shove, the “save the earth” crowd on one hand, the “we need energy” crowd on the other, the latter will always win. Because humans need external energy.

    • Spot on. I wrote something along those lines about climate change and renewable energy. In short it is impossible to expect the emerging economies of India and China NOT to to exploit every last bit of coal that they can- and the USA too – when the proposed alternative is that their citizens simply get poorer, and in the limit, die. In democracies they will simply vote in the bunch that will let them continue. Ergo until the real economic costs of coal and gas and oil rise above the nearest competition – which wont be renewable energy – carbon emissions will increase.

      The rational perspective on that is that invalidates all our attempts to produce expensive technology that works very poorly merely to reduce our tiny contribution to an insoluble problem.

      We are better served by putting money into meeting climate change, if it actually happens (and I am deeply skeptical that it will on account of Carbon-Dyed Oxhide, though its always been happening anyway, so contingency plans are indicated) and developing the most cost effective primary energy sources that can replace fossil fuel when the cost of that rises enough to make the alternatives viable – and that is nuclear power.

      All this has been well documented for years ( – its just been smothered by a massive PR campaign from the huge spin system that is the climate change/renewable energy rent seeking machine.

      In short the whole of all this climate fluff and faff boils down to two RATIONAL (but not emotionally satisfying conclusions)

      1/. Climate change will happen irrespective of anything governments have the power to do.
      2/. The only thing they DO have the power to do is invest on contingency plans to meet it.

      On energy, the rational conclusions are:

      1/. The current population levels cannot be sustained except by an excess of access to external sources of cheap energy beyond renewable energy’s ability to meet.
      2/. Energy costs will rise as fossil resources become depleted, until the next cheapest energy source is cost competitive.
      3/. That source for electricity generation is in fact nuclear power.
      4/. That does not solve off grid power needs – road transport, aircraft or shipping.
      5/. Shipping can be done with nuclear power easily. marine reactors for submarine and icebreaker use already exist.
      6/. Off grid the optimal power store is still hydrocarbon fuel: Aircraft cannot realistically operate on anything else, and battery theory and the properties of materials suggests that battery cars will never match gasoline or diesel cars on range. Batteries will – on a cost benefit basis – be suitable for short range and lower power off grid uses however.
      Hydrocarbon fuel is synthesisable, but not at anything like existing costs.
      7/. with primary power solved, and a reasonable suite of alternatives for off grid power the final use of fossil hydrocarbons is as a chemical feedstock – plastics on the one hand, and as a primary reducing agent to remove oxygen from minerals to create metals and so on. Plastics wise, its likely that organically produced hydrocarbons could meet demand – but realistically the dis-use of hydrocarbons for energy will result in millenia of materials being available for plastics. There is more hydrocarbon in one tank of fuel than in all the recyclable plastics in your car. The replacement of carbon as a reduction agent is not so easy. It is difficult to see how cement, copper and steel to name but two, could be produced without it. Although aluminium can definitely be.

      These are the rational directions.

      Naturally they are not being pursued: In democracies policy is made not on the basis of whether it will work, or be good for the nation, but on the basis of whether it appeals to the emotions of the electorate. Or suits the purpose of some powerful lobby, as long as it can be wrapped in enough sugar coated spin to be sold to a presumed gullible electorate

      • “2/. Energy costs will rise as fossil resources become depleted, until the next cheapest energy source is cost competitive.”

        Natural gas and coal both becoming cheaper in America. With Australia and China leaping aboard the fracking bandwagon, the world is sure to follow.

        • Yep. I’ll leave it to Gail to discover whether unconventional hydrocarbons come in at less than the equivalent cost of nuclear power. Nuclear power ought to be around 2c-4c a KWh but over regulation drives that up to the sorts of 12c level ..and so much depends on the cost of finance. My figures are base don 7.5% ROI. Drop that to 3% and you halve the capital contribution, and the next biggest thing is maintenance.
          US gas is currently hugely cheaper than European.. I guess no one wants to run LNG tankers around. Probably about 1000 times more dangerous than a steam explosion in a nuclear power station…..

          • Nuclear would probably be the cheapest if it wasn’t so overburned with political baggage.

            When Gail says things like “ignore the price signal, shale gas is actually quite expensive” I tend to roll my eyes, People who correctly discover that a commodity is underpriced (or overpriced) can easily get rich of such deductions …. so people who say such things but lack the courage of the convictions aren’t trustworthy.

            In other words, if shale gas really was expensive, than natural gas will surely spike in a few years, and it would be easy to make a bundle with the futures market. I tend to distrust such get-rich-schemes-in-disguise…. I think it is more likely the futures market is accurately reflecting the true state of the gas market – there is a ton of gas to be had at a price that is steep compared to the current spot price, but very cheap compared to the “peak gasl” spot price of a few years back.

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