Tag: The Automatic Earth

This interconnected world.

There is no question that we are living in interesting times!

Back in the old country there was a popular saying: “There are liars, damn liars, and politicians.” I am insufficiently aware of politics in both my new home country, the US of A, and my new home state, Oregon, to know if that saying is equally pertinent to life in America as it was in Great Britain – I suspect that it is.

So what’s getting ‘my knickers in a twist’ today? Namely the state of the world economy.

There seems to be so much spin and counter-spin that getting to the truth of what is going on, economically speaking, is not straightforward.

Which is why a recent article posted by over on The Automatic Earth jumped out at me. To my eyes, it really did cover the truth of what’s going on. And to double-check my analysis I shared it with Dan Gomez, no stranger to global finances, and he found it useful. Indeed, this was Dan’s reply: “That’s pretty much it. This should be the top of the world news every week until governments become accountable. All the other big issues of the day pale compare to the backlash from this sclerotic thinking. Good luck to all of us.”

Raúl has very kindly given me his permission to republish this. It’s not an easy read but that doesn’t detract from the value of the essay.

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 Why This Slump Has Legs

 January 18, 2016  Posted by Raúl Ilargi Meijer
Berenice Abbott Columbus Circle, Manhattan 1936
Berenice Abbott Columbus Circle, Manhattan 1936

We’ve only really been in two weeks of trading in the new year, things are looking pretty bad to say the least, so predictably the press are asking -and often answering- questions about when the slump will be over. Rebound, recovery, the usual terminology. When will we get back to growth?

For me personally, but that’s just me, that last question sounds a bit more stupid every single time I hear and read it. Just a bit, but there’s been a lot of those bits, more than I care to remember. Luckily, the answer is easy. The slump will not be over for a very long time, there will be no rebound or recovery, and please stop talking about a return to growth unless you can explain what you want to grow into.

I’m sorry, I know that’s not what you want to hear, but life’s a bitch and so’s the economy. You’ve lived on pink fumes for a long time, most of you for their whole lives, but reality dictates that real ‘growth’ stopped decades ago, and you never figured that out because, and I quote here (see below), you and the world you’re part of became “addicted to borrowing money, spending it, and passing this off as ‘growth’”.

That you believed this was actual growth, however, is on you. You fell for a scam and you’re going to have to pay the price. If there’s one single thing people are good at, it’s lying. It’s as old as human history, and it happens every day, so you’re no exception to any rule. You’re perhaps just not particularly clever.

How do we know a ‘recovery’ is so far off it’s really no use to even talk about it? As I said, it’s easy. Let me lead this in with a graph I saw just today, which deals with a topic the Automatic Earth has covered a lot: marginal debt, or more precisely, the productivity/growth gained from each additional dollar of debt.

Please note, this particular graph deals with private non-financial debt only, we’ll get to other kinds of added debt, but that restriction is actually quite illuminating.

MarginalDebtNow of course, you have to wonder about the parameters the St. Louis Fed uses for its data and graphs, and whether ‘growth’ was all that solid in the run up to 2008. There’s plenty of very valid arguments that would say growth in the 1960’s was a whole lot more solid than that in the naughties, after the Glass-Steagall repeal, and after the dot.com blubber.

However, that’s not what I want to take away from this, I use this to show what has happened since 2008, more than before, when it comes to “passing debt off as ‘growth’”.

But it’s another thing that has happened since 2008, or rather not happened, that points out to us why this slump will have legs. That is, in 2008 a behemoth bubble started bursting, and it was by no means just US housing market. That bubble should have been allowed to fully deflate, because that is the only way to allow an economy to do a viable restart.

Instead, all that has been done since 2008, QE, ZIRP, the works, has been aimed at keeping a facade ‘alive’, and aimed at protecting the interests of the bankers and other rich parties. That facade, expressed most of all in rising stock markets, has allowed for societies to be gutted while people were busy watching the S&P rise to 2,100 and the Kardashians bare 2,100 body parts.

It was all paid for, apart from western QE, with $28 trillion and change of newfangled Chinese debt. The problem with this is that if you find yourself in a bubble and you don’t go through the inevitable deleveraging process that follows said bubble in a proper fashion, you’re not only going to kill economies, you’ll destroy entire societies.

And that is not just morally repugnant, it also works as much against the rich as it does against the poor. It’s just that that is a step too far for most people to understand. That even the rich need a functioning society, and that inequality as we see it today is a real threat to everyone.

Recognizing this simple fact, and the consequences that follow from it, is nothing new. It’s why in days of old, there were debt jubilees. It’s also why we still quote the following from Marriner Eccles, chairman of the Federal Reserve under FDR and Truman from 1934-1948, in his testimony to the Senate Committee on the Investigation of Economic Problems in 1933, which prompted FDR to make him chairman in the first place.

It is utterly impossible, as this country has demonstrated again and again, for the rich to save as much as they have been trying to save, and save anything that is worth saving. They can save idle factories and useless railroad coaches; they can save empty office buildings and closed banks; they can save paper evidences of foreign loans; but as a class they cannot save anything that is worth saving, above and beyond the amount that is made profitable by the increase of consumer buying.

It is for the interests of the well to do – to protect them from the results of their own folly – that we should take from them a sufficient amount of their surplus to enable consumers to consume and business to operate at a profit. This is not “soaking the rich”; it is saving the rich. Incidentally, it is the only way to assure them the serenity and security which they do not have at the present moment.

Everything would all be so much simpler if only more people understood this, that you need a – fleeting, ever-changing equilibrium- to prosper.

Instead, we’re falling into that same trap again. Or, more precisely, we already have. We have been fighting debt with more debt and built the facade put up by the Fed, the BoJ and the ECB, central banks that all face the same problems and all take the same approach: save the rich at the cost of the poor. Something Eccles said way back when could not possibly work.

Anyway, so here are the graphs that prove to us why the slump has legs. There’s been no deleveraging, the no. 1 requirement after a bubble bursts. There’s only been more leveraging, more debt has been issued, and while households have perhaps deleveraged a little bit, though that is likely strongly influenced by losses on homes etc. plus the fact that people were simply maxed out.

First, global debt and the opposite of deleveraging:

LeverageGlobalAnd global debt from a longer, 65 year, more historical perspective:

LeverageGlobal2-500It’s a global debt graph, but it’s perhaps striking to note that big ‘growth’ spurts happened in the days when Reagan, Clinton and Obama were the respective US presidents. Not so much in the Bush era.

Next, China. What we’re looking at is what allowed the post 2008 global economic facade to have -fake- credibility, an insane rise in debt, largely spent on non-productive overinvestment, overcapacity highways to nowhere and many millions of empty apartments, in what could have been a cool story had not Beijing gone all-out on performance enhancing financial narcotics.

LeverageChina500Today, the China Ponzi is on its last legs, and so is the global one, because China was the last ‘not-yet-conquered’ market large enough to provide the facade with -fleeting- credibility. Unless Elon Musk gets us to Mars very soon, there are no more such markets.

So US debt will have to come down too, belatedly, with China, and it will have to do that now. because there are no continents to conquer and hide the debt behind. We’re all going to regret engaging in the debt game, and not letting the bubble deflate in an orderly fashion when we still could, but all those thoughts are too late now.

LeverageUS500What the facade has wrought is not just the idea that deleveraging was not needed (though it always is, after every single bubble), but that net US household worth rose by 55% in the 6-7 years since the bottom of the crisis, an artificial bottom fabricated with…more debt, with QE, and ZIRP.

USTaxesHoneyPot2Meanwhile, in today’s world, as stock markets go down at a rapid clip, China, having lost control of a market system it never had the control over that Politburos are ever willing to acknowledge they don’t have, plays a game of Ponzi whack-a-mole, with erratic ‘policies’ such as circuit breakers and CIA-style renditions of fund managers and the like.

And all the west can do is watch them fumble the ball, and another one, and another. And this whole thing is nowhere near the end.

China bad loans have now become a theme, but the theme doesn’t mean a thing without including the shadow banking system, which in China has been given the opportunity to grow like a tumor, on which Beijing’s grip is limited, and which has huge claims on local party officials forced by the Politburo to show overblown growth numbers. If you want to address bad loans, that’s where they are.

Chinese credit/debt graphs paint only a part of the picture if and when they don’t include shadow banks, but keeping their role hidden is one of Xi’s main goals, lest the people find out how bad things really are and start revolting. But they will anyway. That makes China a very unpredictable entity. And unpredictable means volatile, and that means even more money flowing out of, and being lost in, markets.

The ‘least worst’ place to be for what money will be left is US dollars, US treasuries and perhaps metals. But there’ll be a whole lot less left than just about anyone thinks. That’s the price of deleveraging.

The price of not deleveraging, on the other hand, is what we see in the markets today. And there is no cure. It must be done. The price for keeping up the facade rises sharply with each passing day, and the effort will in the end be futile. All bubbles have limited lifespans.

I’ll close this with a few recent words from Tim Morgan, who puts it so well I don’t feel the need to try and do it better.

The Ponzi Economy, Part 1

In order to set the Ponzi economy into some context, let’s put some figures on it. In the United States, total “real economy” debt (which excludes inter-bank borrowing) increased by $19.4 trillion – in real, inflation-adjusted terms – between 2000 and 2014, whilst real GDP expanded by only $3.7 trillion. Britain, meanwhile, added £1.9 trillion of new debt for less than £400bn on “growth” over the same period. I spent part of the holiday period unearthing quite how much debt countries added for each dollar of “growth” over a period starting at the end of 2000 and ending in mid-2015.

Unsurprisingly, the league is topped by Portugal ($5.65 for each $1 of growth), Ireland ($5.42) and Greece ($5.39). Britain’s ratio ($3.46) is somewhat flattering, in that the UK has used asset sales as well as borrowing to sustain its consumption. The average for the Eurozone ($3.54) covers ratios as diverse as Germany (just $1.87) and France ($4.22).

China’s $2.56 looks unexceptional until you note that the more recent (post-2007) number is much worse. Economies which seem to have been growing without too much borrowing (such as Brazil and Russia) are now experiencing dramatic worsening in their ratios, generally in the wake of tumbling commodity prices.

In the proverbial nutshell, then, the world has become addicted to borrowing money, spending it, and passing this off as “growth”. This is a copybook example of a pyramid scheme, which in turn means that the world’s most influential economic mentor is neither Keynes nor Hayek, but Charles Ponzi.

[..] How, in the absence of growth, can inflated capital values be sustained? The answer, of course, is that they can’t. Like all Ponzi schemes, this ends with a bang, not a whimper. This is why I find forecasts of a ‘big fall’ or ‘sharp correction’ in markets hard to swallow. Ponzi schemes don’t end gradually, any more than someone can fall off a cliff gradually, or be “slightly pregnant”.

The Ponzi economy simply continues for as long as irrationality prevails, and then implodes. Capital markets, though, are the symptom, not the cause. The fundamental problem is an inability to escape from an addictive practice of manufacturing supposed “growth” on the basis of borrowed money.

There may be shallow lulls in the asset markets, nothing ever only falls down in a straight line in the real world, but that debt I’ve described here will and must come down and be deleveraged.

The process will in all likelihood lead to warfare, and to refugee movements the likes of which the world has never seen just because of the sheer numbers of people added in the past 50 years.

When your children reach your age, they will not live in a world that you ever thought was possible. But they will still have to live in it, and deal with it. They will no longer have the facade you’ve been staring at for so long now, to lull them into a complacent sleep. And the Kardashians will no longer be looking so attractive either.

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If you found your mind wandering somewhat as you tried to stay focussed on the essay, just go back and read the closing two paragraphs.

The process will in all likelihood lead to warfare, and to refugee movements the likes of which the world has never seen just because of the sheer numbers of people added in the past 50 years.

When your children reach your age, they will not live in a world that you ever thought was possible. But they will still have to live in it, and deal with it. They will no longer have the facade you’ve been staring at for so long now, to lull them into a complacent sleep. And the Kardashians will no longer be looking so attractive either.

As I said at the start: we are living in interesting times!

The male of the species, Part One

Dogs, women and men.

I did warn you, my dear reader, at the end of yesterday’s post that my introspective mood continues!

Over today and tomorrow, I want to explore why we humans can be so incredibly clever, especially in a group sense, yet the males of our species find it so difficult to express themselves, and what that means for the future of humanity (at the risk of sounding a tad pompous).

More or less at random, a dip into yesterday’s selection of blogs brought to light some deeply disturbing items.

Professor William Even, Professor of Economics at the Farmer School of Business at Miami University was reported in The Conversation saying that:

As of 2014, there were approximately 39 million people aged 16-24 in the US, and 5.4 million of them were neither employed nor in school. That’s almost 14% of the age cohort, or more than two-and-a-half times the national rate of unemployment.

In that same bulletin from The Conversation, John Shepherd, a Professorial Research Fellow in Earth System Science at the University of Southampton in England, in writing about the challenges of directly removing CO2 from the atmosphere, stated (my emphasis):

A new paper in Nature Communications shows just how big the required rates of removal actually are. Even under the IPCC’s most optimistic scenario of future CO2 emission levels (RCP2.6), in order to keep temperature rises below 2℃ we would have to remove from the atmosphere at least a few billion tons of carbon per year and maybe ten billion or more – depending on how well conventional mitigation goes.

We currently emit around eight billion tonnes of carbon per year, so the scale of the enterprise is massive: it’s comparable to the present global scale of mining and burning fossil fuels.

Then Raúl Ilargi Meijer authored an item on The Automatic Earth blog, a blog that usually writes almost exclusively about money matters. His article was called: Power and Compassion. He opens his essay:

Time to tackle a topic that’s very hard to get right, and that will get me quite a few pairs of rolling eyes. I want to argue that societies need a social fabric, a social contract, and that without those they must and will fail, descend into chaos.

Then after referring to the European Union, he goes on to write (my emphasis):

Though it may look out of far left field for those of us -and there are many- who think in economic and political terms only, we cannot do without a conscious definition of a social contract. We need to address the role of compassion, morals, even love, in our societies. If Jesus meant anything, it was that.

There have been times through history when this subject would have been much easier to breach, but we today almost seem to think they are irrelevant, that we can do without them. We can’t. But in the US, people get killed at traffic stops every day, and in Europe, they die of sheer negligence. Developments like these will lead to ‘centers that cannot hold’.

In that part of the media whirlwind that we at the Automatic Earth expose ourselves to, virtually all discussions about our modern world, and what goes wrong with it, which is obviously a whole lot, are conducted in rational terms, in financial and political terminology.

But that’s exactly what we should not be doing. Because it’s never going to get us anywhere. In the end, let alone in the beginning too, we are not rational creatures. And if and when we resort to only rational terms to define ourselves, as well as our world and the societies we create in that world, we can only fail.

For a society to succeed, before and beyond any economic and political features are defined, it must be based solidly on moral values, a moral compass, compassion, humanity and simple decency among its members. And those should never be defined by economists or lawyers or politicians, but by the people themselves. A social contract needs to be set up by everyone involved, and with everyone’s consent. Or it won’t last.

How and why that most basic principle got lost should tell us a lot about where we are today, and about how we got here. Morals seem to have become optional. The 40-hour death struggle of Cecil the lion exemplifies that pretty well. And no, his is not some rare case. The lack of morals involved in killing Cecil is our new normal.

Let me now set the stage for what I want to write about tomorrow. And I’m going to do that by referring to a TED Talk that was recorded by historian and author Yuval Noah Harari. Here’s how that TED Talk was introduced:

Seventy thousand years ago, our human ancestors were insignificant animals, just minding their own business in a corner of Africa with all the other animals. But now, few would disagree that humans dominate planet Earth; we’ve spread to every continent, and our actions determine the fate of other animals (and possibly Earth itself). How did we get from there to here? Historian Yuval Noah Harari suggests a surprising reason for the rise of humanity.

Yuval Harari’s talk is based firmly on his thesis presented in his book: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. (There’s a review of his book in The Guardian newspaper.) Namely:

The book surveys the history of humankind from the evolution of archaic human species in the Stone Age up to the twenty-first century. Its main argument is that Homo sapiens dominates the world because it is the only animal that can cooperate flexibly in large numbers. The book further argues that Homo sapiens can cooperate flexibly in large numbers, because it has a unique ability to believe in things existing purely in its own imagination, such as gods, nations, money and human rights. The author claims that all large scale human cooperation systems – including religions, political structures, trade networks and legal institutions – are ultimately based on fiction.

Other salient arguments of the book are that money is a system of mutual trust; that capitalism is a religion rather than only an economic theory; that empire has been the most successful political system of the last 2000 years; that the treatment of domesticated animals is among the worst crimes in history; that people today are not significantly happier than in past eras; and that humans are currently in the process of upgrading themselves into gods.

It is my contention that humankind’s evolution, our ability to “cooperate flexibly in large numbers”, is rooted in the gender differences between man and woman. A contention that I expand upon tomorrow.

Self-defeating habits.

The challenge in being objective.

Before I move on to today’s essay, published courtesy of The Automatic Earth, let me ponder about the nature of reason.  A quick dip into the dictionary offers this:

reason

noun

  1. a basis or cause, as for some belief, action, fact, event, etc.: the reason for declaring war.
  2. a statement presented in justification or explanation of a belief or action.
  3. the mental powers concerned with forming conclusions, judgments, or inferences.
  4. sound judgment; good sense.
  5. normal or sound powers of mind; sanity.

The Philosopher Ayn Rand wrote once, “The Renaissance was specifically the rebirth of reason, the liberation of man’s mind, the triumph of rationality over mysticism – a faltering, incomplete, but impassioned triumph that led to the birth of science, of individualism, of freedom.

Now as we move on, endeavour to keep this notion of reason in the forefront of your mind!

A few days ago, I read an essay that was first seen on Naked Capitalism.  It was introduced by Yves Smith of NC thus:

Yves here. As Ilargi himself acknowledges, even by the standards of his fare, this post on “overshoot” is plenty sobering. We do seem to be on our way to precipitating a mass species die off (as in it’s underway already and humans seem remarkably unwilling to take sufficiently stern measures to stop it). The end of civilization as we know it seems almost inevitable, given that most “advanced” economies are seeing serious erosion of their social fabric, as reflected in falling social well-being measures.

However, the provocative point that Jay Hanson argues is that our hard-wired political habits guarantee our undoing. It’s akin to a literary rendering I read long ago of Dollo’s theory of evolution, which went something like this:

Species develop characteristics which give them competitive advantage. Dinosaurs get big so no predators can eat them up. Saber tooth tigers develop monster jaws so they can chomp on mastadons and other large prey.

But the problem is that species continue to develop these characteristics beyond the point of maximum advantage. Dinosaurs get so big that they need to get a second brain in their midsection to manage their bodies and they die of anatomical schizophrenia. Saber-tooth tiger become such efficient killers of large prey that they begin to wipe them out, and their hypertrophied jaws are badly adapted to killing smaller prey, so they die of starvation. And humans have developed overly large brains and are in the process of thinking themselves to death.

It was then a matter of moments to find that the essay was originally published on The Automatic Earth and, as was noted yesterday, a request to republish was very promptly replied to in the affirmative.  It’s a privilege to share it with you.

It’s a long essay but entirely engaging; right through to the last footnote.  More than that, many of those footnote links open up a majesty of learning and knowledge.

So if you aren’t in the right ‘headspace’ to settle down now and read it fully then bookmark it for a later date.  I guarantee you will not be disappointed!

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Debt Rattle Jul 7 2014: Overshoot Loop

Posted by Raúl Ilargi Meijer

Russell Lee Fun with fountain at 4th of July picnic, Vale, OR July 1941
Russell Lee Fun with fountain at 4th of July picnic, Vale, OR July 1941

There is not one single person I’ve learned more from than Jay Hanson, back when I was even younger than I am now. Jay is not the greatest writer in the world, his talent is that he has the right kind of unrelenting curiosity, needed to dig deep into the reasons we put ourselves where we do (it’s hardwired). This curiosity put together the best library of information on ourselves and the world we live in that one can ever hope to find, at dieoff.org, much of it not published anywhere else. I took a month off, 15 years ago, and read it all back to back. The dieoff library was – mostly – finished by then. So it was a nice surprise to have someone send me the following piece, which is recent. It may look bleak and dark to you, but the challenge is to find where you think Jay goes wrong, and what you know better. That will not be easy, Jay’s a mighty smart puppy. I guess the essence is this: our brains are our destiny. That this leads to things we don’t like to acknowledge is something we will need to deal with. Walking away from it is neither a solution nor the best way to use the one part of us that may help find a solution. Which is also our brain.

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Overshoot Loop:

Evolution Under The Maximum Power Principle

Jay Hanson: I have been forced to review the key lessons that I have learned concerning human nature and collapse over the last 20 years. Our collective behavior is the problem that must be overcome before anything can be done to mitigate the coming global social collapse. The single most-important lesson for me was that we cannot re-wire (literally, because thought is physical) our basic political agendas through reading or discussion alone. Moreover, since our thoughts are subject to physical law, we do not have the free-will to either think or behave autonomously.

We swim in “politics” like fish swim in water; it’s everywhere, but we can’t see it!

We are “political” animals from birth until death. Everything we do or say can be seen as part of lifelong political agendas. Despite decades of scientific warnings, we continue to destroy our life-support system because that behavior is part of our inherited (DNA/RNA) hard wiring. We use scientific warnings, like all inter-animal communications, for cementing group identity and for elevating one’s own status (politics).

Only physical hardship can force us to rewire our mental agendas. I am certainly not the first to make the observation, but now, after 20 years of study and debate, I am totally certain. The net energy principle guarantees that our global supply lines will collapse. The rush to social collapse cannot be stopped no matter what is written or said. Humans have never been able to intentionally-avoid collapse because fundamental system-wide change is only possible after the collapse begins.

What about survivors? Within a couple of generations, all lessons learned from the collapse will be lost, and people will revert to genetic baselines. I wish it weren’t so, but all my experience screams “it’s hopeless.” Nevertheless, all we can do is the best we can and carry on…

I am thankful for the Internet where I can find others bright enough to discuss these complex ideas and help me to understand them.

Today, when one observes the many severe environmental and social problems, it appears that we are rushing towards extinction and are powerless to stop it. Why can’t we save ourselves? To answer that question we only need to integrate three of the key influences on our behavior: biological evolution, overshoot, and a proposed fourth law of thermodynamics called the “Maximum Power Principle”(MPP). The MPP states that biological systems will organize to increase power [1] generation, by degrading more energy, whenever systemic constraints allow it [2].

Biological evolution is a change in the properties of populations of organisms that transcend the lifetime of a single individual. Individual organisms do not evolve. The changes in populations that are considered evolutionary are those that are inheritable via the genetic (DNA/RNA) material from one generation to the next.

Natural selection is one of the basic mechanisms of evolution, along with mutation, migration, and genetic drift. Selection favors individuals who succeed at generating more power and reproducing more copies of themselves than their competitors.

OVERSHOOT!

Energy is a key aspect of overshoot because available energy is always limited by the energy required to utilize it.

Since natural selection occurs under thermodynamic laws, individual and group behaviors are biased by the MPP to generate maximum power, which requires over-reproduction and/or over-consumption of resources [3] whenever system constraints allow it. Individuals and families will form social groups to generate more power by degrading more energy. Differential power generation and accumulation result in a hierarchical group structure.

Overshoot eventually leads to decreasing power attainable for the group with lower-ranking members suffering first. Low-rank members will form subgroups and coalitions to demand a greater share of power from higher-ranking individuals who will resist by forming their own coalitions to maintain it. Meanwhile, social conflict will intensify as available power continues to fall.

Eventually, members of the weakest group (high or low rank) are forced to “disperse.” [4] Those members of the weak group who do not disperse are killed, [5] enslaved, or in modern times imprisoned. By most estimates, 10 to 20 percent of Stone-Age people died at the hands of other humans. The process of overshoot, followed by forced dispersal, may be seen as a sort of repetitive pumping action — a collective behavioural loop — that drove humans into every inhabitable niche.

Here is a synopsis of the behavioral loop described above:

Step 1. Individual and group behaviors are biased by the MPP to generate maximum power, which requires over-reproduction and/or over-consumption of natural resources (overshoot), whenever systemic constraints allow it. Individuals and families will form social groups to generate more power by degrading more energy. Differential power generation and accumulation result in a hierarchical group structure.

Step 2. Energy is always limited, so overshoot eventually leads to decreasing power available to the group, with lower-ranking members suffering first.

Step 3. Diminishing power availability creates divisive subgroups within the original group. Low-rank members will form subgroups and coalitions to demand a greater share of power from higher-ranking individuals, who will resist by forming their own coalitions to maintain power.

Step 4. Violent social strife eventually occurs among subgroups who demand a greater share of the remaining power.

Step 5. The weakest subgroups (high or low rank) are either forced to disperse to a new territory, are killed, enslaved, or imprisoned.

Step 6. Go back to step 1.

The above loop was repeated countless thousands of times during the millions of years that we were evolving [6]. This behavior is entrained in our genetic material and will be repeated until we go extinct. Carrying capacity will decline [7] with each future iteration of the overshoot loop, and this will cause human numbers to decline until they reach levels not seen since the Pleistocene.

Current models used to predict the end of the biosphere suggest that sometime between 0.5 billion to 1.5 billion years from now, land life as we know it will end on Earth due to the combination of CO2 starvation and increasing heat. It is this decisive end that biologists and planetary geologists have targeted for attention. However, all of their graphs reveal an equally disturbing finding: that global productivity will plummet from our time onward, and indeed, it already has been doing so for the last 300 million years. [8]

It’s impossible to know the details of how our rush to extinction will play itself out, but we do know that it is going to be hell for those who are unlucky to be alive at the time.

To those who followed Columbus and Cortez, the New World truly seemed incredible because of the natural endowments. The land often announced itself with a heavy scent miles out into the ocean. Giovanni da Verrazano in 1524 smelled the cedars of the East Coast a hundred leagues out. The men of Henry Hudson’s Half Moon were temporarily disarmed by the fragrance of the New Jersey shore, while ships running farther up the coast occasionally swam through large beds of floating flowers. Wherever they came inland they found a rich riot of color and sound, of game and luxuriant vegetation. Had they been other than they were, they might have written a new mythology here. As it was, they took inventory. Frederick Jackson Turner

Genocide is as human as art or prayer. John Gray

Kai su, teknon. Julius Caesar

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[1] Power is energy utilization for a purpose; proportional to forces x flows = work rate + entropy produced (Maximum Power and Maximum Entropy Production: Finalities in Nature, by S. N. Salthe, 2010). A surplus resource is stored power. Energy is a key aspect of overshoot because available energy is always limited by the energy required to utilize it.

[2] Originally formulated by Lotka and further developed by Odum and Pinkerton, the MPP states that biological systems capture and use energy to build and maintain structures and gradients, which allow additional capture and utilization of energy. One of the great strengths of the MPP is that it directly relates energetics to fitness; organisms maximize fitness by maximizing power. With greater power, there is greater opportunity to allocate energy to reproduction and survival, and therefore, an organism that captures and utilizes more energy than another organism in a population will have a fitness advantage (The maximum power principle predicts the outcomes of two-species competition experiments, by John P. DeLong, 2008).

[3] The best way to survive in such a milieu is not to live in ecological balance with slow growth, but to grow rapidly and be able to fend off competitors as well as take resources from others.

Not only are human societies never alone, but regardless of how well they control their own population or act ecologically, they cannot control their neighbors behavior. Each society must confront the real possibility that its neighbors will not live in ecological balance but will grow its numbers and attempt to take the resources from nearby groups. Not only have societies always lived in a changing environment, but they always have neighbors. The best way to survive in such a milieu is not to live in ecological balance with slow growth, but to grow rapidly and be able to fend off competitors as well as take resources from others.

To see how this most human dynamic works, imagine an extremely simple world with only two societies and no unoccupied land. Under normal conditions, neither group would have much motivation to take resources from the other. People may be somewhat hungry, but not hungry enough to risk getting killed in order to eat a little better. A few members of either group may die indirectly from food shortages—via disease or infant mortality, for example—but from an individual s perspective, he or she is much more likely to be killed trying to take food from the neighbors than from the usual provisioning shortfalls. Such a constant world would never last for long. Populations would grow and human activity would degrade the land or resources, reducing their abundance. Even if, by sheer luck, all things remained equal, it must be remembered that the climate would never be constant: Times of food stress occur because of changes in the weather, especially over the course of several generations. When a very bad year or series of years occurs, the willingness to risk a fight increases because the likelihood of starving goes up.

If one group is much bigger, better organized, or has better fighters among its members and the group faces starvation, the motivation to take over the territory of its neighbor is high, because it is very likely to succeed. Since human groups are never identical, there will always be some groups for whom warfare as a solution is a rational choice in any food crisis, because they are likely to succeed in getting more resources by warring on their neighbors.

Now comes the most important part of this overly simplified story: The group with the larger population always has an advantage in any competition over resources, whatever those resources may be. Over the course of human history, one side rarely has better weapons or tactics for any length of time, and most such warfare between smaller societies is attritional. With equal skills and weapons, each side would be expected to kill an equal number of its opponents. Over time, the larger group will finally overwhelm the smaller one. This advantage of size is well recognized by humans all over the world, and they go to great lengths to keep their numbers comparable to their potential enemies. This is observed anthropologically by the universal desire to have many allies, and the common tactic of smaller groups inviting other societies to join them, even in times of food stress.

Assume for a moment that by some miracle one of our two groups is full of farsighted, ecological geniuses. They are able to keep their population in check and, moreover, keep it far enough below the carrying capacity that minor changes in the weather, or even longer-term changes in the climate, do not result in food stress. If they need to consume only half of what is available each year, even if there is a terrible year, this group will probably come through the hardship just fine. More important, when a few good years come along, these masterfully ecological people will/not/grow rapidly, because to do so would mean that they would have trouble when the good times end. Think of them as the ecological equivalent of the industrious ants.

The second group, on the other hand, is just the opposite—it consists of ecological dimwits. They have no wonderful processes available to control their population. They are forever on the edge of the carrying capacity, they reproduce with abandon, and they frequently suffer food shortages and the inevitable consequences. Think of this bunch as the ecological equivalent of the carefree grasshoppers. When the good years come, they have more children and grow their population rapidly. Twenty years later, they have doubled their numbers and quickly run out of food at the first minor change in the weather. Of course, had this been a group of “noble savages who eschewed warfare, they would have starved to death and only a much smaller and more sustainable group survived. This is not a bunch of noble savages; these are ecological dimwits and they attack their good neighbors in order to save their own skins. Since they now outnumber their good neighbors two to one, the dimwits prevail after heavy attrition on both sides. The “good” ants turn out to be dead ants, and the “bad” grasshoppers inherit the earth. The moral of this fable is that if any group can get itself into ecological balance and stabilize its population even in the face of environmental change, it will be tremendously disadvantaged against societies that do not behave that way. The long-term successful society, in a world with many different societies, will be the one that grows when it can and fights when it runs out of resources. It is useless to live an ecologically sustainable existence in the “Garden of Eden unless the neighbors do so as well. Only one nonconservationist society in an entire region can begin a process of conflict and expansion by the “grasshoppers” at the expense of the Eden-dwelling “ants”. This smacks of a Darwinian competition—survival of the fittest—between societies. Note that the “fittest” of our two groups was not the more ecological, it was the one that grew faster. The idea of such Darwinian competition is unpalatable to many, especially when the “bad” folks appear to be the winners.[pp. 73-75] (Constant Battles: Why we Fight, by Steven A. LeBlanc, St. Martin, 2004)

The Slaughter Bench of History, by Ian Morris, THE ATLANTIC, April 11, 2014

[4]Dispersal” is important in biology. Many amazing biological devices have evolved to ensure it, such as the production of fruits and nectar by plants and the provision of tasty protuberances called elaiosomes by seeds to attract insects. Often a species will produce two forms:

(1) a maintenance phenotype (the outcome of genes and the structures they produce interacting with a specific environment) that is adapted to the environment in which it is born,

and (2) a dispersal phenotype that is programmed to move to a new area and that often has the capacity to adapt to a new environment.

According to the present theory, humans have developed two dispersal phenotypes in the forms of the prophet and the follower. The coordinated action of these two phenotypes would serve to disperse us over the available habitat. This dispersal must have been aided by the major climatic changes over the past few million years in which vast areas of potential human habitat have repeatedly become available because of melting of ice sheets.

The dispersal phenotypes might have evolved through selection at the individual level, since the reproductive advantage of colonizing a new habitat would have been enormous. They would also promote selection between groups. This is important because selection at the group level can achieve results not possible at the level of selection between individuals. One result of the dispersal phenotype includes ethnocentrism (the tendency to favor one’s own ethnic group over another) and the tendency to use “ethnic cleansing.” The other result, as previously noted, is selection for cooperation, self-sacrifice, and a devotion to group rather than individual goals. Factors that promote selection at the group level are rapid splitting of groups, small size of daughter groups, heterogeneity (differences) of culture between groups, and reduction in gene flow between groups. These factors are all promoted by the breaking away of prophet-led groups with new belief systems.

One of the problems of selection at the group level is that of free-riders. These are people who take more than their share and contribute to the common good of the group less than their proper share. Selection at the group level gives free-riders their free ride. They potentially could increase until they destroy the cooperative fabric of the group.

However, the psychology of the free-rider, which is one of self-aggrandizement and neglect of group goals, is not likely to be indoctrinated with the mazeway of the group. Nor is it likely to be converted to the new belief system of the prophet. Therefore, theoretically one would predict that cults and New Religious Movements should be relatively free of free-riders. Such an absence of free-riders would further enhance selection at the group level. Moreover, this is a testable theoretical proposition.

Cult followers have been studied and found to be high on schizotypal traits, such as abnormal experiences and beliefs. They have not yet been tested for the sort of selfish attitudes and behavior that characterize free-riders. If a large cohort of people were tested for some measure of selfishness, it is predicted that those who subsequently joined cults would be low on such a measure. Predictions could also be made about future cult leaders. They would be likely to be ambitious males who were not at the top of the social hierarchy of their original group. If part of why human groups split in general is to give more reproductive opportunities to males in the new group, it can also be predicted that leaders of new religious movements would be males of reproductive age. Female cult leaders are not likely to be more fertile as a result of having many sexual partners, but their sons might be in an advantageous position for increased reproduction.

Conclusion: The biobehavioral science of ethology is about the movement of individuals. We have seen that change of belief system has been responsible for massive movements of individuals over the face of the earth. Religious belief systems appear to have manifest advantages both for the groups that espouse them and the individuals who share them. It is still controversial whether belief systems are adaptations or by-products of other evolutionary adaptive processes. Regardless of the answer to this question, the capacity for change of belief system, both that seen in the prophet and also that seen in the follower, may be adaptations because they have fostered the alternative life history strategies of dispersal from the natal habitat.

Moreover, change of belief system, when it is successful in the formation of a new social group and transfer of that group to a “promised land,” accelerates many of the parameters that have been thought in the past to be too slow for significant selection at the group level, such as eliminating free-riders, rapid group splitting, heterogeneity between groups and reduction of gene transfer between groups. Natural selection at the group level would also favor the evolution of the capacity for change of belief system, so that during the past few million years we may have seen a positive feedback system leading to enhanced cult formation and accelerated splitting of groups. This may have contributed to the rapid development of language and culture in our lineage. (The Biology of Religious Behavior, Edited by Jay R. Feierman, pp. 184-186)

[5] The results of the study are striking, according to Robbins Schug, because violence and disease increased through time, with the highest rates found as the human population was abandoning the cities. However, an even more interesting result is that individuals who were excluded from the city’s formal cemeteries had the highest rates of violence and disease. (Violence, Infectious Disease and Climate Change Contributed to Indus Civilization Collapse , Science Daily, January 17, 2014)

[6] My discussion will revolve around two basic propositions regarding long-term human population history: 1) the near-zero growth rates that have prevailed through much of prehistory are likely due to long-term averaging across periods of relatively rapid local population growth interrupted by infrequent crashes caused by density-dependent and density-independent factors; and 2) broad changes in population growth rates across subsistence modes in prehistory are probably best explained in terms of changes in mortality due to the dampening or buffering of crashes rather than significant increases in fertility (Subsistence strategies and early human population history: an evolutionary ecological perspective, by James L. Boone, 2002).

[7] Sustainable Engineering: Resource Load Carrying Capacity and K≠phase Technology, by Peter Hartley, 1993

[8] pp. 118-119, The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-destructive? by Peter Ward, 2009

ooOOoo

So all of you will understand, without any doubt, why this key essay was published here on Learning from Dogs.  It strikes me as a rather bitter-sweet irony that in today’s super-networked society, where it is so easy to ‘sit at the knees‘ of such learned folk, it may all be too late to have a decisive effect. So back to Jay Hanson. Yes, his well-presented and beautifully researched essay does have some pretty terrifying notions. But humanity’s only hope is that person-by-person, street-by-street, city-by-city, a cry for change becomes such a torrent of sound that like a huge waterfall it has the power to change our landscape.  Nature needs to be listened to: and soon!

3. Nature maintains our equilibrium. 4. Denying Nature is a sure path to extinction.
Nature maintains our equilibrium.
Denying Nature is a sure path to extinction.