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State of the Species

Does success spell doom for Homo sapiens?

(This essay was a finalist for a 2013 National Magazine Award in the Essay category.)

THE PROBLEM WITH environmentalists, Lynn Margulis used to say, is that they think conservation has something to do with biological reality. A researcher who specialized in cells and microorganisms, Margulis was one of the most important biologists in the last half century—she literally helped to reorder the tree of life, convincing her colleagues that it did not consist of two kingdoms (plants and animals), but five or even six (plants, animals, fungi, protists, and two types of bacteria).

Until Margulis’s death last year, she lived in my town, and I would bump into her on the street from time to time. She knew I was interested in ecology, and she liked to needle me. Hey, Charles, she would call out, are you still all worked up about protecting endangered species?

Margulis was no apologist for unthinking destruction. Still, she couldn’t help regarding conservationists’ preoccupation with the fate of birds, mammals, and plants as evidence of their ignorance about the greatest source of evolutionary creativity: the microworld of bacteria, fungi, and protists. More than 90 percent of the living matter on earth consists of microorganisms and viruses, she liked to point out. Heck, the number of bacterial cells in our body is ten times more than the number of human cells!

Bacteria and protists can do things undreamed of by clumsy mammals like us: form giant supercolonies, reproduce either asexually or by swapping genes with others, routinely incorporate DNA from entirely unrelated species, merge into symbiotic beings—the list is as endless as it is amazing. Microorganisms have changed the face of the earth, crumbling stone and even giving rise to the oxygen we breathe. Compared to this power and diversity, Margulis liked to tell me, pandas and polar bears were biological epiphenomena—interesting and fun, perhaps, but not actually significant.

Does that apply to human beings, too? I once asked her, feeling like someone whining to Copernicus about why he couldn’t move the earth a little closer to the center of the universe. Aren’t we special at all?

This was just chitchat on the street, so I didn’t write anything down. But as I recall it, she answered that Homo sapiens actually might be interesting—for a mammal, anyway. For one thing, she said, we’re unusually successful.

Seeing my face brighten, she added: Of course, the fate of every successful species is to wipe itself out.



Why and how did humankind become “unusually successful”? And what, to an evolutionary biologist, does “success” mean, if self-destruction is part of the definition? Does that self-destruction include the rest of the biosphere? What are human beings in the grand scheme of things anyway, and where are we headed? What is human nature, if there is such a thing, and how did we acquire it? What does that nature portend for our interactions with the environment? With 7 billion of us crowding the planet, it’s hard to imagine more vital questions.

One way to begin answering them came to Mark Stoneking in 1999, when he received a notice from his son’s school warning of a potential lice outbreak in the classroom. Stoneking is a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Leipzig, Germany. He didn’t know much about lice. As a biologist, it was natural for him to noodle around for information about them. The most common louse found on human bodies, he discovered, is Pediculus humanus. P. humanus has two subspecies: P. humanus capitis—head lice, which feed and live on the scalp—and P. humanus corporis—body lice, which feed on skin but live in clothing. In fact, Stoneking learned, body lice are so dependent on the protection of clothing that they cannot survive more than a few hours away from it.

It occurred to him that the two louse subspecies could be used as an evolutionary probe. P. humanus capitis, the head louse, could be an ancient annoyance, because human beings have always had hair for it to infest. But P. humanus corporis, the body louse, must not be especially old, because its need for clothing meant that it could not have existed while humans went naked. Humankind’s great coverup had created a new ecological niche, and some head lice had rushed to fill it. Evolution then worked its magic; a new subspecies, P. humanus corporis, arose. Stoneking couldn’t be sure that this scenario had taken place, though it seemed likely. But if his idea were correct, discovering when the body louse diverged from the head louse would provide a rough date for when people first invented and wore clothing.

The subject was anything but frivolous: donning a garment is a complicated act. Clothing has practical uses—warming the body in cold places, shielding it from the sun in hot places—but it also transforms the appearance of the wearer, something that has proven to be of inescapable interest to Homo sapiens. Clothing is ornament and emblem; it separates human beings from their earlier, un-self-conscious state. (Animals run, swim, and fly without clothing, but only people can be naked.) The invention of clothing was a sign that a mental shift had occurred. The human world had become a realm of complex, symbolic artifacts.

With two colleagues, Stoneking measured the difference between snippets of DNA in the two louse subspecies. Because DNA is thought to pick up small, random mutations at a roughly constant rate, scientists use the number of differences between two populations to tell how long ago they diverged from a common ancestor—the greater the number of differences, the longer the separation. In this case, the body louse had separated from the head louse about 70,000 years ago. Which meant, Stoneking hypothesized, that clothing also dated from about 70,000 years ago.

And not just clothing. As scientists have established, a host of remarkable things occurred to our species at about that time. It marked a dividing line in our history, one that made us who we are, and pointed us, for better and worse, toward the world we now have created for ourselves.

Homo sapiens emerged on the planet about 200,000 years ago, researchers believe. From the beginning, our species looked much as it does today. If some of those long-ago people walked by us on the street now, we would think they looked and acted somewhat oddly, but not that they weren’t people. But those anatomically modern humans were not, as anthropologists say, behaviorally modern. Those first people had no language, no clothing, no art, no religion, nothing but the simplest, unspecialized tools. They were little more advanced, technologically speaking, than their predecessors—or, for that matter, modern chimpanzees. (The big exception was fire, but that was first controlled by Homo erectus, one of our ancestors, a million years ago or more.) Our species had so little capacity for innovation that archaeologists have found almost no evidence of cultural or social change during our first 100,000 years of existence. Equally important, for almost all that time these early humans were confined to a single, small area in the hot, dry savanna of East Africa (and possibly a second, still smaller area in southern Africa).

But now jump forward 50,000 years. East Africa looks much the same. So do the humans in it—but suddenly they are drawing and carving images, weaving ropes and baskets, shaping and wielding specialized tools, burying the dead in formal ceremonies, and perhaps worshipping supernatural beings. They are wearing clothes—lice-filled clothes, to be sure, but clothes nonetheless. Momentously, they are using language. And they are dramatically increasing their range. Homo sapiens is exploding across the planet.

What caused this remarkable change? By geologists’ standards, 50,000 years is an instant, a finger snap, a rounding error. Nonetheless, most researchers believe that in that flicker of time, favorable mutations swept through our species, transforming anatomically modern humans into behaviorally modern humans. The idea is not absurd: in the last 400 years, dog breeders converted village dogs into creatures that act as differently as foxhounds, border collies, and Labrador retrievers. Fifty millennia, researchers say, is more than enough to make over a species.

Homo sapiens lacks claws, fangs, or exoskeletal plates. Rather, our unique survival skill is our ability to innovate, which originates with our species’ singular brain—a three-pound universe of hyperconnected neural tissue, constantly aswirl with schemes and notions. Hence every hypothesized cause for the transformation of humankind from anatomically modern to behaviorally modern involves a physical alteration of the wet gray matter within our skulls. One candidate explanation is that in this period people developed hybrid mental abilities by interbreeding with Neanderthals. (Some Neanderthal genes indeed appear to be in our genome, though nobody is yet certain of their function.) Another putative cause is symbolic language—an invention that may have tapped latent creativity and aggressiveness in our species. A third is that a mutation might have enabled our brains to alternate between spacing out on imaginative chains of association and focusing our attention narrowly on the physical world around us. The former, in this view, allows us to come up with creative new strategies to achieve a goal, whereas the latter enables us to execute the concrete tactics required by those strategies.

Each of these ideas is fervently advocated by some researchers and fervently attacked by others. What is clear is that something made over our species between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago—and right in the middle of that period was Toba.



About 75,000 years ago, a huge volcano exploded on the island of Sumatra. The biggest blast for several million years, the eruption created Lake Toba, the world’s biggest crater lake, and ejected the equivalent of as much as 3,000 cubic kilometers of rock, enough to cover the District of Columbia in a layer of magma and ash that would reach to the stratosphere. A gigantic plume spread west, enveloping southern Asia in tephra (rock, ash, and dust). Drifts in Pakistan and India reached as high as six meters. Smaller tephra beds blanketed the Middle East and East Africa. Great rafts of pumice filled the sea and drifted almost to Antarctica.

In the long run, the eruption raised Asian soil fertility. In the short term, it was catastrophic. Dust hid the sun for as much as a decade, plunging the earth into a years-long winter accompanied by widespread drought. A vegetation collapse was followed by a collapse in the species that depended on vegetation, followed by a collapse in the species that depended on the species that depended on vegetation. Temperatures may have remained colder than normal for a thousand years. Orangutans, tigers, chimpanzees, cheetahs—all were pushed to the verge of extinction.

At about this time, many geneticists believe, Homo sapiens’ numbers shrank dramatically, perhaps to a few thousand people—the size of a big urban high school. The clearest evidence of this bottleneck is also its main legacy: humankind’s remarkable genetic uniformity. Countless people have viewed the differences between races as worth killing for, but compared to other primates—even compared to most other mammals—human beings are almost indistinguishable, genetically speaking. DNA is made from exceedingly long chains of “bases.” Typically, about one out of every 2,000 of these “bases” differs between one person and the next. The equivalent figure from two E. coli (human gut bacteria) might be about one out of twenty. The bacteria in our intestines, that is, have a hundredfold more innate variability than their hosts—evidence, researchers say, that our species is descended from a small group of founders.

Uniformity is hardly the only effect of a bottleneck. When a species shrinks in number, mutations can spread through the entire population with astonishing rapidity. Or genetic variants that may have already been in existence—arrays of genes that confer better planning skills, for example—can suddenly become more common, effectively reshaping the species within a few generations as once-unusual traits become widespread.

Did Toba, as theorists like Richard Dawkins have argued, cause an evolutionary bottleneck that set off the creation of behaviorally modern people, perhaps by helping previously rare genes—Neanderthal DNA or an opportune mutation—spread through our species? Or did the volcanic blast simply clear away other human species that had previously blocked H. sapiens’ expansion? Or was the volcano irrelevant to the deeper story of human change?

For now, the answers are the subject of careful back-and-forth in refereed journals and heated argument in faculty lounges. All that is clear is that about the time of Toba, new, behaviorally modern people charged so fast into the tephra that human footprints appeared in Australia within as few as 10,000 years, perhaps within 4,000 or 5,000. Stay-at-home Homo sapiens 1.0, a wallflower that would never have interested Lynn Margulis, had been replaced by aggressively expansive Homo sapiens 2.0. Something happened, for better and worse, and we were born.

One way to illustrate what this upgrade looked like is to consider Solenopsis invicta, the red imported fire ant. Geneticists believe that S. invicta originated in northern Argentina, an area with many rivers and frequent floods. The floods wipe out ant nests. Over the millennia, these small, furiously active creatures have acquired the ability to respond to rising water by coalescing into huge, floating, pullulating balls—workers on the outside, queen in the center—that drift to the edge of the flood. Once the waters recede, colonies swarm back into previously flooded land so rapidly that S. invicta actually can use the devastation to increase its range.

In the 1930s, Solenopsis invicta was transported to the United States, probably in ship ballast, which often consists of haphazardly loaded soil and gravel. As a teenaged bug enthusiast, Edward O. Wilson, the famed biologist, spotted the first colonies in the port of Mobile, Alabama. He saw some very happy fire ants. From the ant’s point of view, it had been dumped into an empty, recently flooded expanse. S. invicta took off, never looking back.

The initial incursion watched by Wilson was likely just a few thousand individuals—a number small enough to suggest that random, bottleneck-style genetic change played a role in the species’ subsequent history in this country. In their Argentine birthplace, fire-ant colonies constantly fight each other, reducing their numbers and creating space for other types of ant. In the United States, by contrast, the species forms cooperative supercolonies, linked clusters of nests that can spread for hundreds of miles. Systematically exploiting the landscape, these supercolonies monopolize every useful resource, wiping out other ant species along the way—models of zeal and rapacity. Transformed by chance and opportunity, new-model S. invictus needed just a few decades to conquer most of the southern United States.

Homo sapiens did something similar in the wake of Toba. For hundreds of thousands of years, our species had been restricted to East Africa (and, possibly, a similar area in the south). Now, abruptly, new-model Homo sapiens were racing across the continents like so many imported fire ants. The difference between humans and fire ants is that fire ants specialize in disturbed habitats. Humans, too, specialize in disturbed habitats—but we do the disturbing.



As a student at the University of Moscow in the 1920s, Georgii Gause spent years trying—and failing—to drum up support from the Rockefeller Foundation, then the most prominent funding source for non-American scientists who wished to work in the United States. Hoping to dazzle the foundation, Gause decided to perform some nifty experiments and describe the results in his grant application.

By today’s standards, his methodology was simplicity itself. Gause placed half a gram of oatmeal in one hundred cubic centimeters of water, boiled the results for ten minutes to create a broth, strained the liquid portion of the broth into a container, diluted the mixture by adding water, and then decanted the contents into small, flat-bottomed test tubes. Into each he dripped five Paramecium caudatum or Stylonychia mytilus, both single-celled protozoans, one species per tube. Each of Gause’s test tubes was a pocket ecosystem, a food web with a single node. He stored the tubes in warm places for a week and observed the results. He set down his conclusions in a 163-page book, The Struggle for Existence, published in 1934.

Today The Struggle for Existence is recognized as a scientific landmark, one of the first successful marriages of theory and experiment in ecology. But the book was not enough to get Gause a fellowship; the Rockefeller Foundation turned down the twenty-four-year-old Soviet student as insufficiently eminent. Gause could not visit the United States for another twenty years, by which time he had indeed become eminent, but as an antibiotics researcher.

What Gause saw in his test tubes is often depicted in a graph, time on the horizontal axis, the number of protozoa on the vertical. The line on the graph is a distorted bell curve, with its left side twisted and stretched into a kind of flattened S. At first the number of protozoans grows slowly, and the graph line slowly ascends to the right. But then the line hits an inflection point, and suddenly rockets upward—a frenzy of exponential growth. The mad rise continues until the organism begins to run out of food, at which point there is a second inflection point, and the growth curve levels off again as bacteria begin to die. Eventually the line descends, and the population falls toward zero.

Years ago I watched Lynn Margulis, one of Gause’s successors, demonstrate these conclusions to a class at the University of Massachusetts with a time-lapse video of Proteus vulgaris, a bacterium that lives in the gastrointestinal tract. To humans, she said, P. vulgaris is mainly notable as a cause of urinary-tract infections. Left alone, it divides about every fifteen minutes. Margulis switched on the projector. Onscreen was a small, wobbly bubble—P. vulgaris—in a shallow, circular glass container: a petri dish. The class gasped. The cells in the time-lapse video seemed to shiver and boil, doubling in number every few seconds, colonies exploding out until the mass of bacteria filled the screen. In just thirty-six hours, she said, this single bacterium could cover the entire planet in a foot-deep layer of single-celled ooze. Twelve hours after that, it would create a living ball of bacteria the size of the earth.

Such a calamity never happens, because competing organisms and lack of resources prevent the overwhelming majority of P. vulgaris from reproducing. This, Margulis said, is natural selection, Darwin’s great insight. All living creatures have the same purpose: to make more of themselves, ensuring their biological future by the only means available. Natural selection stands in the way of this goal. It prunes back almost all species, restricting their numbers and confining their range. In the human body, P. vulgaris is checked by the size of its habitat (portions of the human gut), the limits to its supply of nourishment (food proteins), and other, competing organisms. Thus constrained, its population remains roughly steady.

In the petri dish, by contrast, competition is absent; nutrients and habitat seem limitless, at least at first. The bacterium hits the first inflection point and rockets up the left side of the curve, swamping the petri dish in a reproductive frenzy. But then its colonies slam into the second inflection point: the edge of the dish. When the dish’s nutrient supply is exhausted, P. vulgaris experiences a miniapocalypse.

By luck or superior adaptation, a few species manage to escape their limits, at least for a while. Nature’s success stories, they are like Gause’s protozoans; the world is their petri dish. Their populations grow exponentially; they take over large areas, overwhelming their environment as if no force opposed them. Then they annihilate themselves, drowning in their own wastes or starving from lack of food.

To someone like Margulis, Homo sapiens looks like one of these briefly fortunate species.



No more than a few hundred people initially migrated from Africa, if geneticists are correct. But they emerged into landscapes that by today’s standards were as rich as Eden. Cool mountains, tropical wetlands, lush forests—all were teeming with food. Fish in the sea, birds in the air, fruit on the trees: breakfast was everywhere. People moved in.

Despite our territorial expansion, though, humans were still only in the initial stages of Gause’s oddly shaped curve. Ten thousand years ago, most demographers believe, we numbered barely 5 million, about one human being for every hundred square kilometers of the earth’s land surface. Homo sapiens was a scarcely noticeable dusting on the surface of a planet dominated by microbes. Nevertheless, at about this time—10,000 years ago, give or take a millennium—humankind finally began to approach the first inflection point. Our species was inventing agriculture.

The wild ancestors of cereal crops like wheat, barley, rice, and sorghum have been part of the human diet for almost as long as there have been humans to eat them. (The earliest evidence comes from Mozambique, where researchers found tiny bits of 105,000-year-old sorghum on ancient scrapers and grinders.) In some cases people may have watched over patches of wild grain, returning to them year after year. Yet despite the effort and care the plants were not domesticated. As botanists say, wild cereals “shatter”—individual grain kernels fall off as they ripen, scattering grain haphazardly, making it impossible to harvest the plants systematically. Only when unknown geniuses discovered naturally mutated grain plants that did not shatter—and purposefully selected, protected, and cultivated them—did true agriculture begin. Planting great expanses of those mutated crops, first in southern Turkey, later in half a dozen other places, early farmers created landscapes that, so to speak, waited for hands to harvest them.

Farming converted most of the habitable world into a petri dish. Foragers manipulated their environment with fire, burning areas to kill insects and encourage the growth of useful species—plants we liked to eat, plants that attracted the other creatures we liked to eat. Nonetheless, their diets were largely restricted to what nature happened to provide in any given time and season. Agriculture gave humanity the whip hand. Instead of natural ecosystems with their haphazard mix of species (so many useless organisms guzzling up resources!), farms are taut, disciplined communities conceived and dedicated to the maintenance of a single species: us.

Before agriculture, the Ukraine, American Midwest, and lower Yangzi were barely hospitable food deserts, sparsely inhabited landscapes of insects and grass; they became breadbaskets as people scythed away suites of species that used soil and water we wanted to dominate and replaced them with wheat, rice, and maize (corn). To one of Margulis’s beloved bacteria, a petri dish is a uniform expanse of nutrients, all of which it can seize and consume. For Homo sapiens, agriculture transformed the planet into something similar.

As in a time-lapse movie, we divided and multiplied across the newly opened land. It had taken Homo sapiens 2.0, behaviorally modern humans, not even 50,000 years to reach the farthest corners of the globe. Homo sapiens 2.0.A—A for agriculture—took a tenth of that time to conquer the planet.

As any biologist would predict, success led to an increase in human numbers. Homo sapiens rocketed around the elbow of the first inflection point in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when American crops like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and maize were introduced to the rest of the world. Traditional Eurasian and African cereals—wheat, rice, millet, and sorghum, for example—produce their grain atop thin stalks. Basic physics suggests that plants with this design will fatally topple if the grain gets too heavy, which means that farmers can actually be punished if they have an extra-bounteous harvest. By contrast, potatoes and sweet potatoes grow underground, which means that yields are not limited by the plant’s architecture. Wheat farmers in Edinburgh and rice farmers in Edo alike discovered they could harvest four times as much dry food matter from an acre of tubers than they could from an acre of cereals. Maize, too, was a winner. Compared to other cereals, it has an extra-thick stalk and a different, more productive type of photosynthesis. Taken together, these immigrant crops vastly increased the food supply in Europe, Asia, and Africa, which in turn helped increase the supply of Europeans, Asians, and Africans. The population boom had begun.

Numbers kept rising in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, after a German chemist, Justus von Liebig, discovered that plant growth was limited by the supply of nitrogen. Without nitrogen, neither plants nor the mammals that eat plants can create proteins, or for that matter the DNA and RNA that direct their production. Pure nitrogen gas (N2) is plentiful in the air but plants are unable to absorb it, because the two nitrogen atoms in N2 are welded so tightly together that plants cannot split them apart for use. Instead, plants take in nitrogen only when it is combined with hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements. To restore exhausted soil, traditional farmers grew peas, beans, lentils, and other pulses. (They never knew why these “green manures” replenished the land. Today we know that their roots contain special bacteria that convert useless N2 into “bio-available” nitrogen compounds.) After Liebig, European and American growers replaced those crops with high-intensity fertilizer—nitrogen-rich guano from Peru at first, then nitrates from mines in Chile. Yields soared. But supplies were much more limited than farmers liked. So intense was the competition for fertilizer that a guano war erupted in 1879, engulfing much of western South America. Almost 3,000 people died.

Two more German chemists, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, came to the rescue, discovering the key steps to making synthetic fertilizer from fossil fuels. (The process involves combining nitrogen gas and hydrogen from natural gas into ammonia, which is then used to create nitrogenous compounds usable by plants.) Haber and Bosch are not nearly as well known as they should be; their discovery, the Haber-Bosch process, has literally changed the chemical composition of the earth, a feat previously reserved for microorganisms. Farmers have injected so much synthetic fertilizer into the soil that soil and groundwater nitrogen levels have risen worldwide. Today, roughly a third of all the protein (animal and vegetable) consumed by humankind is derived from synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. Another way of putting this is to say that Haber and Bosch enabled Homo sapiens to extract about 2 billion people’s worth of food from the same amount of available land.

The improved wheat, rice, and (to a lesser extent) maize varieties developed by plant breeders in the 1950s and 1960s are often said to have prevented another billion deaths. Antibiotics, vaccines, and water-treatment plants also saved lives by pushing back humankind’s bacterial, viral, and fungal enemies. With almost no surviving biological competition, humankind had ever more unhindered access to the planetary petri dish: in the past two hundred years, the number of humans walking the planet ballooned from 1 to 7 billion, with a few billion more expected in coming decades.

Rocketing up the growth curve, human beings “now appropriate nearly 40% . . . of potential terrestrial productivity.” This figure dates from 1986—a famous estimate by a team of Stanford biologists. Ten years later, a second Stanford team calculated that the “fraction of the land’s biological production that is used or dominated” by our species had risen to as much as 50 percent. In 2000, the chemist Paul Crutzen gave a name to our time: the “Anthropocene,” the era in which Homo sapiens became a force operating on a planetary scale. That year, half of the world’s accessible fresh water was consumed by human beings.

Lynn Margulis, it seems safe to say, would have scoffed at these assessments of human domination over the natural world, which, in every case I know of, do not take into account the enormous impact of the microworld. But she would not have disputed the central idea: Homo sapiens has become a successful species, and is growing accordingly.

If we follow Gause’s pattern, growth will continue at a delirious speed until we hit the second inflection point. At that time we will have exhausted the resources of the global petri dish, or effectively made the atmosphere toxic with our carbon-dioxide waste, or both. After that, human life will be, briefly, a Hobbesian nightmare, the living overwhelmed by the dead. When the king falls, so do his minions; it is possible that our fall might also take down most mammals and many plants. Possibly sooner, quite likely later, in this scenario, the earth will again be a choir of bacteria, fungi, and insects, as it has been through most of its history.

It would be foolish to expect anything else, Margulis thought. More than that, it would be unnatural.



In The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster’s classic, pun-filled adventure tale, the young Milo and his faithful companions unexpectedly find themselves transported to a bleak, mysterious island. Encountering a man in a tweed jacket and beanie, Milo asks him where they are. The man replies by asking if they know who he is—the man is, apparently, confused on the subject. Milo and his friends confer, then ask if he can describe himself.

“Yes, indeed,” the man replied happily. “I’m as tall as can be”—and he grew straight up until all that could be seen of him were his shoes and stockings—“and I’m as short as can be”—and he shrank down to the size of a pebble. “I’m as generous as can be,” he said, handing each of them a large red apple, “and I’m as selfish as can be,” he snarled, grabbing them back again.

In short order, the companions learn that the man is as strong as can be, weak as can be, smart as can be, stupid as can be, graceful as can be, clumsy as—you get the picture. “Is that any help to you?” he asks. Again, Milo and his friends confer, and realize that the answer is actually quite simple:

“Without a doubt,” Milo concluded brightly, “you must be Canby.”

“Of course, yes, of course,” the man shouted. “Why didn’t I think of that? I’m as happy as can be.”

With Canby, Juster presumably meant to mock a certain kind of babyish, uncommitted man-child. But I can’t help thinking of poor old Canby as exemplifying one of humankind’s greatest attributes: behavioral plasticity. The term was coined in 1890 by the pioneering psychologist William James, who defined it as “the possession of a structure weak enough to yield to an influence, but strong enough not to yield all at once.” Behavioral plasticity, a defining feature of Homo sapiens’ big brain, means that humans can change their habits; almost as a matter of course, people change careers, quit smoking or take up vegetarianism, convert to new religions, and migrate to distant lands where they must learn strange languages. This plasticity, this Canby-hood, is the hallmark of our transformation from anatomically modern Homo sapiens to behaviorally modern Homo sapiens—and the reason, perhaps, we were able to survive when Toba reconfigured the landscape.

Other creatures are much less flexible. Like apartment-dwelling cats that compulsively hide in the closet when visitors arrive, they have limited capacity to welcome new phenomena and change in response. Human beings, by contrast, are so exceptionally plastic that vast swaths of neuroscience are devoted to trying to explain how this could come about. (Nobody knows for certain, but some researchers now think that particular genes give their possessors a heightened, inborn awareness of their environment, which can lead both to useless, neurotic sensitivity and greater ability to detect and adapt to new situations.)

Plasticity in individuals is mirrored by plasticity on a societal level. The caste system in social species like honeybees is elaborate and finely tuned but fixed, as if in amber, in the loops of their DNA. Some leafcutter ants are said to have, next to human beings, the biggest and most complex societies on earth, with elaborately coded behavior that reaches from disposal of the dead to complex agricultural systems. Housing millions of individuals in inconceivably ramose subterranean networks, leafcutter colonies are “Earth’s ultimate superorganisms,” Edward O. Wilson has written. But they are incapable of fundamental change. The centrality and authority of the queen cannot be challenged; the tiny minority of males, used only to inseminate queens, will never acquire new responsibilities.

Human societies are far more varied than their insect cousins, of course. But the true difference is their plasticity. It is why humankind, a species of Canbys, has been able to move into every corner of the earth, and to control what we find there. Our ability to change ourselves to extract resources from our surroundings with ever-increasing efficiency is what has made Homo sapiens a successful species. It is our greatest blessing.

Or was our greatest blessing, anyway.



By 2050, demographers predict, as many as 10 billion human beings will walk the earth, 3 billion more than today. Not only will more people exist than ever before, they will be richer than ever before. In the last three decades hundreds of millions in China, India, and other formerly poor places have lifted themselves from destitution—arguably the most important, and certainly the most heartening, accomplishment of our time. Yet, like all human enterprises, this great success will pose great difficulties.

In the past, rising incomes have invariably prompted rising demand for goods and services. Billions more jobs, homes, cars, fancy electronics—these are things the newly prosperous will want. (Why shouldn’t they?) But the greatest challenge may be the most basic of all: feeding these extra mouths. To agronomists, the prospect is sobering. The newly affluent will not want their ancestors’ gruel. Instead they will ask for pork and beef and lamb. Salmon will sizzle on their outdoor grills. In winter, they will want strawberries, like people in New York and London, and clean bibb lettuce from hydroponic gardens.

All of these, each and every one, require vastly more resources to produce than simple peasant agriculture. Already 35 percent of the world’s grain harvest is used to feed livestock. The process is terribly inefficient: between seven and ten kilograms of grain are required to produce one kilogram of beef. Not only will the world’s farmers have to produce enough wheat and maize to feed 3 billion more people, they will have to produce enough to give them all hamburgers and steaks. Given present patterns of food consumption, economists believe, we will need to produce about 40 percent more grain in 2050 than we do today.

How can we provide these things for all these new people? That is only part of the question. The full question is: How can we provide them without wrecking the natural systems on which all depend?

Scientists, activists, and politicians have proposed many solutions, each from a different ideological and moral perspective. Some argue that we must drastically throttle industrial civilization. (Stop energy-intensive, chemical-based farming today! Eliminate fossil fuels to halt climate change!) Others claim that only intense exploitation of scientific knowledge can save us. (Plant super-productive, genetically modified crops now! Switch to nuclear power to halt climate change!) No matter which course is chosen, though, it will require radical, large-scale transformations in the human enterprise—a daunting, hideously expensive task.

Worse, the ship is too large to turn quickly. The world’s food supply cannot be decoupled rapidly from industrial agriculture, if that is seen as the answer. Aquifers cannot be recharged with a snap of the fingers. If the high-tech route is chosen, genetically modified crops cannot be bred and tested overnight. Similarly, carbon-sequestration techniques and nuclear power plants cannot be deployed instantly. Changes must be planned and executed decades in advance of the usual signals of crisis, but that’s like asking healthy, happy sixteen-year-olds to write living wills.

Not only is the task daunting, it’s strange. In the name of nature, we are asking human beings to do something deeply unnatural, something no other species has ever done or could ever do: constrain its own growth (at least in some ways). Zebra mussels in the Great Lakes, brown tree snakes in Guam, water hyacinth in African rivers, gypsy moths in the northeastern U.S., rabbits in Australia, Burmese pythons in Florida—all these successful species have overrun their environments, heedlessly wiping out other creatures. Like Gause’s protozoans, they are racing to find the edges of their petri dish. Not one has voluntarily turned back. Now we are asking Homo sapiens to fence itself in.

What a peculiar thing to ask! Economists like to talk about the “discount rate,” which is their term for preferring a bird in hand today over two in the bush tomorrow. The term sums up part of our human nature as well. Evolving in small, constantly moving bands, we are as hard-wired to focus on the immediate and local over the long-term and faraway as we are to prefer parklike savannas to deep dark forests. Thus, we care more about the broken stoplight up the street today than conditions next year in Croatia, Cambodia, or the Congo. Rightly so, evolutionists point out: Americans are far more likely to be killed at that stoplight today than in the Congo next year. Yet here we are asking governments to focus on potential planetary boundaries that may not be reached for decades. Given the discount rate, nothing could be more understandable than the U.S. Congress’s failure to grapple with, say, climate change. From this perspective, is there any reason to imagine that Homo sapiens, unlike mussels, snakes, and moths, can exempt itself from the natural fate of all successful species?

To biologists like Margulis, who spend their careers arguing that humans are simply part of the natural order, the answer should be clear. All life is similar at base. All species seek without pause to make more of themselves—that is their goal. By multiplying till we reach our maximum possible numbers, even as we take out much of the planet, we are fulfilling our destiny.

From this vantage, the answer to the question whether we are doomed to destroy ourselves is yes. It should be obvious.

Should be—but perhaps is not.



When I imagine the profound social transformation necessary to avoid calamity, I think about Robinson Crusoe, hero of Daniel Defoe’s famous novel. Defoe clearly intended his hero to be an exemplary man. Shipwrecked on an uninhabited island off Venezuela in 1659, Crusoe is an impressive example of behavioral plasticity. During his twenty-seven-year exile he learns to catch fish, hunt rabbits and turtles, tame and pasture island goats, prune and support local citrus trees, and create “plantations” of barley and rice from seeds that he salvaged from the wreck. (Defoe apparently didn’t know that citrus and goats were not native to the Americas and thus Crusoe probably wouldn’t have found them there.) Rescue comes at last in the form of a shipful of ragged mutineers, who plan to maroon their captain on the supposedly empty island. Crusoe helps the captain recapture his ship and offers the defeated mutineers a choice: trial in England or permanent banishment to the island. All choose the latter. Crusoe has harnessed so much of the island’s productive power to human use that even a gaggle of inept seamen can survive there in comfort.

To get Crusoe on his unlucky voyage, Defoe made him an officer on a slave ship, transporting captured Africans to South America. Today, no writer would make a slave seller the admirable hero of a novel. But in 1720, when Defoe published Robinson Crusoe, no readers said boo about Crusoe’s occupation, because slavery was the norm from one end of the world to another. Rules and names differed from place to place, but coerced labor was everywhere, building roads, serving aristocrats, and fighting wars. Slaves teemed in the Ottoman Empire, Mughal India, and Ming China. Unfree hands were less common in continental Europe, but Portugal, Spain, France, England, and the Netherlands happily exploited slaves by the million in their American colonies. Few protests were heard; slavery had been part of the fabric of life since the code of Hammurabi.

Then, in the space of a few decades in the nineteenth century, slavery, one of humankind’s most enduring institutions, almost vanished.

The sheer implausibility of this change is staggering. In 1860, slaves were, collectively, the single most valuable economic asset in the United States, worth an estimated $3 billion, a vast sum in those days (and about $10 trillion in today’s money). Rather than investing in factories like northern entrepreneurs, southern businessmen had sunk their capital into slaves. And from their perspective, correctly so—masses of enchained men and women had made the region politically powerful, and gave social status to an entire class of poor whites. Slavery was the foundation of the social order. It was, thundered John C. Calhoun, a former senator, secretary of state, and vice president, “instead of an evil, a good—a positive good.” Yet just a few years after Calhoun spoke, part of the United States set out to destroy this institution, wrecking much of the national economy and killing half a million citizens along the way.

Incredibly, the turn against slavery was as universal as slavery itself. Great Britain, the world’s biggest human trafficker, closed down its slave operations in 1808, though they were among the nation’s most profitable industries. The Netherlands, France, Spain, and Portugal soon followed. Like stars winking out at the approach of dawn, cultures across the globe removed themselves from the previously universal exchange of human cargo. Slavery still exists here and there, but in no society anywhere is it formally accepted as part of the social fabric.

Historians have provided many reasons for this extraordinary transition. But one of the most important is that abolitionists had convinced huge numbers of ordinary people around the world that slavery was a moral disaster. An institution fundamental to human society for millennia was swiftly dismantled by ideas and a call to action, loudly repeated.

In the last few centuries, such profound changes have occurred repeatedly. Since the beginning of our species, for instance, every known society has been based on the domination of women by men. (Rumors of past matriarchal societies abound, but few archaeologists believe them.) In the long view, women’s lack of liberty has been as central to the human enterprise as gravitation is to the celestial order. The degree of suppression varied from time to time and place to place, but women never had an equal voice; indeed, some evidence exists that the penalty for possession of two X chromosomes increased with technological progress. Even as the industrial North and agricultural South warred over the treatment of Africans, they regarded women identically: in neither half of the nation could they attend college, have a bank account, or own property. Equally confining were women’s lives in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Nowadays women are the majority of U.S. college students, the majority of the workforce, and the majority of voters. Again, historians assign multiple causes to this shift in the human condition, rapid in time, staggering in scope. But one of the most important was the power of ideas—the voices, actions, and examples of suffragists, who through decades of ridicule and harassment pressed their case. In recent years something similar seems to have occurred with gay rights: first a few lonely advocates, censured and mocked; then victories in the social and legal sphere; finally, perhaps, a slow movement to equality.

Less well known, but equally profound: the decline in violence. Foraging societies waged war less brutally than industrial societies, but more frequently. Typically, archaeologists believe, about a quarter of all hunters and gatherers were killed by their fellows. Violence declined somewhat as humans gathered themselves into states and empires, but was still a constant presence. When Athens was at its height in the fourth and fifth centuries BC, it was ever at war: against Sparta (First and Second Peloponnesian Wars, Corinthian War); against Persia (Greco-Persian Wars, Wars of the Delian League); against Aegina (Aeginetan War); against Macedon (Olynthian War); against Samos (Samian War); against Chios, Rhodes, and Cos (Social War).

In this respect, classical Greece was nothing special—look at the ghastly histories of China, sub-Saharan Africa, or Mesoamerica. Similarly, early modern Europe’s wars were so fast and furious that historians simply gather them into catchall titles like the Hundred Years’ War, followed by the shorter but even more destructive Thirty Years’ War. And even as Europeans and their descendants paved the way toward today’s concept of universal human rights by creating documents like the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, Europe remained so mired in combat that it fought two conflicts of such massive scale and reach they became known as “world” wars.

Since the Second World War, however, rates of violent death have fallen to the lowest levels in known history. Today, the average person is far less likely to be slain by another member of the species than ever before—an extraordinary transformation that has occurred, almost unheralded, in the lifetime of many of the people reading this article. As the political scientist Joshua Goldstein has written, “we are winning the war on war.” Again, there are multiple causes. But Goldstein, probably the leading scholar in this field, argues that the most important is the emergence of the United Nations and other transnational bodies, an expression of the ideas of peace activists earlier in the last century.

As a relatively young species, we have an adolescent propensity to make a mess: we pollute the air we breathe and the water we drink, and appear stalled in an age of carbon dumping and nuclear experimentation that is putting countless species at risk including our own. But we are making undeniable progress nonetheless. No European in 1800 could have imagined that in 2000 Europe would have no legal slavery, women would be able to vote, and gay people would be able to marry. No one could have guessed a continent that had been tearing itself apart for centuries would be free of armed conflict, even amid terrible economic times. Given this record, even Lynn Margulis might pause (maybe).

Preventing Homo sapiens from destroying itself à la Gause would require a still greater transformation—behavioral plasticity of the highest order—because we would be pushing against biological nature itself. The Japanese have an expression, hara hachi bu, which means, roughly speaking, “belly 80 percent full.” Hara hachi bu is shorthand for an ancient injunction to stop eating before feeling full. Nutritionally, the command makes a great deal of sense. When people eat, their stomachs produce peptides that signal fullness to the nervous system. Unfortunately, the mechanism is so slow that eaters frequently perceive satiety only after they have consumed too much—hence the all-too-common condition of feeling bloated or sick from overeating. Japan—actually, the Japanese island of Okinawa—is the only place on earth where large numbers of people are known to restrict their own calorie intake systematically and routinely. Some researchers claim that hara hachi bu is responsible for Okinawans’ notoriously long life spans. But I think of it as a metaphor for stopping before the second inflection point, voluntarily forswearing short-term consumption to obtain a long-term benefit.

Evolutionarily speaking, a species-wide adoption of hara hachi bu would be unprecedented. Thinking about it, I can picture Lynn Margulis rolling her eyes. But is it so unlikely that our species, Canbys one and all, would be able to do exactly that before we round that fateful curve of the second inflection point and nature does it for us?

I can imagine Margulis’s response: You’re imagining our species as some sort of big-brained, hyperrational, benefit-cost-calculating computer! A better analogy is the bacteria at our feet! Still, Margulis would be the first to agree that removing the shackles from women and slaves has begun to unleash the suppressed talents of two-thirds of the human race. Drastically reducing violence has prevented the waste of countless lives and staggering amounts of resources. Is it really impossible to believe that we wouldn’t use those talents and those resources to draw back before the abyss?

Our record of success is not that long. In any case, past successes are no guarantee of the future. But it is terrible to suppose that we could get so many other things right and get this one wrong. To have the imagination to see our potential end, but not have the imagination to avoid it. To send humankind to the moon but fail to pay attention to the earth. To have the potential but to be unable to use it—to be, in the end, no different from the protozoa in the petri dish. It would be evidence that Lynn Margulis’s most dismissive beliefs had been right after all. For all our speed and voraciousness, our changeable sparkle and flash, we would be, at last count, not an especially interesting species. O


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Charles C. Mann’s most recent books are 1491, which won the U.S. National Academy of Sciences’ Keck Award for the best book of the year, and 1493, which is now out in paperback. A correspondent for The Atlantic, Science, and Wired, he has covered the intersection of science, technology, and commerce for many newspapers and magazines here and abroad, including BioScience, The Boston Globe, and The New York Times.

A three-time National Magazine Award finalist, Mann has received writing awards from the American Bar Association, the American Institute of Physics, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Margaret Sanger Foundation, and the Lannan Foundation.


  1. A terrific read. The part on human beings as invasive species is worth the price alone. This is classic.

    “The difference between humans and fire ants is that fire ants specialize in disturbed habitats. Humans, too, specialize in disturbed habitats—but we do the disturbing.”

    There are so many nice goodies written with punch like this.

    “Agriculture gave humanity the whip hand. Instead of natural ecosystems with their haphazard mix of species (so many useless organisms guzzling up resources!), farms are taut, disciplined communities conceived and dedicated to the maintenance of a single species: us.”

    I’ll add one more.

    “Our ability to change ourselves to extract resources from our surroundings with ever-increasing efficiency is what has made Homo sapiens a successful species. It is our greatest blessing.

    Or was our greatest blessing, anyway.”

    I have a few downsize thoughts on some of the analysis but I’ll save that for later.

  2. Excellent piece. I don’t have much faith in our collective ability to adjust in time to the impending collapse of civilization. Individually and in pockets there are those who see the need to adjust, but unfortunately we’re not all on board and the Sarah Palins and the James Inhofes seem to hold sway over policy in this world.

  3. A great and masterful essay, brilliant and needing to be read – but then it falls off the rails, as is typical of even the best of our social critics.
    Mann is dead-on and eloquent in his depiction of our state of inter-locking crises, but then he goes all hope and change and look at how far we have come. Sure, there are identity politics achievements, and nice safer lives for the boomers and the Prius-drivers, but there are so many real, freely available, undeniable markers of a immovable and fully corrupt supersystem.
    Look at the graph of CO2 in the atmosphere – notice a trend? Look at the Gini coefficient for the US- see the direction? Has Mann seen the official, growing, shameful wealth disparity between white and black Americans, let alone the global disparities? Can he appreciate the graph of the ruined lives of the global poor, even before the states of our interdependent ecosystems start really to seize?
    Where is there a single indication that any of the insitutions governing human lives have even the capacity to shift course from the extraction of resources anywhere in the globe to feed the energy needs of the well-to-do?
    Why be so top-notch in drawing the outlines our common predicament, and then proffer some pie-in-the-sky endpiece that flies in the face of all that we can observe?
    Still, Mann’s essay is a treasure, a lasting way to look at our lives with new artistic metaphors, and it deserves a medal or two – but only the bravest can really see where the data lie.

  4. This is fine and interesting read that but I think the scientific objectivity of the piece is slowly lost as the story gets closer to the present era. For example, the comment is made that slavery has been almost eliminated. I agree that old style slavery has more or less been stopped but I maintain that slavery is still very much alive and well under a change of name in which it is now called “employment”. This “employment” form of slavery is much more sophisticated than the old style of slavery and, if anything, it has increased slavery and made it into a kind of invisible social situation. It seems to me that Mr. Mann tries to put an optimistic spin on homo sapiens society at the end of the piece that I don’t believe is justified.

  5. Commit ‘hara hachi bu’ rather than ‘hara kiri’ for a better world ahead, the author seems to suggest. The article brings various threads of thought together well. Yet, the author does not mention early ecologists and conservationists who arrived at similar conclusions on driving social and ecological change on a moral and ethical basis, such as Aldo Leopold and Arne Naess and Rachel Carson. Unfortunately, it is widely, but perhaps wrongly, believed that the power of economics will trump ethics anyday. A shift in perception is first required?

  6. Wow! A powerful compilation of information describing the homo path then and forward…We are, of course, preoccupied by our own species’ adventures. I can appreciate this as a member of the group…but I also appreciate Lynn Margulis’ focus, a Gaia description that takes into consideration all life on the planet. Will there be another more advanced species in the future when/if we bring on our own destruction? Gaia will remain. I personally work to enjoy as much of the ride as I am able, despite politics!

  7. I have to agree with Martin’s comment. However clear-thinking when it comes to the past, Mr Mann is still unable to stop outside the dominant narrative which says that our society is the best and most moral ever and things are only getting better.

    “Since the Second World War, however, rates of violent death have fallen to the lowest levels in known history. Today, the average person is far less likely to be slain by another member of the species than ever before—an extraordinary transformation that has occurred, almost unheralded, in the lifetime of many of the people reading this article.”

    I’ve heard this claim before. Does that include deaths in car accidents? Deaths due to industrial pollution? Deaths due to political despotism? All are forms of violent death caused by human beings, albeit not in war.

    Still, it is nice to think that the human race is flexible enough to snatch survival from the jaws of extinction. I guess some of us alive today will find out the answer.

  8. A truly remarkable, thought-provoking, and complete, essay on life and humankind that should make us pause and reflect on what the author has said in the last para.

  9. A very good, engaging piece. I was all with him, particularly on the changes wrought by symbolic culture and agriculture, until the end, when he makes entirely dubious assertions. (A similar analysis, but better conclusion is to be found in Kirkpatrick Sale’s After Eden.)

    For example, plenty of anthropological evidence contradicts what Mann says about gender inequality being the case since the beginnings of our species.

    Also, his liberal championing of Progress is somewhat nauseating. The figures on declining violence are dubious at best, relying on relative rather than absolute statistics (Does Mann not count human lives as having equal worth? Lets not forget how bloody the 20th century was), and completely externalising violence on the natural world.

  10. Just read the other comments too. Totally agree with the commenters above – Martin and Ron Hofbauer

  11. we’re definitely as plastic as canby..
    so more of us have to ‘learn’ and communicate our learning on how to put grace over power..

  12. Great, thought provoking article. Makes me think of two things:
    1. The Matrix’s Agent Smith to Morpheus: “Humans are a virus”
    2. In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond’s discusses several societies throughout history that have gone to the brink of overwhelming their ecosystem and then pulled back and imposed limits on themselves. Wolves will also limit their reproduction – in most years only the alpha pair will reproduce. So we have examples from science of species limiting themselves. I won’t argue that the degree of difficulty is exponentially larger today.

  13. A good while back, the .001% Elite, the 400 families that own almost everything in the U.S., some 93,000 people worldwide, concluded that there were too many people and far too many poor people. Now they have environmental toxins, and most notably, infertility inducing GMO foods. They have tried war and disease to control our numbers, but not everyone is affected by war and disease. Everyone has to eat.Their aim is to reduce the population by 93%, and GMOs are their best course of action yet. It sounds far fetched and extreme, and inconceivable that our ‘government’ would not protect us from it. And yet, ‘government’ sits on it’s thumbs, fails to regulate toxins and approves GMOs. Perhaps the Elite’s Depopulation Agenda is mankind’s hope for a continued future.

  14. Martin believes that being employed is slavery? Really? What would he suggest, that we all just sit around and have people give us things?

    It’s completely absurd. Slaves can’t quit being slaves. Employee’s can. Slaves can’t complain to the government about working conditions. Slaves (as the US did it) don’t get to complain about missing hours on their paycheck. SLAVES DON’T GET PAID.

    The only other option is to go back to hunter-gatherer lifestyle, where you spend all your day searching for food, then starve during the winter. Remember, just a few short centuries ago most people worked all day long, every day. That was to get hardly enough food and a roof over your head.

    Now westerners work a third of the day, five seventh of the week with a few weeks off plus holidays. The average westerner today lives better then royalty or nobles did 200 years ago. We live three times longer and have access to every type of food from around the world. We can jump on a plane and see Australia, or take a train across the continent. You can spend your evenings watching movies, or bad TV, or go out drinking, watch football in person, play rugby, or do one of thousands of hobbies.

    On the weekends you can go boating, or fly your own microplane. You can talk to almost anyone in the world from your living room. You can walk around the city with a computer that talks to you and responds to your voice, science fiction just 30 years ago.

    If you live in almost any developed country other then the US you can be sure that if you break your arm while out walking you can get state of the art healthcare without going bankrupt or depleting your savings. You can get antibiotics that an infection that 100 years ago would have killed you.

    Finally, a slave can be killed or maimed at any time by his owner. That is the definition of being property. Your comparing being an employee to slavery is not just offensive but also ignorant. Ignorant of the difference between being able to do and go where you want, and living life as the property of another, life in a cage with your death hanging in the balance of your owners whim.

    It must be the natural human condition to whine.

    And Lawrence M Neal, where exactly do you get this nonsense about 93% depopulation? This is moronic. This would leave the world with a population unable to support modern life. Don’t just believe the crap you hear and read. Actually give it some thought.

  15. “And where exactly, do you get this nonsense about 93% depopulation?”

    Noted author G. Edward Griffin, amongst many others.

    “This would leave the world with a population unable to support modern life.”

    Modern Life as we know it, yes. But with enough workers to produce the needs and wants of the Elite, which is what the Elite envision. A world cleared of excessive humanity, returned to natural balance, with the Elite firmly in control of authority and reproduction.

    “Actually give it some thought”

    Try researching a different point of view.

    “It must be the natural human condition to whine”

    And demean the opinions of others.

  16. A word like “slave” can be defined any number of ways, and you should see many references to “wage-slaves” if you root around blogs and websites.
    To make a statement like “employee’s (sic) can quit” is just Republican talk – most employees cannot quit, not if they want any semblence of their life to continue.
    Of course all humans want to work productively, but where in this service-misery-financialization economy do you suggest there is kind of ideal servitude going on?
    Then you get nonsensical and stupid – many, many workers get hurt on the job, and without the protections of health insurance or disability insurance, they become mired in chronic pain and financial worry.
    “Whining” is always the epithet from the snob, from the absurdly advantaged, who deign never to look at social reality but from their own imagined superior status-yet their own lives are characterized by rage, familial dissolution, chronic mental ill health.
    You can urge the unemployed to “go boating” with you and your friends Mitt and Ann Coulter, but don’t worry, that kind of disdain for the social ills supporting the profligate lives of the boating class usually means rough seas ahead.

  17. slave/slāv/
    A person who is the legal property of another and is forced to obey them.

    Sometimes you just have to shake your head and wonder.

  18. Well I guess the “elite” don’t want things like helicopters, cars, vaccines, modern medicine and almost everything else everyone takes for granted because with a population of 300 million none of them would exist.

    It takes a LOT of people to make a modern world work, and it simply would not work.

    Oooooh, the elite are going to enslave us! Nevermind we could simply over run them. Or stop working. Or rebel. Like has happened time and time and time again.

    Of course, I’m sure all the elite are in their club right now planning to put a chip in your skull. I wonder if Obama is a member? What about Brad Pitt? Or Warren Buffett? You know Warren? Lives in a inexpensive house? I wonder how many slaves he has?

    Buddy, the ELITE can’t control much of anything. The largest governments in communist countries couldn’t control the population, with hundreds of thousands of armed forces and secret police. In China people get around the laws all the time.

    Just because others share in a silly idea doesn’t make it any less silly. Again, your simply not thinking. Not thinking at all. Not at all. Not even a tiny bit. Not an iota. Not a scootch. Not a teaspoon of thought. Not a single

    Again: sometimes you just have to shake your head and wonder.

    “It must be the natural human condition to whine”

    “And demean the opinions of others.”

    Only when their talking complete nonsense. Next you’ll be regaling us with warnings of the upcoming zombie apocalypse.

  19. “Next you’ll be regaling us with warnings of the upcoming zombie apocalypse.”

    Well, since you mention it… ZOMBIES!

    Clinical studies have shown that lab rats fed GMO soy have litters that are 50% still born, 25% infertile, and 25% fertile, generation after generation. Farmers are having still birth and infertility problems with pigs and cattle fed GMO grain. Humans eating GMOs are going to have the same results.

    Producing necessities and luxuries for 250,000 people is going to take a lot less workers than are required for today’s population that want those things. Medicine is already developed, as is much of modern advancements. The .001% Elite don’t want a modern world, they want a feudal system with themselves firmly in control. Their depopulation Agenda is already 16 years in progress.

  20. Martin

    Comparing being a slave with being a “wage slave” is moronic.

    Don’t be moronic. Don’t get cable. And don’t be moronic. Don’t compare being owned by another person to “wage slaves”. Because that’s just moronic.

    Do you know why that is moronic? Because your employer can’t walk up to you, kick you in the balls and cut off your legs because his wife wouldn’t screw him last night.

    But this can happen to a slave.

    So stop being moronic and trying to save face by suddenly adding “wage” to “slave” and change the entire point of the conversation. It demeans you. Not both of us. Not me. Just you. Lets make that clear. It demeans you, and only you. Because you compared being a slave to being employed. Which is moronic. Completely moronic. As moronic as you can get. Then you compound it by pretending to mean wage slave. Which, again, demeans you.

    It’s sad really, just how much you demeaned yourself by making the comparison of slavery equaling being an employee. Very very sad. Because is shows a lack of empathy that you then try to put on me. But of course, I never compared being a slave to being an employee. You did. As foolish and as moronic as it was, you need to face that fact. Face it and live with it until your dying day, when, hopefully, you will be able to forgive yourself for demeaning yourself and the millions of people who died in slavery, whipped and tortured to death, told where to live and where to die, who to marry, or screw. Tortured and killed just for sport because they were owned as property. As apposed to the simple transaction of working for a person for wages with the ability to walk away if your boss talks to you in a way that you disapprove of and then seek new employment, like so many people do.

    No, you simply don’t seem to understand the complete moral failure of the comparison you made, then the tragic way in which you tried to hide your moral failure.

    Your failure makes me sad.

    But thankfully I can soldier on, even though I and my wife are disabled. But I had the foresight to purchase disability insurance, and the foresight to keep my spending within my means, not buying silly toys, but instead putting that money away for future problems, like being unemployed, like I was so many times. But again, with planning and foresight we purchased a home well within our budget, so we could afford it even if it was small, so that if one or both of us were unemployed we could still make our commitments and support our growing family.

    I can’t tell you the satisfaction I get when I look around my small house and know it’s paid off, even though I was disabled and unemployed, and worked in jobs where I was nearly killed, and once nearly burned to death by burning exploding oil. But luckily, again, my foresight saved my as I had a fire extinguisher. But my boss did get surly so I simply looked for another job then quit when I found it. It wasn’t hard. Even a simpleton could do it. Of course, slaves don’t get that choice, do they? They don’t get to walk away if their owner speaks roughly. Or rapes their wife. But then slaves can’t be raped. Because they are just property. So we get back to the point of comparing slavery to being employed is simply moronic. Don’t get cable. And don’t be simply moronic.

    That’s what I tell my children. “Don’t quit until you have another job.” “Don’t spend what you don’t have.” “Buy disability insurance. It’s cheap, and worth it!”

    In fact, I told my children about a man who compared slavery, or owning a person, with being an employee. My daughter said “You demean yourself with such sillyness”. Well, I guess you can tell she’s my daughter. I told her not to be too hard on you Martin, after all, we don’t know you, we don’t know what trouble you’ve seen or the kind of life you lived. Maybe one of your employers beat you bloody, or took your girl for his own. Or perhaps Martin had an employer take his children and sell them in the market square like cattle. After all, we don’t know where Martin lives or if his first language is English. He could be mistaking the word ‘slave’ with the word ’employee’, or perhaps, in his land, employee’s are slaves, and they sleep on the floor of the workplace, forced to eat gruel and leavings, tied to the machine they are forced to tend without breaks and without thirty minutes for lunch. Perhaps this poor Martin has had his feet broken to prevent him from running away at night, and his employer prevented him from learning to read and write.

    My Daughter looked at me and said “Oh Dad, don’t be silly!” I laughed and said I know, I know. Of course this hasn’t happened to him. Because he is an employee, not a slave.

    My son just shook his head. He had a sad look on his face. He looked thoughtful for a while and then he said “Dad, doesn’t he understand that being someones property turns you into an object? Strips you of every right, every dignity, why, rips their very soul from them?”

    And I said “I’m not sure what he understands son, he seems to be trying to take it back now, and say he was talking about ‘other kinds of slavery'”

    And my son said “Well gee willickers Dad, that just seems to be gosh darned intellectual dishonesty.”

    I said “I know son, I know. And son? Please watch your language around your sister.” He nodded, suitably chastened. I sure hope I wasn’t too hard on him. He’s such a good young man. He’s going to grow up to be a great man, with solid ethics and a moral compass to guide him through life.

    Then my daughter said “He must understand that he demeans himself. Not you dad, no, not you, but himself. He MUST understand at least that?”

    I said I hope so. I surely do. Then I told them, for the thousandth time, “Remember kids, don’t quit your job until you get another, buy disability insurance, drive carefully, and save your money so you can live within the ethics you set for yourself. If you have no money your ethics are not your own.”

    They both said “Sure will Pops!” in unison, and I chuckled like I always do. Gosh, darn, I sure do love those kids!

    Then I said I’d see them later, and I quoted my favourite quote:
    “The world is not fair, and often fools, cowards, liars and the selfish hide in high places.”

    God bless you Martin. And stop trying to compare slavery with being an employee. It demeans you.

  21. Lawrance:

    That study has been condemned by just about every respectable scientist in the world.

    I don’t care for GMO’s, or the way those companies do business, but I do expect people who do studies to keep to their ethics. This didn’t happen in this case.

  22. Lawrence cites “noted author G. Edward Griffin” as a source for his claim that there is a global conspiracy by the rich to reduce the world’s population by 93%. Here are some quotes from the Wikipedia page on G. Edward Griffin that will give you a better sense of how “noted” he is.
    1. Griffin has been a member of the Josh Birch Society for most of his life, and a writer for JBS publications.
    2. Griffin is a promoter of the quack cancer cure laetrile since the 1970s.
    3. Griffin was a writer in 1968 for George Wallace’s vice-presidential candidate, former Air Force general Curtis LeMay, running on the thoroughly racist American Independent Party ticket.
    There’s lots more, including Noak’s Ark and damning the Federal Reserve.
    These associations do not necessarily mean Griffin is wrong about everything, but I would have very little confidence in him as an authority about anything. There is no point in wasting time replying to anyone who relies on such sources, other than to make sure that readers know the background of such characters.

  23. Mike, I want to try a different way with you – you are going off the rails, and you can’t be feeling that good with all that clickign ending nowhere.
    All of us use words for effect, borrowing terms from history and tradition, and we should keep things rational here. Today’s workers, if they indeed have work, are severely constrained, as you seem to know somewhat, though you keep insisting on the lie that they can just quit at any time.
    That might have been the case in the 1950s, but that is not the case now. Your life’s experiences are just that of one person, and were as dependent on social conditions for your alleged frugality allowing you a house to pay off. Your fellow Americans were baited by new social conditions to acquire homes, debt, and more debt, but you seem to think yourself separate from them. Your children are inheriting that world, and cannot escape those conditions, as these economic truths stagger the lives of those around them. America has collapsed as a functional society, scattering trillions towards war, middle class debt, and removing supports from the poor.
    I am sorry to hear you are disabled, but that does not give you the right to condemn your fellow human beings as profligate, lazy whiners. You are doing well, though, to learn about social reality from commenters here at this site, many of whom are working hard to understand the nature of the threats to humanity as outlined by Mann in the article.

  24. This article is nothing but incredibly hubristic bullshit. Fact. This is the same arrogant bullshit every colonized people has always had to listen to from the colonizers. It’s the bullshit of the rapist who tries to force those he raped say how they liked it. I’m sick of it and I’m not putting up with it anymore.

    PS. It somewhat saddens me that I’m the first to say the obvious, but hey, this is the ‘nets where, well, you know how it goes and the kind that usually bother to voice their opinions.

  25. Martin:
    You have forgotten the face of your father.

    PS: I am not an American. Please do not assume Martin. You know what they say about that? It makes an ASS out of U but not ME.

    Yes, America is a pretty screwed up place in many ways. It was even worse when they had SLAVERY. Where people could be owned like cattle and treated exactly the same way.

    Stop trying to talk your way past the fact that you compared being a slave with being employed.

    BTW, I kind of alluded to the fact that I am not an American, but since you seem to have missed it I guess your not really reading my posts.

    You want to talk about how life is difficult for many people? Sure. Go do that with someone. But its incomparably awesome compared to a being a SLAVE. In fact, the vast majority of people in the modern world have it pretty damned good. But so many wanted more and more and more in the US until their system collapsed. Now they are a nation of whiners to stupid to know better then to vote for the party that caused most of the problem. But none of that is really the issue. The issue is you saying being a slave is comparable to being an employee. Which is one of the dumbest things I have read in quite a while. Right up there with real zombie apocalypse and a secret cable of elites wanted to kill 93% of the worlds population.

    Just stop it. You look foolish. Go talk to a woman or girl who is a sex slave somewhere, her life owned by others, kept like a laying chicken. You do that then come back and talk about this. Until then your spouting nonsense because your trying to compare slavery to being an employee. And I’m not talking about a prostitute, I’m talking about a girl, a person, who is kept in a cage, a locked room when she isn’t being screwed by her owners customers. A person with no laws, no regulations, no pay, no limited working hours. She has only what her owner deems to allow her to have. Her literal LIFE is not her own. She can’t move to where the employment is better because she isn’t an employee. Shes a freakin SLAVE. You go talk to her then talk to me comparing slavery to being employed. Perhaps then you will see how ridiculous your position is.

    I don’t care to talk about how life is for employees because that isn’t what you said. And you can’t take it back and pretend you didn’t. It’s written on this website for the world to see.

    Nowhere in this article does it talk about being an employee. It does talk about slavery. So stop your jibberjabber, man up, get a spine grow some cajones and say you screwed up by comparing slavery to being an employee.

    Because you did. Big time.

    “…not give you the right to condemn your fellow human beings as profligate, lazy whiners”

    PPS: I have every right to call whoever I want a lazy whiner. Even though I am not an American my country has freedom of speech.

    Boo hoo. Life is so hard. I have to go to work! Boo hoo. I want everyone else to pay me to stay at home and do nothing but be a sponge on society because working is sooo hard. Boo hoo. I might be hurt. Boo hoo. Whine. Whine. Whine. Boo hoo. Cry snivel whine.

    BTW, I don’t want or need your pity. You talk about how people get disabled at work. I was. So what? What does any of that crap have to do with comparing slavery to being an employee which is the entire point? A person who compares slavery to being an employee is a whiner.

    Only a whiner compares being a slave to being an employee. Don’t be a whiner. Don’t buy cable, and don’t be a whiner. Your position is untenable. You have forgotten the face of your father. Take the red pill Martin.

    Hmm. Actually, Martin, it is the natural condition for humans to whine. If you think it isn’t, you haven’t been paying attention. Maybe you don’t get out a lot. But in my experience, almost everyone whines. Especially at work. While being employed. Do you know who didn’t whine? Slaves. Because they would be whipped. Sometimes to death. Or sent off to work in mines where they would be worked to death. Like what the Nazi’s did to their slaves. Starved them to death, worked them to death. Experimented on them, like surgical procedures without anesthetic. Because they were slaves. Property.

    But you seem to be going off the rails, as you say, because almost the entirety of the first post I made was about you comparing slavery to being an employee.

    Only a special kind of person can compare slavery to being an employee and think they are in the right, then try to twist the conversation around and pretend they were saying something else.

    Just admit you screwed up, admit that slavery is not comparable to being an employee. Everything else you say is just filler and misdirection Martin. Just admit it. You want to talk about how badly Americans have screwed up their systems, you do that. But our conversation was about you comparing slavery to being employed. Only a complete whiner would do such a thing as to make that comparison. Only a person with no concept of history would compare slavery to a modern democratic labour law system.

    Are you a whiner, Martin? Or are you going to fess up and admit that being a slave, someone owning your life with the ability to kill you at whim is not the same as being an employee, who can walk away from a job?

    Are you going to be man enough to do that, Martin? Will you remember the face of your father, Martin?

    Come on Martin! I know you have it in you to do this. To admit your mistake. It will make you a better person. You’ll feel better. You’ll have a spring in your step. You’ll be able to smile at the world. Fess up. Slavery does not equal being an employee. Say it out loud.
    I know that you know that everyone else knows it’s the right thing to do. Even my dog knows it.

    Say “I have forgotten the face of my father, and slavery does not equate to being an employee in a modern regulated democratic society with modern labour laws and freedom of movement”.

    You know you want to. And more importantly, you know its the truth. Stop the dissembling. Start the healing. I have faith in you. You just need to have faith in yourself. Step up. Stand up. Grab your cajones and say it out loud!

    A person who lies to others can’t be trusted. A person who lies to himself can’t trust himself. Take the red pill.

  26. By the way, Marty (mind if I call you Marty? Thanks Marty!)

    If you want to compare how bad employees have it (regardless of your absurd comparison of Slavery equaling being an employee) why don’t we compare the modern western employee with one of China’s workers? Who work fourteen hours a day, six or seven days a week for wages you make in a day.
    And the millions of Chinese who want those jobs. Want them very badly.

    Or, as I said in my first post, in the past work all day everyday and never have an opportunity to buy a house. To live your entire life in small village. To die at 30. To see your wife die in childbirth. To see most of your children die before they turn three. To get a broken leg and be crippled for the rest of your life. To get polio and be crippled for life. To get a cut and die from infection. To be subject to some lords whims. To be the property of some lord. To be hungry almost all the time.

    I could go on and on and on. We have it good. We have it great. We have it freaking awesome. I’m thankful for the life I have. It’s great. Life is very good. Especially now, for me and the vast majority of those who live in the western world.

    So stick your ipod earbuds in your ears and think about that. And while your thinking about that, think about the millions of Americans, United States soldiers that went all over the world to end the scourge we call fascism and the death, destruction and dismay the third Reich took with them everywhere they went. Death camps. Slavery.

    Americans went willingly to fight those Nazi’s, even if it meant their deaths. Often horrible agonizing deaths. And they did this right out of the worst depression that the world had seen in a very, very long time.
    And they didn’t whine about it.

    It seems to me that sometimes people forget their history, then they make silly comparisons, like slavery is equal to being an employee. Notice how I got that in? Is that going off the rails? Remember how the Chinese worked on the rails? Building railroad tracks across the American continent? They did it for pennies a day. They were happy to do the dangerous jobs, working all day seven days a week.

    Because everything is relative. Such as, slavery relatively worse then being an employee. Much, much, much, much worse.

  27. Martin:

    How much vacation pay do slaves get, anyways? How many vacation days? Medical? Dental? How about compensation for driving their own car during work hours? You know, like a tenth of a quid per kilometer. How do you think that works for slaves?

    What other benefits do slaves get? Accommodation? Meals? What kind of taxes do they pay? Are they invited to the annual picnic? Well, of course they are. Someone has to serve and clean up, right?

    Oh, yeah, they also get bracelets, hand and ankle, neato designer scarring on their back. Sometimes if they had a skill and they tried to runaway they also got the benefit of what they call ‘hobbling’.

    Great fun, don’t you think, Martin?

  28. Woo hoo Martin, sounds like you really got somebody’s goat. 🙂 Personally, I think you are right on, this civilization runs on slave labor, always has. There is a reason why there is all this admiration for ancient Athens where the slaves ran almost everything and got no voice. Democracy? Haha, for the top 400 and nobody else…

    Of course, there are variations on slavery, both in the extent of the misery, and the various names put on it. But the underlying principle is the same.

  29. In reference to Lynn Margulis

    “Aren’t we special at all?

    This was just chitchat on the street, so I didn’t write anything down. But as I recall it, she answered that Homo sapiens actually might be interesting—for a mammal, anyway. For one thing, she said, we’re unusually successful.

    Seeing my face brighten, she added: Of course, the fate of every successful species is to wipe itself out.”

    I’m not necessarily disagreeing with her but it would be nice to get further clarification. Presumably a species survives because it makes a successful adaptation. If conditions change such that it can no longer meet the challenges then presumably it either engineers a successful biological adaptation or it dies off.

    That’s pretty mundane stuff. I presume she was trying to make some greater point but I’m not clear what it is.

    Looked at in terms of broader related families of species which have been successful, I don’t see in general birds or insects or algae dying off.

  30. It seems to me that some species are happy to just live in a niche that allows them to maintain a culture at some constant level. Question: Is this a successful species or not?
    However others, most easily found examples are viruses and insects become what are called a “plague” species. A plague species advances until it kills its host and then it also dies. Some are saying that homo sapiens has become a plague species. I suppose that becoming a plague species could be counted as a kind of success.

  31. Is this a serious article? Prices. They exist. They function to ration resources. Look them up.

  32. What a lovely, eloquent, clear and useful summary. One very small grouse:

    Like fire, clothing is technology: people who wear clothes consume significantly fewer calories in cold weather, so the being possessed of a bark robe didn’t need to do as much work as his or her ancestors, and could settle further afield during transhumance (and stay there longer) than naked, chillier people.

    While enjoying their leisure, our ancestors had much more time to divert themselves with abstract cultural pursuits (which are also technology, but of a much more sophisticated, weightless, and intangible kind). It is shortly after this period that the first bone flutes appear, fashioned, no doubt, around campfires out of the wings of a tasty, barbecued bird.

    Cooking food releases its nutrients and makes it more cost-effective, so the calories required to build fat and nerve cells were provided by the invention of cooked cuisine and our brains were able to become exponentially bigger.

    Given the productivity of our successes, symbolic abstractions proliferated until the internal structures of our brain (the organizing ego, for example) became more fully developed, and we were able to separate ourselves from the pack for significant periods of time to pursue abstract goals and systems of thought.

    I think this happens about 35,000 years ago when the artist-with-the-broken-finger splashes images of his hand in red ochre on the cave walls at Lascaux. These walls also depict the first known images of ‘squares,’ a shape that haunts the history of humanity, but that has no natural correlate. Squares probably derive from another human technology, basket weaving, since the warp and woff of basketry provide a basic quadrangular shape.

    Anyway, thank you, I loved this piece!

  33. Thanks to everyone who wrote about their reactions to my piece. For writers, one of the most amazing things about the Internet is being able to discover, almost in real time, readers’ thoughts about their work.

    A few thoughts. Martin wrote:

    “Sure, there are identity politics achievements, and nice safer lives for the boomers and the Prius-drivers, but there are so many real, freely available, undeniable markers of a immovable and fully corrupt supersystem.”

    I don’t view this as contradicting what I wrote. From Margulis’s arguments, the expected thing would be for us to simply expand until we poison ourselves and/or consume all our resources. This seems to be what you think that we are doing. Then I said, well, is there any reason at all to think we might do something else? For me, that hope, in so far as it exists, can be found in other wrenching social changes in the recent past. Nowhere does the article say these will prevail.

    Ron Hofbauer says that “slavery is still very much alive and well under a change of name in which it is now called ’employment.'” Heaven knows that wage employment has plenty of problems. But I think you do a disservice to the struggles of the past if you compare it to actual chattel slavery. Just read some histories of slavery to see what I mean — Kátia M. de Queirós Mattoso’s “To Be a Slave in Brazil”, for instance. As many as half of the slaves in Brazil died in 4-5 years. More still died on the brutal journey within Africa to the slave port, and on the way over. Really, this is worse than being a poorly paid functionary.

    Robert does not believe the claims about the rates of war and violent death: “Does that include deaths in car accidents? Deaths due to industrial pollution? Deaths due to political despotism? All are forms of violent death caused by human beings, albeit not in war.”

    The answer is no, the figures are for death by direct violence. Violence, in the dictionary, is “behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something.” Car accidents and industrial pollution are not generally INTENDED to kill people, though they do. (As it happens, though, deaths from both car accidents and industrial pollution are down, at least in countries developed enough to release statistics. In the US, for example, highway fatalities fell from ~50k/yr in 1965 to ~35k/yr in 2010. “Industrial pollution” is harder to measure, but there are plenty of studies showing increases in longevity from reduced pollution, e.g., “Deaths due to violent despotism” aren’t counted in statistics as such, but it is worth noting that both the number and percentage of people living in places under democratic rule, which tend to be less likely to beat and kill the citizenry, has greatly increased since, say, 1900. Given the number of wars in the last century, it is hard to accept that warfare is going down, but that is what the evidence clearly indicates. For the larger case, read Joshua Goldstein’s “Winning the War on War” or Steven Pinker’s “Better Angels of our Nature,” both of which came out last year.



  34. An interesting and well-written piece, thanks for it. (That neither of those modifiers apply to the heavily-adolescent comments posted here is, sadly, entirely predictable.) While none of the facts recited in this essay were entirely new to me, their combination and perspective in relation to each other was novel and thought-provoking.

  35. Charles Mann himself! What a pleasure. I absolutely adored 1491! One of the major books of my life. 🙂

    As for slavery, nobody here said it is *exactly* like chattel slavery. Do we do disservice to the plight of the new world chattel slaves by calling ancient Greek slaves slaves, even though their status was in many cases far different and better, and their slavery was not “chattel slavery” per se?

    The reason I see extending the word into modern lives is this: we have a system where most of the commons has been stolen and privatized, and the rest of us have to toil to get a few crumbs of it back: bread on the table, water, a place to sleep, clothes. That to me is the principle that enslaves people, even though there are many flavors of it.

    As for the violence of war, I disagree. There is the direct war when people die by sword or gun, and then there is the indirect war, usually economic, where people die by hunger, squalor and disease and toxins that have been caused by the economic machinations of those who would rather wage a sneaky war than a direct one.

    When millions were dispossessed (and subsequently perished) as a result of the Enclosure Acts, were they not destroyed by economic war on their lives? Of course the lords and the ladies who profited would argue they did not *intend* those deaths, but I think that most of us would recognize that as weasel words. Same with Bhopal. Same with the destruction of the Amazonian peoples by desperate loggers and farmers abetted by government policies. Same with bringing a nation to its knees via economic hit men, so that the lower strata are again nothing but slaves, toiling away to pay off a debt that is a nothing but another version of a Roman tribute, and dying at a young age amidst the slums.

    You wanna talk war? Add up the victims of both the direct and the sneaky ones, and then we can compare.

  36. Charles Mann deserves credit for coming here to respond: while I usually have felt this is obligatory on the part of an author to respond to direct criticism, I do see how the Internet brings out the crazies, and the exchanges tend to be mutually enraging.
    The debate about these issues rages around hinterlands, especially about Pinker’s book.
    Goldstein’s book makes an essential point, which I accept, about the numbers of war dead having plunged dramtically in the last 50 years, but then the book becomes a turgid slog through the UN’s alleged successes – perhaps it will get better in the last half.
    As Robert states, there is a much greater dimension to the issue than these accepted statistics, that to claim some Age of Peace in the face of criminal US imperial wars and an apartheid regime in Israel seems perverse. To see humanity as “Winning the war on war” or having reached some exalted plane of “our better angels” becomes an obtuse vision when so many lives are wasted thorugh economic oppression, ecoystem destruction, all in our Information Age, when the facts of social reality are just about evident to everyone.
    To say there is “hope” in prior social campaigns for social justice has been a cheap rallying cry for the liberal reformer, but it is very important to see if current social conditions augur well for these examples to be reborn – or else why even bring up the basic historical claim?

  37. Even in a world devoid of corporatist bad actors I don’t see how poverty and squalor is avoidable if we are continuing to push population beyond the biosphere’s carrying capacity.

    In anticipation of the inevitable response let’s get rid of the 20% who are using up 80% of the resources. What follows from that? Members of the 80% rapidly move into their shoes. Being poor doesn’t necessarily endow you with great character.

  38. You are correct, David; the problem of power cannot be solved by killing the elite and stepping into their shoes.

  39. And thank you for putting it so eloaquently white Pinker’s propaganda for late industrial civilization seems so… icky.

  40. From the article

    “Our record of success is not that long. In any case, past successes are no guarantee of the future. But it is terrible to suppose that we could get so many other things right and get this one wrong. To have the imagination to see our potential end, but not have the imagination to avoid it. To send humankind to the moon but fail to pay attention to the earth. To have the potential but to be unable to use it—to be, in the end, no different from the protozoa in the petri dish. It would be evidence that Lynn Margulis’s most dismissive beliefs had been right after all. For all our speed and voraciousness, our changeable sparkle and flash, we would be, at last count, not an especially interesting species.”

    Those concluding remarks nicely define the issue. As I read it it means either we get population growth under control and limit per capita resource use, particularly our fossil fuel foot print, or we exhaust our particular petri dish whose nutrient support systems we are additionally degrading and go into population collapse.

    What’s not clear is whether there is an environmental line that we could cross where a positive change in our behavior won’t make any difference. I tie this to the possibility of our inducing a 6th extinction event.

    Here’s a guy with an informed and relevant perspective. Both short and long videos by the same guy are worth checking out.

  41. Hi Charles,

    Good Essay.

    In the positive trends you mention, please add the fact that developed world is greatly limiting its population growth.

    You have mentioned the extra 3 billion people, but surely you are aware enough that you should have said “extra 3 billion and that is it”.

    If humanity get through this other bottleneck where we can provide the resources so that 10 billion or so people can live good lives, then that can be as permanent a solution as possible. Because, it is seen that as people develop, they reduce their birth rates.

    Better coordination can ensure that this remains the state in the future.

  42. The richest country in the world is increasing by 3 million people a year. The idea that wealth equates necessarily with less children is way too simplistic, even if it means the wealthy are bringing in outsiders to service them. When the Russians went into rapid economic decline during their breakup their population dropped fairly substantially.

    The fact is any tradition anywhere of large families, like say the Mormons, eventually increases the world population. It’s an exponential thing.

  43. Thanks for taking the time to respond, Charles!

    It seems to me that a lack of direct intention is not enough to mitigate violent death.

    If I were maimed in a car accident or developed cancer due to pollution, I wouldn’t be inclined to forgive the companies who could have designed safer vehicles or cleaner factories, because they weren’t actually out to kill me, but merely trying to make a profit without regard to my safety. (It has been proven that companies do make such judgements based on the likely cost of being sued versus the cost of safety measures. If that isn’t intention, I don’t know what is.)

    I would have serious doubts that either cause of death has decreased worldwide since WWII, given the rise in industrial production and car use.

    Of course Pinker and Goldstein may be right anyway, on a per-capita basis, because of the spectacular growth in global population since 1945 which dilutes the death toll.

    All I can say is, when I look at events like the Iraq war, I don’t feel like our leaders are getting wiser or better; and when I look at climate change and biodiversity loss, I don’t feel optimistic about the future.

  44. I very much enjoyed the article and the thoughts it provoked. The main issue that I think has been neglected that is central to where humanity currently is, relates to fossil fuel energy. Coal and Oil in particular. Everyone knows how coal led to the industrial revolution and all of the “progress” it brought. Oil continued this progress but at an even greater rate. Humans first commercially extracted oil in 1856. A guy by the name of Edwin Drake used a water drill to drill for oil. He actually saved the whales which were being aggressively hunted as their blubber oil was used for lamps. This was no longer necessary as kerosene was far cheaper and easier to get. Hell, it spurted out of the ground!

    I believe that slavery was ended not by human compassion (it may have contributed) or conscious decision but because humans had a new slave, an easier and cheaper slave… fossil fuel energy. That was barely 150yrs ago now and many well respected geologists believe we are halfway through our endowment of oil. The global production rate of oil peaked in 2005 and since then it has plateaued which led to a separation in supply and demand hence the price of oil went from $20 per barrel in 2000 to $100 in January 2008 to $147 in July 2008. During this time the price of everything was going up. This was seen as inflation which in “normal” economics is due to excess loans creating too much money into existence thereby devaluing all existing money. However the rise was not due to this it was due to the actual price of the good going up because the cost of making, moving or processing it had increased with the price of oil. The Fed Reserve used their indicator CPI consumer price index to determine that inflation was high and so to curb the inflation they raised the interest rates (17 times in a row!) until the poorest couldnt handle it in the USA and defaulted on loans en-mass. Leading to the Lemhan Bros collapse and the GFC which is still ongoing today. The thing about oil production peaking and plateauing is that the next direction inevitably is decreasing. This is because all individual oil wells follow a bell curve of production rate, starts slow but quickly builds and then peaks with a little plateau before declining. Often quite an evenly distributed bell curve. The USA had peak production of oil in 1970 and since every year the production of oil out of the USA has declined no matter what technology or how many straws – I mean drills they put in! Hence spreading democracy to Iraq (2nd largest oil reserves in the world!) and now talking about WMDs in Iran (3rd largest oil reserves). Oil is everything to modern man. Look around yourself now, there is nothing in your vicinity that is man made that did not involve oil (cheap energy). Anything made of wood, those trees had to be cut with chainsaws, transported with trucks, even once processed it had to be delivered with trucks and painted. All involving oil. Oil is what actually provided us with our agar in our petri dish. Without oil there is no way human development would have arrived at this point. There is no substitute for oil. Oil is stored sunlight, captured by algae in shallow oceans over eons of time. All this sequestering of CO2 into carbohydrate chains caused a very slow form of climate change, cooling our planet over a very long time. We found it 150yrs ago and have burnt half of it already! AND many of us think climate change is a hoax (thats another debate, and not that i agree with the strategies put forward to address it).

    Anyway, my point it oil is special to the human story and should not be discounted. An important note is that as we are about to decend down the slippery slope of oil depletion with subsequently higher and higher prices causing untold irreparable damage to the global economy, we are going to find that the edge of our petri dish is energy, more accurately cheap easy energy. Without this modern civilisation as we know it is impossible. We all live in interesting times.

  45. What we call “success” is soon to become patently unsustainable, and that is the problem.

  46. I am surprised that nobody has taken issue with these statements in Mr. Mann’s otherwise well written and engaging article:

    “In the name of nature, we are asking human beings to do something deeply unnatural, something no other species has ever done or could ever do: constrain its own growth (at least in some ways). Zebra mussels in the Great Lakes, brown tree snakes in Guam, water hyacinth in African rivers, gypsy moths in the northeastern U.S., rabbits in Australia, Burmese pythons in Florida—all these successful species have overrun their environments, heedlessly wiping out other creatures. Like Gause’s protozoans, they are racing to find the edges of their petri dish. Not one has voluntarily turned back. Now we are asking Homo sapiens to fence itself in.”


    “All life is similar at base. All species seek without pause to make more of themselves—that is their goal. By multiplying till we reach our maximum possible numbers, even as we take out much of the planet, we are fulfilling our destiny.”

    I think human beings differ significantly from the invasive species cited above. Unlike them we can, completely naturally, choose to have awareness of the damage we are doing, and we can voluntarily change our behavior to avoid disaster. Therefore, I think cultural narrative plays a much larger role in how humans impact the environment than does biological determinism.

  47. Lawrence:

    I never click on links like that. Perhaps you can describe the picture for me? A visual description service, as it were?

    Is it a picture of an Elite planning the 93 percent culling of the human population?

    A zombie eating an Elite?

    An Elite eating a zombie?

    Three zombies eating a monkey that is eating its own poop? While being watched by an Elite?

    Lawrence, I’ve really enjoyed this thing we’ve had. You too Martin. You have brought a ray of sunshine to an otherwise dreary day. But I must be moving onto new fields of endeavor and exploration. Somewhere, there is a man comparing something to something else in a silly and completely unreasonable way and I must be there as a representative of the Elite so he may be knocked down and forced to submit so the plan to cull 93 percent of the human race can move forward.

    Yes Lawrence, it is true. I am a member of that Elite. (We prefer Elite, rather then elite, thank you Lawrence) I hope you understand that it is just business, nothing personal.

    I have so enjoyed our chats that I have reached out using our four dimensional physical holography induction computer monitor, standard since 1953, to place an invisible mark upon your forehead to mark you as one of those to be saved. Oh happy days Lawrence!

    When they come in the black UN helicopters, as you know they will, be sure to point to your forehead. Using scanners they will determine those who are to be, ummm, helped along their journey, and those who will be the “indentured lifetime full time employees” with no benefits, wages or options to quit. Save one, of course.

    Of course we know you know, because we are listening through our thousands of satellites in low earth orbit. They intercept all phones, all internet traffic, and of course, all conversations anywhere close enough for modern technology to pick it up. Ipods, Ipads, cameras, ebook readers all have built in hidden microphones. The conversations are all directed to the satellites and redirected to the 400 Elites. We also have access to all video cameras, web cams and still digital cameras.

    We are watching Lawrence. Stop that, you’ll go blind.

    I am deeply saddened to say that Martin did not make the cut. It wasn’t my decision, I was pulling for both of you, but I was overruled by the Elite of the Elite. I can’t tell you who he is, but I’ll give you a hint. His name rhymes with Loopert Turdoch. I think he has a secret plan to cull 93 percent of the 7 percent not culled and live with Sarah Palin on a secret Island in the South Pacific where he will rule over a cadre of zombie republicans.

    How do you tell the difference between zombie Republicans and normal Republicans?

    You can’t.

    Tally ho!

    BTW, Lawrence, are you sure your not confusing this plan of culling by the Elite with Stargate Atlantis?

  48. John:”I think human beings differ significantly from the invasive species cited above. Unlike them we can, completely naturally, choose to have awareness of the damage we are doing, and we can voluntarily change our behavior to avoid disaster. Therefore, I think cultural narrative plays a much larger role in how humans impact the environment than does biological determinism.”

    I agree that humans have the ability to see ramifications and act accordingly. But, some will do what is best for all, for the future, and some will do what is best for them, in the moment. As long as sex is instinctive, and feels better than almost anything else, most people will continue engaging in it irrespective of results 9 months down the road. As long as money is the end goal for corporate psychopaths, they will continue to ravage the planet for immediate gains. Our species has been intelligent in adapting… up till now.

  49. Mike: “I never click on links like that. Perhaps you can describe the picture for me?”

    It said, “Don’t feed the Troll, it only encourages him”

    I’m reminded of the adage: “You can wake a man who is sleeping, you can’t wake a man who is pretending to sleep”.

    I applaud you for not using the word ‘moron’ in your post.

  50. Mike….well said on the subject of peak energy. You know you spared me the effort, and I couldn’t have put it as succinctly anyway.

    But I will pile on that message. Energy is the edge of our petri dish indeed.

    Or, as I like to say: “Reality does not require you to believe in it.”

    (And I was wondering what this thing on my forehead was for…thanks!)


  51. Here I thought that trolls have become an extinct species on Orion. And one appears in full fledged glory! Ho ho ho! Keep your goats close by, folks. If you don’t feed it, it will go away.

  52. Ruben Nelson • This is a truly significant and provocative piece. Thank you for sharing it.
    This piece names what I see to be the root dilemma we face as a species in the 21st century — consciously choosing to change the trajectory of our modern/Industrial form of civilization or unconsciously continuing to commit to a path that over time leads to the extinction of many more species, likely including our own.
    I note that rising to this challenge is new work for our species. While the form of civilization in and through which we have lived has transformed in the past, it has always been a process that was slow, unconscious, local/regional and optional. Now we appear to face these requirements — our present civilizational transformation must be fast, conscious, global and it is required if human life is to be sustained in any way that is remotely humane.
    As “new work” it is not surprising that we find ourselves today without any well-developed support systems that would encourage and enable us to see, explore, think through and respond with courageous creativity to this challenge. While it is premature to conclude that we are “done for”, the odds, as of today, are against us.
    In my view, adding at least one formal and well-funded capacity that allows some to work on behalf of all of us at the civilizational level in a truly integral way is one of the most pressing pieces of work facing us as persons, families, communities, corporations and nations. In one language, we need an analogue of the Manhattan Project. That this topic is not yet on the agenda of any body with any substantial influence is concerning, to say the least. (Lest this sound easy, may I remind you that we have invested 500 years and trillions of dollars learning to do science as analysis — breaking things down into their “constituent and controllable parts/silos. As of now, we have almost no serious inclination even to undertake science as synthesis — grasping the whole in an integral manner — let alone posses a well-developed capacity and well-funded support system for doing so.)
    My deepest commitment is to create a community of interest that sees and is able to think through both the need for such efforts and a strategy for launching them. If your are inclined to do so, let me know if you share this calling.

  53. It pleases me to have so distinguished a colleague as Ruben Nelson join this conversation. His perspective is a valuable one. I pay attention to what he says as well as share his hopes and values.

  54. Lawrence:

    You wrote: “I agree that humans have the ability to see ramifications and act accordingly. But, some will do what is best for all, for the future, and some will do what is best for them, in the moment.” You are correct, but the situation you describe is more a result of a cultural belief system than it is biology. While difficult, culture can, and does, change, for the better sometimes.

    Your second point: “As long as sex is instinctive, and feels better than almost anything else, most people will continue engaging in it irrespective of results 9 months down the road.” Cultures have found ways to control population. One effective way is to empower women. Birth control also works where promoted.

    Your third point: “As long as money is the end goal for corporate psychopaths, they will continue to ravage the planet for immediate gains.” The business corporation is a legal entity that is structured to be psychopathic (or not) by the government that charters it. In the US, corporations are structured by law to be “legal persons” whose sole responsibility is to maximize profit to shareholders regardless of the costs to the communities within which they operate. Again, this is not a result of biology but of culture.

  55. John; Good points, all.

    It’s not impossible, but will take some major cultural changes to get the majority to be altruistic, rather than selfish. Empowering women is effective, along with encouraging vasectomies. Corporate behavior may be cultural, but psychopaths are biological. Corporations may just be a convenient vehicle for psychopaths to express themselves.

    I think it’s going to take coming very near the brink of destruction to scare enough people into making the necessary changes. Or, those with foresight will prepare, and sit back and watch the crash.

  56. Prakash mentioned a very key point which is too rarely noted in articles about Gause-ian petri dishes: residents of most of the developed nations have not only reduced their reproductive rates, they are having children at rates *below* the replacement level. Even China’s fertility rate is below replacement level, granted as a result of harsh government intervention.

  57. At Mike

    Martin was not referring to all employment, but slave-like employment in developing countries, in which debt constrains employees from moving.

    also, many modern hunter-gatherers spend far less time making a living than civilized counterparts, with an arguably better standard of living than the majority of civilised people.

  58. Feeding the troll, Hamish? Why would you want to do that?

    Unless, of course, you are his sock puppet… wheee! 😉

  59. Mislabeling Leads to Perverse Conclusions
    In his recent Orion piece, “State of the Species,” Charles Mann comes to the following screwy conclusion: “By multiplying till we reach our maximum possible numbers, even as we take out much of the planet, we are fulfilling our destiny.” Taking a cue from microbiologist Lynn Margilus, Mann defines the human domination of the planet as “species success.” This is consistent with his propensity to mislabel and confound categories. What we’re really talking about here is a species out of balance with its ecosystem, a species which is not integrating into the Community of Life, but is instead dominating and destroying that community. Only it is not really an entire species that is doing this: it is one particular culture—the culture of civilization. Other cultures have been well-integrated into the Community of Life, and even a few still are today. It is not uncommon for people to confuse our culture (which in recent times has spread like a virus) with all of humanity. But a critical thinker like Mann, and the editors of Orion, ought to know better. This is important because mislabeling leads to perverse conclusions.
    One such perverse conclusion is that in overrunning the planet we are fulfilling our destiny. Are we supposed believe that with four billion years of Earthly evolutionary experience, the Life Force, or whatever is behind the proliferation of life on this planet, cannot do any better than this? I, for one, don’t buy it. He makes it sound like a death wish is built into the fabric of life itself. I’m sorry, that just doesn’t work for me.
    And here is another confounding of categories: “The world is a petri dish.” No, the world is not a petri dish. The whole point of a petri dish is that it is exclusive—it includes two or three selected ingredients, and excludes everything else. A petri dish is allopoetic; it is anthropogenic, and also anthropocentric to its core. It’s all ultimately about us. The world, on the other hand, is autopoetic, and is wonderfully inclusive. It is complex and diverse; it teems with abundance. If, for the sake of a thought experiment, you wanted to consider a petrti dish filled with one celled organisms and a pile of sugar as a metaphor for our world piled with fossil fuels and we humans consuming this energy windfall until it’s all gone, that might prove instructive, as long as you clearly acknowledge that this is merely a metaphor, and all metaphors have their limits.
    The deficiency in all three of these perverse constructions can be traced back to the simple cognitive error of reductionist thinking. One culture is not the entire species; the world is not a petri dish; and being out of balance with the Community of Life does not define success.

  60. I just tuned in to the feedback this essay has generated and have another take to offer. Reading it left me feeling uneasy, so I went for a walk in a place that often helps alleviate that feeling: the old growth forest of my Cascade mountain home. There, I began to understand the source of my discomfort. Humans have walked among these five hundred year old Douglas firs, western hemlocks, western red cedars and Pacific yews, as well as the trees that preceded them, for some eight to ten millennia yet, here they stand. The elk and deer who live in their shadows have fed and clothed humans for just as long yet, here they walk. If, as Mann suggests, the Earth is a petri dish and so-called “behaviorally modern Homo sapiens” is analogous to all-devouring bacteria, then this forest and these ideal human fuel, construction and food species should not be here, but rather, they should have long ago been devoured. Yet, here they are.
    Could it be that Mann is missing something . . . something big . . . something vital, irreducible and essentially subjective that has eluded science, but not the forest and not the humans who have thrived in the forest for millennia without devouring it? Could it be that the behaviors he calls modern and attributes to the human species as a whole actually reflect only one cultural expression of an organism with a far greater existential repertoire than his story acknowledges? For all our sake — firs, hemlocks, cedars, yew, elk, deer and humans alike — I hope so, and I believe so. The forest informs my belief.
    Here among the trees, success is not about species exploding in numbers then wiping themselves out, which hardly seems like success at all. Forest success is about mutual reciprocity that results in optimal long-term flourishing for every species who, all together, compose the greater green whole. Humans can be, and have long been, one of those species. Being one of those species is, in fact, far more representative of what it means to be behaviorally modern than is bacterial mimicry in a hyper-controlled artificial environment. For those of us bound to the mimic’s way in the petri dish of civilization, relearning the way of the forest will require us to first remove the cultural blinders that prevent it. Though Mann’s piece offers many insights about the human animal, they are framed in a way that does more to leave those blinders in place than it does to lift them.

  61. Tim Fox

    “Here among the trees, success is not about species exploding in numbers then wiping themselves out, which hardly seems like success at all.”

    Of course not. No species of tree can because of competition and as you indicate the often greater advantages of cooperation when expansive competition is no longer an option. Unlike the trees and other species humans can turn the entire biosphere into a consumable stew without apparent serious challenge by competing species. The ones that hang around would be trained for our needs. That’s why the petri dish analogy is not so far fetched as long as you posit continuing growth.

    The question is can the human race demonstrate collective restraint? A good marker would be an end to population growth and a movement of population in a negative direction.

  62. Dear David M, Tim Fox, Gary Gripp, Ruben Nelson and Charles Mann,

    Perhaps all of you and other participants in this conversation would be helpful by commenting on the topic of human population dynamics and a specifice question: how does the population dynamics of the human species relate to the notion of human exceptionalism? This is one issue that is not being given the attention it deserves. How are we to grasp the gravity of the human predicament, much less gain consensus about how to go forward, if we cannot share an adequate, scientific understanding of the ‘placement’ of the human species within the order of living things.

    Good colleagues all in the Orion community, is the population dynamics of the human species essentially similar to, or different from the population dynamics of other species? In terms of our population dynamics, are human beings actually exceptional (ie, different from the other species on Earth)? If so, please point out the scientific research for the widely shared and consensually validated assertion of human exceptionalism vis a vis its population dynamics. The population dynamics of non-human species are routinely and immediately understood. Food is the independent variable and population numbers is the dependent variable. More food equals more organisms; less food equals less organisms; and no food, no organisms. But the minute our focus shifts to human organisms, everything we know from well established scientific research about population dynamics is turned upside down. Experts in unison automatically broadcast via the mass media the notion that the human species must grow food in order to meet the needs of growing human population. All of sudden human population numbers is the independent variable and food is the dependent variable. Where is the scientific research for this distinctly human exceptionalism with regard to the population dynamics of humankind? I cannot find sufficient scientific support for such exceptionalism.

    Thank you,


  63. Regardless of what we believe because it is politically convenient, economically expedient, socially correct, religiously tolerated and culturally prescribed to do so, whatsoever is is, is it not? Please assist me by examining research of the population dynamics of the human species. The implications of this research appear to be potentially profound. If human population dynamics is essentially common to, not different from, the population dynamics of other species, then the unbridled growth of absolute global human population numbers in our time could be the proverbial “mother” of the human-induced global challenges looming ominously before the family of humanity. If this colossal global challenge continues to be ignored, the human family could end up winning some Pyrrhic victories over subordinate global challenges but losing the larger struggle for survival itself.

    Please note the following perspective from Sir Fred Hoyle that dates back to 1964, a time prior to the publication of Ehrlich’s “Population Bomb” and the Club of Rome’s seminal work, “Limits to Growth.”


    “It has often been said that, if the human species fails to make a go of it here on the Earth, some other species will take over the running. In the sense of developing intelligence this is not correct. We have or soon will have, exhausted the necessary physical prerequisites so far as this planet is concerned. With coal gone, oil gone, high-grade metallic ores gone, no species however competent can make the long climb from primitive conditions to high-level technology. This is a one-shot affair. If we fail, this planetary system fails so far as intelligence is concerned. The same will be true of other planetary systems. On each of them there will be one chance… and one chance only.”


    It appears to me that Sir Fred Hoyle was asking people years ago, when I was still a teenager, to carefully consider and rigorously examine a superordinate situation that was too dangerous to ignore… that dwarfed other already identified global challenges. And yet few experts in my lifetime chose to follow his advice. They adopted a ‘head in the sand’ posture or appeared hysterically blind, willfully deaf and electively mute when confronted with scientific evidence of human population dynamics.

    Rather than seriously scrutinize population dynamics leading to the human overpopulation of the Earth, which would require experts to rivet their attention on the placement of the human species within the natural order of living things, the topic was assiduously avoided, just as it has been ignored until now. At the beginning of my lifecycle in 1945 there were about 2.8+/- billion human beings on Earth. Only 67 years later 7.0+/- billion people are members of the human community.

    So much time has been wasted recently by ‘the brighest and best’ in my generation, all of whom have sold out for ‘success’ to the highest bidder and in doing so, sold out science, sold out humanity and sold out the Earth as a fit place for human habitation by the children and coming generations, sold out to greedmongers who possess great wealth and power. The implications of such widespread intellectual dishonesty, such failure of moral fibre and nerve among self-proclaimed professional researchers with appropriate expertise appear to be far-reaching. We cannot address problems, the root causes of which we consciously and deliberately refuse to acknowledge.

    Heretofore unchallenged research by Russell Hopfenberg and David Pimentel appears to indicate with remarkable clarity that human population dynamics is essentially similar to the population dynamics of other species. Since many too many population experts remain silent about this research and blogmeisters associated with the mass media refuse to discuss the peer-reviewed evidence, perhaps all of you could take a look at it, make your comments, and encourage by your example others to do the same. You can find the published, peer-reviewed article “Human Population Numbers as a Function of Food Supply” by Hopfenberg and Pimentel on the worldwide web or at the following link, Other articles and a slideshow presentation on human population dynamics and human overpopulation can also be found at this link.

    Thank you again,


  64. I would say that there are “good guys” among the human race who see disaster coming and would like to do something about it but don’t have the position or power. And I suspect that those who really really have the power to control civilization are sociopath “bad guys”. I have a feeling about how things will go.

  65. Food definitely is A limit but with our enhanced killing potential from macro to micro certainly not the only limit. An obvious alternative example would be all out nuclear war.

    As far as food, controlling for certain realities to make a point, if the earth was a big pork roast and we went about increasing exponentially we would eat it down to nothing in short order and then after a little cannibalism do the petri dish dive.

    We’re exceptional because of our over reach, not because we are any different from any other creature as far as basic needs. We need food, air and water etc. just like them and I don’t see that changing.

    It seems pretty simple to me. We control human growth and self-destructive polluting behaviors and we can then lay the basis for a world that the human ape can live in sustainably. I see it as more about employing our common sense than getting endlessly academic and technical.


  66. Many thanks to Ron H and David M for responding so promptly and sharing your perspectives.

    What would members of the Orion community think of acknowledging the science of human population dynamics and human overpopulation of Earth as a way of beginning to ‘change course’ so as to take a new path toward sustainability? If we keep on doing what we are doing now and repeating past mistakes by continuing not only to recklessly overconsume, relentlessly overproduce and righteously overpopulate in our planetary home but also to deny science, little that is new and sustainable will occur in a timely way. Without an acknowledgement of ALL the root causes of what is ailing the human family, how are we to move forward meaningfully to raise awareness of the global predicament humankind appears to be induced? Once awareness is raised among a critical mass of people, it becomes possible to organize for the purpose of formulating policies for humane and sustainable collective action.

    The willful denial of science has kept us and continues to keep us from gaining momentum needed to reasonably address and sensibly overcome the human-driven challenges that threaten future human wellbeing and environmental health. The tasks at hand for scientists are to freely acknowledge, skillfully examine and carefully interpret evidence as well as to encourage that all evidence regarding the population dynamics of the human species be thoroughly reviewed. It is irresponsible and harmful for professionals with appropriate expertise to remain silent rather than speak out for necessary change, change that is fair and human-friendly in the development of population policy and programs of action.

    Once again, thank you,


  67. David said: “The question is can the human race demonstrate collective restraint?”

    Do you know of *any* species that has ever demonstrated collective restraint? I can’t think of any myself. The way nature works is, each species has predators. The predation keeps each in fluctuating balance.

    We humans think we are too above nature and too superior to be controlled by predation, and aim to wipe out all those who predate on us or our food. We wage war on bacteria that could help control our populations and keep the gene pool stronger. We think that we know better than nature. But, as we all know, nature bats last.

    I don’t expect biological restraint. But cultural restraint… that I think is possible. And it would help.

  68. Vera

    “David said: “The question is can the human race demonstrate collective restraint?”

    Do you know of *any* species that has ever demonstrated collective restraint? I can’t think of any myself. The way nature works is, each species has predators. The predation keeps each in fluctuating balance.”

    Human beings are very fashion conscious. Make it very unfashionable to have more than 2 kids and watch what happens. Something radically transforming like that has happened in Iran I understand. Also, unlike other species, we have dolls and pets etc. to act out a lot of parent-sibling roles.

    As far as “survival of the fittest” that is basically a tautology. What is fit is what survives. If we decide culturally that wolf-like predator types are unwanted and take social measures to make that point then their fitness component will slip badly. I’ve read of traditional Eskimo communities where a slight lapse in generosity can get you killed or exiled.

    If one wanted to start a movement against wolf-like predators, getting rid of Columbus Day would be a good kick off.


  69. There are pastoralists and scientists here aplenty, but the fate of the huamn species is not going to be found in the remaining arboreal hideouts or conference powerpoints for that illusory word “sustainability,” but in the on-going data points of social power dynamics, run by our fully corrupted social institutions, with not a scintilla of evidence to point to capability for even the rudiments of “change.”
    The dynamics of complexity have destroyed the viability of prior reform efforts as guides , so marginal gains in overpopualtion reduction are more than offset by rising energy demands, and self-imposed cultural restraint is not a possibility. The purveyors of futurism and progress cannot overcome this evidence, though hypocritical calls for knocking over dams and aliging with Obama as a leser evil seem to be Orion hallmarks.

  70. S E Salmony I’m for developing all the science related to population dynamics but the one hurdle you will keep running into from my experience is the faith in the technofix to every challenge that comes up. I find this faith in some very bright people. They will seldom broach the issue of population in a serious way as it seems unmanageable and lacks the technical precision they require.

    As far as we being the last species on earth capable of evolving an intelligent civilization I don’t buy it. The fossil fuel model of energy acquisition is way too limited. Getting some neomollusks hooked up with hot springs like Iceland could be very promising for the future. And by then they will probably have evolved super filters that will mine the sea for whatever they need.


  71. Hooking depopulation to fashion is a fickle thing. Moreover, if the current trends continue, the majority of Americans in a bit over a hundred years will be Mormon/Amish/Mennonite. Not quite the pic green/liberal folks imagine. 😉


  72. The Mormons have shown themselves finally to be very fashion conscious or at least politically so. They gave up polygamy and not allowing blacks into the priesthood so to speak. They show a strong desire to appear mainstream.

    As far as the Amish, maybe debilitating inbreeding will do the trick.


  73. Debilitating inbreeding won’t do the trick, and thank you for the contemptuous attitude. So refreshing! (not)

    The Amish have caught on, and I expect that the process is already in motion to bring in blood from other parts. They are far from the morons you think them to be.

    The Mormons caved in, not to fashion, but to heavy political pressure. In most matters, they stand pretty staunch.

  74. As previous commenters have said, an excellent essay marred somewhat by its glib self-satisfying conclusion.

    Women’s rights are a product of industrialisation. Industrialisation is a product of the exploitation of fossil fuels. It follows that women’s rights will decline with the decline in extractable fossil fuels, unless some other extraterrestrial energy source is harnessed, which is unlikely to say the least.

    The ‘ship’ will not be turned by a collaborative effort from humanity, but rather by warfare between its various factions.

  75. On the point of traditional slavery vs. ‘economic slavery’ it would help to consult those whose ancestors have recent relevant experience: blacks in North America and the Carribean, blacks in South Africa, Dalits in India, the rural poor in China… Some would consider their present circumstances an improvement, others wouldn’t.

  76. I do think it worth noting that ‘the emperor has no clothes’ when it is so very evident. Allow me to offer responses from another blog to the question,”Where is the scientific evidence for human exceptionalism vis a vis the population dynamics of Homo sapiens?”,

    “SES : I cannot find sufficient scientific support for such exceptionalism.

    I don’t think that there is any, is there ? It’s just people clinging to a comforting myth. As far as I know, we are subject to the same ecological laws as the reindeer on St. Matthew Island. Except that we found coal and oil. Which can be thought of as a handy ship arriving every winter with an enormous quantity of a hay… until one winter, it does not arrive anymore…

    October 25th, 2012 at 9:07 am

    Thank you for summarizing the issue in such clear terms.

    At the moment, as we are still in the thralls of the growth and progress delusion, any discussion of depopulation is verboten. The big, ugly questions surrounding depopulation are who decides?, who lives?, who dies? and by what means would depopulation be carried out? The issues are especially thorny since we are running out of time.

    The likelihood of a near term managed population and economic contraction (short of some science-fictionesque engineered pathogen) seem pretty slim……

    October 25th, 2012 at 9:18 am
    SES you are of course exactly right. The problem is that the population is now so large that no restriction of births can help soon enough. As I think I have shown, restriction of all births only gets us to 4 billion in 60 years. So what is the point of talking about population as if it was a problem we could address. It will be addressed by other means – nature through famine, disease, or by humans through war, or germ warfare. But increasingly it looks like climate change will just solve the whole thing by wiping us out. There is nothing more to be done about population other than each individual thinking about what kind of world they would bring a child into and hopefully taking advantage of permanent sterilization before all birth control is gone.

  77. It has been very interesting to follow this thread from the beginning. As far as naturally limiting population, there are examples from the natural world, think about wolves, where most years only the dominant pair breeds.

    There are also many examples of long term, stable human societies. The Australian aborigines managed to live with minimal impact. Perhaps someone enraptured with the notion that only modern industrial society is “intelligent” might dismiss that, but I doubt the original Australians would agree.

    I also note that never in the discussion have any examples from Jared Diamond’s book Collapse been picked up. He has numerous examples of societies that outstripped their resources and collapsed, but he also has examples of societies that went to the brink and pulled back, who consciously imposed limits on themselves. Admittedly, these are rare, but the examples do exist.

    The real problem that must be addressed is the Western notion of capitalism and growth. It cannot be maintained indefinitely. Any logical reflection leaves no other outcome. Every living being goes through a period of growth, then reaches maturity, after which an equilibrium must be maintained or severe problems will result. I realize the analogy, like all, has its limits. But it stands to reason that a society can get to a point where it reaches the maximum carrying capacity of the available resources, and must either stabilize its population or face drastic consequences. I am a farmer; my farm can only grow enough feed for so many animals. I can do some things to improve efficiency and produce more feed, but only to a point if I want to maintain the farm as a viable sustainable entity that has any ecological integrity. Extrapolating from something like a farm to a whole society is a fair exercise.

    So to me, the only question is whether modern humans have the wisdom and will to learn from the myriad examples provided by past civilizations that did not heed ecological warnings. Humans DO have the ability to overcome impulse.

  78. Just out of curiosity who around here is arguing for the idea of human exceptionalism other than the obvious, that we have enhanced extraction and application capabilities? There are some folks running around that I have met who believe innovative technology will fix everything and essentially remove natural limits but I haven’t run into any of them on Orion. Nor have I come across any Biblical literalists who think we are mini-Gods who can substitute ourselves for the laws of nature.

    I’m just curious SES, who are these exceptionalists that you are talking about? If you mean denialists or mythologists I doubt more science or common sense will have much effect on them.


  79. RM

    “I am a farmer; my farm can only grow enough feed for so many animals.”

    The trouble is the modern farmer brings in hay and grain from the outside plus fossil fuel energy for both running his vehicles and equipment and providing fertilizer. And we haven’t even gotten to building materials.

    It would be nice if we had self-sufficient farms to use as models but presently as far as I know that is not part of the American scene.

  80. Dear David M,

    Your question appears direct enough, but I am not sure of what you are asking. At this point let me say that we are living in, and are members of a predominant global growth culture. The movers and shakers among us do think of themselves as exceptional. In other places I have referred to these people as ‘masters of the universe’. They believe in growth without limits; they live as if there is no limits to growth. Their lifestyles can be recognized by outrageous per capita overconsumption and individual hoarding, seemingly endless support of unsustainable overproduction activities and willful denial of the human overpopulation of Earth. Imagine for a moment that these movers and shakers are a tiny minority of the human family who share certain basic personality characteristics. Perhaps we could take a moment to identify at least a few of them: malignant narcissism, pathological arrogance, extreme foolishness and deplorable avariciousness. I hope this comment is responsive to your query.

    Thank you,


  81. The reason we are part of a “global growth culture” is we have been experiencing broad growth for the past 250 years or so. In human psychology past is prologue.

    If I might apply a little Occam, habits of thinking enabled by growing use of fossil fuel broadly spread through cultures over many generations is mainly sufficient to explain the growth bias.

    As far as an elite pulling the strings I tend to doubt it. This comes from observing interest groups who are the biggest influence on government. I see them as being more vertical than horizontal – think NRA. Hitler came to power because of his broad appeal.

    Outside of some religious fundamentalists of the “Man created in the image of God” breed I’d be surprised if most folks of the elite or otherwise would own the concept of homo sapien exceptionalism. Even the folks motivated by endless capitalist greed-growth would probably fail to connect with the idea of human exceptionalism. They just want more. But I could be wrong.

  82. Greetings Steve Salmony
    Toward the end of their fifty-graph exploration of population dynamics, the husband and wife team of psychologists, Russell and Edie Hopfenberg, arrive at two somewhat interesting conclusions. One is that the human population, just like every other animal population, expands or shrinks according to the food supply. The corollary to this is that reducing the food supply is the best way to limit population. These principles should be self evident to everyone. So, how is it that they are not? Also toward the end of this presentation they bring up the new old saw about thinking outside the box, but without naming just what that box is. I say that box is culture, and all the assumptions and beliefs that we’ve taken in since birth as part of the acculturation process. We are all of us captives of culture, programmed on a daily basis to see the world in a certain way, and to be blind to other ways of seeing. But this conditioning does not exert its influence in everyone in just the same way, or with the same power to control our thoughts, our feelings, and our values. Some of us are able to think outside many of the boxes of culture, and probably no one is free of them all. But it would be a good thing, and timely, if more of us could stand outside of culture and see the world with fresh eyes.
    It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but I believe The Story of B, by Daniel Quinn, is about a small group of people who have had precisely the same insight as the Hopfenbergs. In that story, the original B was labeled the antichrist and hunted down and killed by the authorities—the authorities being the keepers of their society’s agreed upon truths, the orthodoxies of culture. If I’m not mistaken, you yourself are seeking to validate this and you are seeking this validation through science. Myself, I don’t believe that science provides sufficient power to deal with this large an issue. For one thing, science itself is a creature of our culture, and shares its limitations. For another thing, factors far outside the purview of science bear on the issue of human population, and let me name just the most obvious one. Our economic system is based on the assumption of endless growth, and there are a lot of vested interests involved in seeing that the human population continues to increase. What I’m saying is, science, as a frame, is much too small and limited to take in, or deal with, a conundrum of this immensity. And there is much more going on than economics. Most of us have been programmed to believe that hungry people must be fed—period. Never mind that in the process the planet is unraveling.
    I leave you with these words from Thomas Berry, a big-picture thinker. “The current extinction is being caused by human action within a cultural tradition shaped in a biblical-Christian and classical-humanist matrix. The tragic flaw in both traditions seems to be an anthropocentrism that has turned into a profound cultural pathology.”
    We live in a society informed by a pathological culture. Science, and particularly reductionist science, partakes of that pathology. To fix what’s broken, I have more faith in Nature–in famine and plague.

  83. Humans as an invasive species- wow. Why do you hate your civilization so much? Sounds like you would celebrate mass extinction of the human population, I’ll bet you dream at night of a human-free planet, there is a word for your line of thinking, it’s called evil.

  84. No Fred, what I dream about is the human being living as an integral member of the Community of Life–not as the nemisis to that Community.

  85. Gary, thank you for taking the time to share those thoughts. Unfortunately I wholeheartedly agree with the majority of your assertions. We live in interesting times.

    My only digression from what you have said is that I have seen enough evidence combined with correlation and logic that leads me to believe that their may very well be an elite group who pull some strings in order to remain atop the heap. I do not claim to know who they are however it would be illogical to think that some all powerful and wealthy group of people would not collaborate in order to achieve outcomes they desire? Has anyone not heard of the Bildeberg group? The top 120 – 140 most powerful people in the world who meet annually to openly discuss world policy etc. It should not be surprising that powerful people would do this? Why not get together and plan a better world for themselves if they have the wealth and power to do it? I am sure there is probably an inner circle within this group who really call the shots. When I first heard about the NWO and this Bildeberg group etc I thought it does not make sense that the most powerful and wealthy people in the world would want to enforce any change on the world. I mean, they would have all the best food, women, servants everything so what is in it for them to change the world and why would they want to control everyone or anyone more than they already do?

    Well I found the answer. The answer is that the capitalist system which controls the masses with a friendly type of debt slavery is about to collapse. The system was doomed for failure from its conception. A system that MUST have growth to exist cannot go on forever on a finite planet. Fractional Reserve Banking where money is created out of nothing and loaned out but also requires interest required on top of payment of the principle. So, if it was just a matter of the principle being paid back then it would be a zero sum game where once all debt was paid there would be no money left in the system. However due to the requirement of interest to be paid and the fact that the money for the interest was never created, this means the interest must be paid from the pool of money created for the principle (which is insufficient unless it is growing!) so if growth stops and no new loans are being taken then no new money is being created and very quickly the available money supply is used up paying back the interest. I probably could have done a more patient job of explaining the above however if you need more explaination just google Fractional Reserve Banking.

    Anyway, for those who survived that, the real trigger for the collapse of the system is the peaking of global oil production rates. Every year until 2005 the global oil production rates increased by at least 2% per year however in 2005-2006 there was a miniscule increase in global production rates. This continued until 2008 and led to oil prices raising as a function of supply not meeting demand. Poor miss out, rich complain and pay more to have it. In 2000 oil was $20 per barrel, in Jan 2008 it broke $100 per barrel for the first time ever! And then in July 2008 it hit an all time high of $147 per barrel! This lead to the price of everything increasing (everything is either made out of, mined, cut down, transported, processed or some other activity that requires oil, EVERYTHING!). So this price rise was seen as rampant inflation (too many loans = too much money creation) so the central banks raised their interest rates to discourage more loans. So people had to deal with higher prices for everything PLUS higher repayments on their mortgage (which many should never have been loaned anyway). And people are surprised when swathes of suburbs defaulted enmass? They are the first to feel it. This is what caused the GFC.

    Anyway, to give more perspective on there being a peaking of oil production rates (not running out of oil, although we were from the moment we found it!) the world consumes about 85 million barrels of oil per day. The BP oil disaster is an example of how difficult it is getting to feed this demand. They broke something like 7 world records to get to that oil. The reserve they tapped into was 3 billion barrels of oil. Any idea on how long 3 billion barrels would last the world? About 35 days! So if you can understand how important oil it to human civilisation as we know it, and you also understand that oil production rates cannot continue to grow forever and at some point must actually decrease, and you understand that our capitalist system is reliant on growth to exist then you might get an inkling that the proverbial is about to hit the fan!

    It is for the above reasons that I do not find it hard to believe that a group of very powerful people (who would know this stuff) would not devise a plan to ensure that they stay on top when the dust settles. I could also see them having good reason for doing something about the population. The population is the number 1 crises the world faces. If the population were reduced by say 80% then pretty much all of the worlds problems would be solved. Reduction in GHG, peaking of oil would be put off considerably due to the lower demand, no one would need to slowly starve to death. No need for wars over land as their would be plenty to go around. And they could take this opportunity to manage the human population to ensure everyone was well educated and the population was maintained at a steady state rather than growing. The natural world has remarkable abilities to heal itself if given time and space. An example of this was during world war 2 the Atlantic Ocean did not have commercial fishing for 2 years, upon return of fishing the fishermen noticed their catches had increased amazingly. The fish stocks regenerated very quickly when given the opportunity.

    The alternative for these elite who would know what is heading “our” way, is to do nothing and let it play out. This would lead to many wars, starvation, governments being overthrown, more BP disasters as we break the rules to get to more oil, more damage to the ecosystem as people eat whatever they can find to survive. It would be a very long painful process that would not be pleasant for anyone to live through. A Mad Max scenario.

    So, I would not be surprised to see a genetically engineered biological agent released into the world which had a known kill rate of 50 – 80%. Of coarse, a pre-developed vaccine would have been carefully distributed prior. The rest of us would have to hope for either a quick death or natural immunity/resistance (be part of the 30-50% who make it out the otherside). I could see how some elite might see this ugly decision as more Humane than letting nature take its course.

    Alternatively, I could be wrong about it all, they figure out how to beat the laws of thermodynamics and free energy allows as to create amazing technologies that give us food in little tablets we can pop in a microwave and come out as roast dinners and we all venture forth into the universe and find new homes and neighbours to play with…

    We live in interesting times.

    Mike K

  86. Well, I finally read the whole thing with care. There are several glaring… er, differences from what I have seen in the literature. First of all, sapiens did not invent clothing. Neanderthals lived in northern, very cold latitudes since maybe half a million years ago, and they wore clothing. I think I heard that there are two kinds of body lice, one dating only to 70,000 YA and the other further back… but I am not sure where I heard this, or whether it panned out as a theory.

    “Those first people had no language, no clothing, no art, no religion, nothing but the simplest, unspecialized tools.”

    Some anthropologists think that, and other do not. In fact, I have seen it said that language is older than our species, and the hyoid bone, testifying to language, has also been found in the Neanderthals, from about 250,000 YA (if I remember correctly). We just don’t know much about the people who were sapiens in the first 100,000 years of our existence as species. And speculating about language and religion is a perilous undertaking, with the meager remains that exist at present.

    Savannah? Most of the sapiens remains dating older than 60,000 YA come from coastal caves along the shore and rivers of east Africa. Humans always look to live near water.

    Some anthropologists support the “great leap forward” theory, and others don’t, and see it as a gradual development that became visible at about 40,000 YA. After all, Neanderthals were cooking glue in very sophisticated ways some 80,000 YA, maybe as far back as 110,000 YA. Did the Neanders evolve amazing abilities while sapiens languished away, only making a sudden great leap? Somehow, it does not seem likely. And I do believe that the first sapiens ochre art dates from before Toba. I think the people who favor the “great leap forward” theory are the ones who like to breathlessly stress sapiens uniqueness and “progress.”

    Ant queens [read mothers] are of course central to the colony, but they have no “authority.” The colony is run by the sister-worker ants.

    People did say boo about slavery for a long time. Here a sample from wiki: “Slavery in early medieval Europe was relatively uncommon and in Western Europe slavery largely disappeared by the later Middle Ages. The Norwegian law code from 1274, Landslov (Land’s law), does not mention slaves, but former slaves. Thus it seems like slavery was abolished in Norway by this time. In Sweden, slavery was abolished in 1343. In Poland slavery was forbidden in the 15th century… In Lithuania, slavery was formally abolished in 1588. 1701: The Lord Chief Justice rules that a slave became free as soon as he arrived in England. 1723: Russia abolishes outright slavery but retains serfdom. 1761: Portugal abolishes slavery in mainland Portugal and in Portuguese possessions in India through a decree by the Marquis of Pombal.” Again, evolution is in evidence, not a sudden leap.

    About the domination of men by women; I have seen a lot of ancient Cretan art, and it sure seems quite clearly to portray a society where women were dominant. I doubt Cretans were the only ones.

    I must say, I am somewhat disappointed by this lack of attention to detail by a scholar. Though, on the other hand, I am heartened that people are beginning to familiarize themselves with the history of our species.

    Yes, profound cultural changes have happened at times. Some for good, others, not so. So it is certainly possible that we civilized humans will be able to undergo such a change in response to the emergency we have created by our “success”. I too am on the side of this hypothesis. Only time will show.

  87. Rob, yes, wolves (and sometimes humans) do limit population based on clans or families. But a species limiting itself? That is not natural. That’s what predators are for!

    Australian aborigines ruined the climate of the entire continent with fires. Sorry to break this bad news to ya. Only after most of them starved during the ice age maximum did the survivors learn to live more gently with what remained.

    Yeah, I do love the example of Tikopia from Collapse. If only we could clone it…

  88. I have been following this thread and find it most interesting. The thoughts expressed here on homo sapiens do not generally see the light of day in the popular media. It seems there is a fairly wide consensus here that the human race is in the process of shooting itself in the foot or perhaps in an even more problematical area.

    I think that Mike K above does an excellent job of detailing our situation and I agree with his comments. At his conclusion he attempts to place a tinge of optimism in homo sapiens’ sorry situation by speculating that a “Deus Ex Machina” could possibly appear and save us. This set me to thinking.

    I don’t think the population will be saved even by a “Deus Ex Machina” which are hard to come by these days. Human society is like a very huge ball with massive momentum carrying its members (us) into disaster. This momentum has already been generated and is fed by the massive population, gargantuan pollution, serious reduction of critical resources, global warming etc.

    So I came up with three possibilities for us humans as listed below:

    A), World population is greatly reduced to perhaps around 10% of the present. Non-human life is decimated but some remains.

    B), All homo sapiens are wiped out. The earth is poisoned. Homo sapiens has been a “successful” plague species in that it has obliterated itself. Also, a very large percentage of non-human life on earth will end.

    C,) Only a dip occurs in the present population. Life on earth becomes sustainable. In this projection the entire world would change into egalitarian societies whereby a productive life and the safety of all would be guaranteed. No one would feel the need to have children to take care of their old age.

    I see this as the three possible outcomes as of today: For me the chance of either A or B happening is about 50-50. Option C is very nearly impossible at this time. It perhaps will remain a theoretical option for a few short years but if we look at the reality of the world, we will soon understand that the negative momentum out there will require an almost impossible effort to overcome and very little of the required effort and education is visible.

  89. Dear Friends,

    This is one of the most astounding and revealing conversations I have seen in long, long time. Thanks to all participants and observers. The discussion encourages me to ask all of you comments on something that is farfetched, but nonetheless strikes me somehow as possible.

    I have been thinking a lot for years about some sort of transformation of human consciousness, the cause of which is a mystery. A transformational event happens and extraordinary change in collective perspective occurs within the human community simultaneously, everywhere. Such a point of change could have occurred thousands of years ago when Homo sapiens changed from a hunter-gatherer way of life to an agri-culture. It also appears to me that another inflection point happened at the time of the rise of the world’s great religions twenty-five hundred years ago. These astonishingly brief statements serve as backdrop for an idea that has always given rise to hope within me. Perhaps another inflection point is “waiting to be born”. At that moment in space-time an awareness of utter destruction such as we are causing now, becomes evident to all. Somehow that new awareness leads to a transformation of consciousness and then to extraordinary change, the result of which is this: a new, likely more sustainable path to the future is elected within the human family and by so doing the human species improves its probability of survival.



  90. Dear Gary G,

    Mike K picked a point of disagreement with you and I want to choose another one, while recognizing that you and Mike are in agreement regarding virtually everything else you present and that I agree with both of you, mostly.

    My objection has to do with your view of science. I do not view science as a product of culture or some sort of human invention. It reminds me more of democracy than anything else I can think of. Both science and democracy appear to stand alone and to be gifts to humankind, just as the world we inhabit is a gift to us. Imagine that science, democracy and Earth are given to us outright; that science simply is; that democracy simply is, in the same way our planetary home is. From this perspective, whatsoever is is, is it not?



    PS: Mike, I am familiar with the Bilderberg Group and its ‘twin’, The Trilateral Commission. They have interlocking directorates and, I believe, wield substantial political and economic power globally.

  91. I live in Chapel Hill, NC. Please recognize the undeniable connection between the economic and population growth in Chapel Hill on the one hand and economic and population growth globally. Chapel Hillians are human beings just like all other human beings on the planet. In Chapel Hill we consume, produce and procreate just like everyone else in the human family. Economic growth and population growth are not evenly distributed. On the surface of the Earth, I see three worlds. An overdeveloped world, of which Chapel Hill is a tiny part, is one world. The overdeveloped world includes generally the USA, Western Europe, Australia and Japan. Next comes the developing world: China, Russia, Brazil, India and Eastern Europe. The remaining, mostly in Africa and scattered elsewhere comprise the underdeveloped world. Population growth is greatest in the developing and underdeveloped; whereas, economic growth is greatest (and has been for many generations) in the overdeveloped world. Pollution is least in the underdeveloped and greatest in the developing world now. But viewed from an historical perspective, it is the overdeveloped that has produced much more pollution than the developing and underdeveloped worlds have ever or likely will ever produce.

    When taken together, the population growth activities and the economic growth activities of all three ‘worlds’ can be seen as so colossal in scale and so rapid in rate of increase, that a planet of the size, composition and ecology cannot much longer, much less forever, sustain what the human species is doing worldwide. Outrageous per capita overconsumption and individual hoarding of limited resources, relentless increase in overproduction capabilities of corporate enterprise, and unbridled growth of absolute global human population numbers that are occurring synergistically the world over appear to be reaching the point of becoming patently unsustainable, as I see things. Every person on the planet is implicated in this wicked situation. The human community is presenting a human-driven predicament to itself. Until more of us learn to “think globally and act locally”, the gigantic and complex predicament looming ominously before all of us will grow larger day by day, and more difficult to address and overcome, I suppose.

  92. Ron, so your post got me to think what I would speculate. I think the most likely scenario is the evolution of superbugs, maybe abetted by Mike K’s nefarious elite labs, but not necessary, conventional science has been evolving superbugs for a long time. That coupled with declining fertility as a result of toxins everywhere, and increasingly weird weather disasters which will be more and more difficult to “rebuild from”… well, the depopulation trend might be actually quite swift, with deaths significantly greater than births, without having an actual out-out plague.

    At a certain point, humans will be again seen as valuable by the elites, the stress we cause each other by overcrowding etc., and their impact on the world will have lessened. Maybe at 2 billion? That’s the 1800 figure.

    If you input the switch to egalitarian systems, 2 billion humans could coexists with the biosphere quite well, even retaining some of the trappings of modern life.

    That’s my best scenario. 🙂

    The other part is, if you don’t input egalitarianism, you get what people are calling the new feudalism, but that an insult to feudalism. The new totality.

  93. the collapse in violent death is primarily due to the spread of democracy. we are reproducing at the level of the imagined community of the nation state (and the planet for that matter) the same principles of self-governance that created egalitarian hunter-gather communities in the first place – the formation of majority coalitions angry enough to rise up and depose the alpha male (witness its latest arab incarnation).
    i am not too concerned by american climate change denial. that is merely a symptom of hubris. america is a small part of the world, and in the long-run its relative unimportance will become increasingly evident to americans. only then will they move beyond the luxury of magical thinking (creationism, etc).
    what concerns me more is that we are a gregarious species, but that our gregariousness is bounded by clear group identities. either you are in or out. and the latent tendency is not to give a crap about the outsiders. global problems require global solutions, which in turn require global governance, which can only come with global identity. identity in our modern, imaginative skulls centres around self-identified networks. networks are bounded by geography, various shibboleths such as skin colour and hair waviness, but above all by language. no network can outgrow the basic constraint of mutual intelligibility. which is why the nation state – that modern imagined community, built on mass literacy – is predominately language-based.
    for now, babel still rules. so to my mind the big race of the 21st century will be between the amalgamation of identities courtesy of the internet and the rapid, iphone-like, network-externality-fueled spread of the english language on the one hand, and the accelerating approach towards the point of no return with respect to climate change on the other.

  94. So I skimmed thru the comments and saw plenty of social commentaries on the need for egalitarian reform but didn’t see any talk of the looming production limits that will kick in first, phosphates and fresh water.

    Phosphate is an essential fertilizer and is produced in only 2 places, Florida and Morocco. The FL site is estimated to have 30-50 years of supply if the USA continues to allow it to be exported, mostly to China. Moracco says it has 50-100 years of production. I have no confidence in that number since like the oil monarchies nearby, proper survey info is unavailable, the information that has been released seems inconsistent.

    Phosphate is an element; there is no technological substitute for it. Phosphate is what makes aerobic respiration possible, the Kreb’s Cycle and ATP synthesis don’t happen without it. You can’t cure an iron deficiency with zinc tablets, and no phosphate means much lower levels of agricultural production. It takes one ton of phosphate to produce every 130 tons of grain.

    Tracking with the peak phosphate timeline is the depletion of fossil water supplies in the main grain growing areas of the world. The USA, Australia, India and China all rely on non-recharging aquifers for thirty to sixty percent of their grain production alone, wells that began 30 ft down are now over a 100 ft deep in the USA, over a thousand meters deep in China and India. Eventually the quality of the water or the feasibility of pumping it economically will end the practice. China hit peak grain production in 1998; the decline is attributed in part to aquifer depletion along with a drop in rainfall. To emphasis the human stupidity about this subject, Saudi Arabia accelerated its fossil water depletion by growing wheat in the desert. Today, the Saudis import all their wheat anyway.

    It is theoretically possible that an endless supply of dirt cheap energy could solve these issues. Practical fusion power or cheap high efficiency solar panels could make mass desalinization and mineral extraction from sewage or seawater possible, but it’s very unlikely. Without phosphates and fossil water world agriculture might support three or four billion people as long as rainfall patterns don’t change, maybe five if a new egalitarianism emerges, at least until the glaciers in the Himalayas and the Andes are gone.

    The first hot spots will be the Pak-Indo-Sino border when the nuclear armed neighbors try secure the diminishing Himalayan sources of their rivers, and the Levant as Turkey continues to dam the Jordan and Euphrates river headwaters, reducing Israel and Syria’s supplies. Syrian Sunnis will look to Iranian water, Israel to the Nile. There’s a reason the Pentagon has supplies and ordinance pre-positioned around the globe besides the war on “terrorism”.

    The point is that first world and developing countries, some of them nuclear armed, will be facing slow (if they/we are lucky), or quick reductions in their food supplies, concerns about economic growth and “good jobs” will disappear from the agenda of leaders (or dictators) intent on preventing the collapse of their countries into scavenging mobs. Nothing focuses the mind of an industrial, well armed society like famine.


    • “Martin was not referring to all employment, but slave-like employment in developing countries,”
    • “How much vacation pay do slaves get, anyways? How many vacation days? Medical? Dental?”

    Well here the USA, the majority of employees do not have dental coverage, if by coverage you mean that a family with children can afford routine care like cleaning and filings, don’t even mention orthodontics, OY! And medical issues are the leading cause of bankruptcy. Note, poor people don’t go bankrupt, they can’t afford it, and so this stat refers to the middle class and higher.

    “Well I guess the “elite” don’t want things like helicopters, cars, vaccines, modern medicine and almost everything else everyone takes for granted because with a population of 300 million none of them would exist.”

    Not that I’m joining Martin’s conspiracy meme, but advances in automation are on the way that will make many jobs obsolete, think factories, fast food restaurants, retail stores with a handful of real humans. Robotics isn’t Robby the Robot, think of whole buildings being automated. The software, optics and manipulation tools have already been developed, the tech is just waiting for the CPU speeds to catch up. Here in the home of the Right to Work (for less), millions will be jobless. Completely automated fast food restaurants are expected to be online by 2025 at the latest. This should coalesce nicely into “Hell, Let the useless takers starve!

    Have a Nice Day!

  95. Pale Scott, peak phosphorus is bullshit. There is phosphorus everywhere in the the urine and poop we animals produce. And in our bones once we die. If we use it to put back on the land, no phosphorus need be mined at all.

    Mere misallocation.

    Oh and if fast food restaurants go robotic and they let the useless takers starve, who will buy all the fast food? 😀

  96. Vera, yes there are traces of phosphorus just about everywhere. The issue is concentrating it to a point where it is useful for human activities. Bones were major import item for England in the 1800’s, they were heated and chemically reduced to make the phosphate more available to organic processes. The industry cleaned out many old battlefields, cemeteries and catacombs in Sicily to meet demand. Mined phosphate is more available, has a much higher concentration that was more effective for agriculture purposes.

    But as I tried to make clear the quality that makes phosphate ore and the other extracted resources useful is its density, the concentration of value. Oil is the source of wars because one barrel is the energy equivalent of 10,000 to 25,000 man hours of labor, depends who you ask. That barrel can be extracted from Middle East oil fields for five to ten dollars. That allows for force multiplication on a massive scale. One person driving a large bulldozer can do the work of hundreds of laborers. One ton of phosphate feeds 150 tons of grain. If high density mineral deposits are not available PO could be extracted once again from burning bones or fermentation and alkali reduction of urine. The magic pony would be a cheap energy source harnessed to to run massive extraction and desalination plants. But, I think it’s much more likely that new methods will be applied to old processes in an ad hoc way, depending on the political stability of the area. Collecting bones or tracking a family’s contribution of night-soils like in Maoist China are going to be stopgap measures. Places that get hit first by these shortages are not going to be stable, but they are going to be armed, like the Tuaregs in Mali. Current industrial practices are relying on extremely concentrated sources of raw materials, oil, ores, fossil aquifers. The possibility that technology will replace them before civilization collapses is a long shot. A bucket of wood chips isn’t going to replace a 2×4, unless you add a bucket of resins.

    And the hope that the sociopaths running the financial sector will refuse the massive profits from initial automation is a suckers bet. There’s thirty year history of shipping jobs overseas to confirm that.

  97. Vera, The Pale Scot is exactly correct about Peak Phosphates… Yes you are correct as well that animals concentrate phosphate however they must consume it to concentrate it. They dont make it, they have to eat it. The problem with peak phosphate is the fact that our 7billion population requires food to be grown in commercial farms which need a cheap concentrated form of phosphate to be economically viable. There isnt enough concentrated stuff do last much longer and the time and effort it would take to get the diluted scattered low concentrate stuff is too much (Entropy).

    The Pale Scot – You raised a very important point, although you focused on only 2 of the “peak” issues, water and phosphates you are entirely correct in my opinion of these problems. However what others need to understand is that there are innumerable “peaks” because we live on a small round spec in the universe and thus everything we have is finite. The other key thing to understand is that “stuff” we need does not have to run out for there to be a problem. It only has to get hard to find, expensive to recover for it to cause a major problem. This all points back to our global economic system based on Fractional Reserve Banking. This system MUST grow to exist, it cannot be a steady state system without growth and it cannot shrink in an orderly fashion. Without growth, it WILL collapse! The problem with our economic system collapsing is that so much of our food is provided by this system. If it collapses and banks crash (see run on banks) then credit disappears, money becomes worthless, stores fail to get deliveries as there is no way to send money to supplier, all 1st world nations have shops that are serviced by JIT (Just in time) deliveries. They will be looted very quickly and things can be very ugly from there. The only thing that I believe there can be any debate on, is with regards to the timing and the severity of the consequences.

    S E Salmony – Science is best described as “islands of knowledge in a sea of uncertainty”. I like science, I am a scientist however it is not the solution to our predicament in my opinion. If we do get a collapse, science will likely take a back seat to religion and superstition (unfortunately). I think the problem for science is that people are in general very uneducated about science and the scientific method. Also, I believe that science has been corrupted and majority of peer reviewed Journals lead the way in this. They “filter” the studies that they will permit to be published. Numerous studies demonstrating the amazing abilities of ascorbic acid (Vit C) have never been published because they would nullify the need for a multitude of pharmaceuticals. Who do you think has infiltrated the Science Journal boards?

    Democracy as we see it in governments around the world is an illusion. For example, when the English pushed out and discovered new lands back in the day, they repeatedly would install the Westminster System of government whereby members of parliament would be elected from provinces or electorates representing various geographical areas of a particular country. These ministers would be required to vote on various issues with the majority vote deciding the issue. This system was in my opinion, installed because it was easy to manipulate however it gave the population of the country the illusion that they in fact had their own government representing the interests of the people. People got to have a vote and choose their next leader. Unfortunately, this democracy was corrupted with key representatives recieving financial support which enabled them to become viable contestants in the election. I am sure that more than one side of any particular “seat” was supported ensuring that no matter which candidate gets into office, they are under obligation to their financial backer. This ensures that during key votes, there are sufficient numbers of bought members who under obligation will vote according to the wishes of their financial backers. Now the key thing here is that it doesnt matter who gets in the same outcomes will occur because the majority of the members have achieved their seat in parliament with financial backing and thus the majority votes will go the way of those who backed these members. So flip a coin, Republican or Democrat, Liberal or Labour (Aust), etc etc around the world, there is very little difference between the ACTIONS of either party. The rhetoric may be different but the ACTIONs are virtually identical. Democracy should be renamed corporatocracy because the corporations have far more influence over the outcome of an election than the electorate. This is because those candidates that are appropriately financed are the only ones that can “get their face” out there enough to win the popularity contest. It is a simple formular for most politicians, smile, use rhetoric at every opportunity but never speak of detailed policy. It is also true that whomever owns the media decides the elections. I have seen some pretty damning footage of a key US media agency (cant remember which sorry) that thought the cameras were off and were openly discussing how to ensure the Ron Paul supporters did not get any airtime during their next shot. Ron Paul is consistently ostracized by the mainstream media and portrayed as a lune or not a real threat etc.

    Which brings me to another point, even if a few or so “good” candidates happened to win their seats, it doesnt change the outcome of the parliamentary process because their votes are swamped by those voting in blocks to the bidding of the financial masters. So guys like Ron Paul who are genuinely interested in what is best for the people have very little influence on the outcome of decisions made in parliament.

    Now pulling science and government/democracy together; democracy and the democratic system explains why science is very much left out of government decision making. A good scientist can never make a good politician simply because their message would be too complex for the voter. Unfortunately, nothing in our world is black and white except the rhetoric from politicians. If a scientist was a candidate and they were asked a question and answered honestly their answer would be “well on the one hand you have to consider A, B and C but on the other hand you need to remember D, E and F however the evidence is insufficient and we really should do further study on this matter” whereas a politician would say “hell yes, we are going to A, B and C as soon as we get voted in!” and the voter likes this certainty and does not like complexity. And like I said, there is very few simple issues in our world today.

    The other belief I have, based on what I have seen and read, is that there would be no real powerful person who is truely powerful and wealthy (part of the Elite) that would be stupid enough to ever put their identity in public by becoming a candidate or Leader in any government. Politicians are merely puppets, selected, groomed and dispensable. The elite dont really care if the government changes hands because their goals and ambitions will be achieved either way because they are the financial backers of the majority of the winning candidates and the losing candidates. They have rigged the game. Democracy is an illusion to keep the masses under the impression that they have some say in how their government decides to do things. It served the English elite beautifully with so many countries resources being raped and pillaged over the years (check out the “Commonwealth” to see how many!) with the financial gains returning back to the UK making it unbelievably wealthy despite being a small island nation.

    In conclusion, I have read some very interesting books about primitive cultures which indicate that democracy worked really well in small communities. The key for democracy to be successful is the knowledge of the voters. If the voters are well educated about the ins and outs of a particular issue then they can make great decisions however if the voters are treated like mushrooms (kept in the dark and fed nothing but manure) then of course their voting is going to be poor. Democracy as a principle is very idealistic, unfortunately the reality is, in my opinion, that it is easily corrupted and serves to keep those in wealth and power, in wealth and power.

    We live in interesting times!

  98. S E Salmony – re you thoughts on the transformation of human consciousness or some sort of seismic shift in collective consciousness. I have heard these types of theories before and whilst I like the sound of them I havnt seen much evidence that they actually occur? That doesnt mean they dont occur, just that there isnt much evidence of it that i have noted in my travels/readings/discussions. I think it is far more logical to expect that rapid change occurs when a new idea is developed that is so advantageous that it cant help but spread like a wildfire (this is the advantage of language). So agriculture would have started with people looking after specific wild grasses and eventually as techniques developed to select and share seeds from better producing strains it gave those who knew such an evolutionary advantage that they shared it and it spread like wildfire.

    I think with our current list of global predicaments the world is going to be changing FAST. This is going to force people to adapt or perish. If there isnt a global die off due to some virus and instead there is a long decline in living standards then one thing that I expect to be passed from one person to the next very quickly is something called Permaculture. Permaculture is a design system based on ethics and design principles that can be used to guide efforts made by individuals, households and communities towards a sustainable future.

    Permaculture is basically a name given to the principles of living truly sustainably, understanding nature and working with it not against it (or bullying it as we have since we discovered concentrated sunlight aka crude oil), its about learning from nature, its about understanding how a forest that has no gardener tending to it can thrive, taking time to observe and understand the natural world around us and how everything is interconnected, how there is far more cooperation than competition in nature, everything seems to fill a niche and each niche provides something a neighbouring niche requires, it is also about design principles that when followed can make our lives so much easier because we worked with nature.

    A great example of this is that there are 7 orders of plants:


    Robert Hart pioneered a system based on the observation that the natural forest can be divided into distinct levels. He used intercropping to develop an existing small orchard of apples and pears into an edible polyculture landscape consisting of the following layers:

    ‘Canopy layer’ consisting of the original mature fruit trees.
    ‘Low-tree layer’ of smaller nut and fruit trees on dwarfing root stocks.
    ‘Shrub layer’ of fruit bushes such as currants and berries.
    ‘Herbaceous layer’ of perennial vegetables and herbs.
    ‘Ground cover layer’ of edible plants that spread horizontally.
    ‘Rhizosphere’ or ‘underground’ dimension of plants grown for their roots and tubers.
    ‘Vertical layer’ of vines and climbers.

    A key component of the seven-layer system was the plants he selected. Most of the traditional vegetable crops grown today, such as carrots, are sun loving plants not well selected for the more shady forest garden system. Hart favoured shade tolerant perennial vegetables.

    Forest gardening is a low-maintenance sustainable plant-based food production and agroforestry system based on woodland ecosystems, incorporating fruit and nut trees, shrubs, herbs, vines and perennial vegetables which have yields directly useful to humans. Making use of companion planting, these can be intermixed to grow in a succession of layers, to replicate a woodland habitat.

    Forest gardens are probably the world’s oldest form of land use and most resilient agroecosystem.[1] They originated in prehistoric times along jungle-clad river banks and in the wet foothills of monsoon regions. In the gradual process of families improving their immediate environment, useful tree and vine species were identified, protected and improved whilst undesirable species were eliminated. Eventually superior foreign species were selected and incorporated into the gardens.[2]

    These types of gardens are based on permaculture principles. They are highly productive, very low maintainance, highly resilient, and due to the sheer diversity of the food being grown they are very healthy food systems able to provide nutrition at different times of year. Diversity is the key to resilience, monocrops are weak, they are prone to pests because a single pest can quickly become a major pest if all the plants are the same. In a permaculture garden, there is so much diversity that a single pest might attach a plant but it probably wont find the other plants due to the diversity hiding them?

    Anyway, I could go on and on about permaculture. However my point was, this type of information is not well received by the vast majority of people right now. This is because food is relatively abundant and cheap (compared to what it will be!). Once the proverbial hits the fan, then you watch how quickly this information is shared and learned. Actually, a great video I strongly recommend is called The Power of Community – How Cuba Survived Peak Oil ( Its a great film that explains what happened in Cuba when the USSR collapsed and Cuba found itself isolated and with 50% less oil than it needed. The communist government there pretty much took control of all the food supplies and rationed them out to the people according to WHO minimum food guidelines (forget the technical term!) and told people that if they wanted more they would have to grow it for themselves. Some Australian permaculturists went over there and taught the people to use manures, worm farms, companion planting, diversity, composting, etc etc because the cubans could not afford to buy herbicides, pesticides, fertilisers etc they went from being one of the most chemically dependent agricultural countries to one of the least and most organic agricultural countries (out of sheer necessity!). The communist government, fearful of uprising, broke up the massive state farms that used to grow commercial oranges with a plethora of chemical additives into small blocks and let people have the plots under something called “usery?” which basically meant, you can use this for free as long as you grow food. The Cuban people were actually much healthier and better off after the collapse than before because prior to the collapse they had less, were exposed to more chemicals and all the profits were not shared with the people. Afterwards, the food quality improved, the health of people improved the community became much more connected as people traded tomatoes for bananas for rabits for eggs etc The place became more attractive as no empty block was left vacant and every bit of land was used to grow food including the tops of appartments etc.

    Permaculture can spread so fast because nothing about it is confusing, it just makes sense. When you learn about it you will find yourself repeatedly thing oh yeah of course, why didnt i think of that. It is very intuitive. I did a 2 week course Permacultrue Design Course back in 08 when I was stressing big time about the consequences of peak oil and global economic collapse. After the course I became much more at ease. I knew that food production wasnt as hard as it seemed. And I knew that the type of information in permaculture would be easily learned when the need arised.

    So yeah, a paradigm shift in the way people think it possible… (sorry about agreeing and disagreeing with you Steve, I had to work it through and the above was me thinking outloud 🙂 )

    Mike K

  99. Folks… get with it. There is plenty of phosphate all around in the form of urine, manure and bones — and that includes humanure, of course. Civ takes all these precious concentrated sources of phosphorus and dumps them in landfills, or downrivers. Paris used to be fed by extensive gardens that surrounded the city, using humanure. Of course, you gotta let it compost first. NYC used to export humanure to farms in upstate and Jersey. It just goes on… The Swedes have already gotten wise, and are collecting urine from double-use toilets. There is nothing particularly difficult about it, and to argue that it is somehow better to mine ore, then process it, damage surrounding land, then ship it around the world is less work than collection manures nearby and spreading them, makes no sense.

    The natural phosphate is more bioavailable to the soil critters and plants, while mined phosphate gives the soil such a slam it damages “stable humus”, and much of it runs off the land into rivers where it causes entropy. That’s what’s killing the Gulf of Mexico past the Mississippi delta!

    This is important to get for all caring people, and esp. permaculturists! Look it up… I shit you not… 😉

  100. Just for the record, because the fate of all known and future humanity depends on this comments thread –
    I am not author of any “conspiracy meme.” I wear no tin-foil hat. I have the bona fides to prove it – I understand social reality, see power in its actual forms, deal with it forthrightly every day. Work=slavery was promoted intially on this comment thread by another dude, but it applies as an updated concept.
    Conspiracy, of course, is a real operation of power, and is primarily how corporate capitalism works, but every conspiracy needs evidence to prove its existence.
    This is all just talking to ourselves, of course, making points for our own benefit, no gain, no loss, park-bench chattering.

  101. Pale Scot: here’s an idea: compost all dead humans. Lots of phosphorus-rich compost results. Give the skull to the family to bury, and use the pulverized bones as fertilizer.

    Bonus: no more huge quantities of fossil fuels wasted in burning dead people, no more breathing air full of dead people’s remains and the mercury from their teeth, and no more polluting ground water with putrifying bodies in cemeteries. Easy peasy, no? 😉

  102. Mike K,s discussion of permaculture for sustainable living was very interesting. I’ll have to look into it more. It occurred to me that maybe a bee hive and some chickens might help complete the picture.

  103. Vera, trust me I get it, phosphates are everywhere and are constantly cycled through living matter.

    What I would like you to get is that the Pale Scot and I are not debating that Phosphorous is running out, we are trying to explain that “concentrated sources of phosphorous” (even though it is damaging to soil) is running out. This will be a problem for the current commercial industrialised food production methods (which I dont consume food from, 100% organic for me thank you) as they require the relatively cheap and concentrated form of phosphorous to grow their crops. Yes they are damaging the soil but modern agricultural methods / farms have more to do with hyrdoponics than they do with real food production with living fertile soils where the nutrients are broken down by bacteria and other microbes into very healthy and bio-available food for plants.

    Modern commercial farming practices basically use the soil as a medium to hold the plant up, then they attempt to feed the plant its nutrients directly (not feeding the soil as us permaculturists would do). They only put basic inputs, phosphates, nitrates (thanks to the haber / bosh green revolution where they figured how to convert natural gas – a finite fossil fuel into fertiliser), potash and potassium. They may put some trace elements but they are expensive so the bare minimum would be used. This intensive farming which is destroying soil biology and thus long term fertility is supplying the majority of our 7 billion population with their daily bread. Without it, there is no way to feed everyone (until a heap of people die and they become someone elses fertiliser).

    So maybe we dont disagree, maybe we just need to clarify the point we are trying to make. I am not saying phosphate mining is good, my only point is that concentrated phosphate is needed to keep the populations going. Of course, it is finite and so this is another reason why the current human population is unsustainable. On top of peaking oil production, peaking fresh water aquifers etc etc.

    Now if you take the massive overpopulation issue out of the equation then yeah concentrated phosphates dont matter much at all. Just use animal manures (or properly composted humanures) to recycle phosphates. This is what I do in my own gardens. The problem is 7 billion people are going to find it hard to switch from going to the shops for their daily food supply to growing their own… not impossible but difficult and most likely messy as the real “takers” come out of the woodwork.


    Mike K

  104. Mike K, It’s clear you are a reader and a thinker, and I believe you and I are in agreement about a lot of things. You bring up four issues that I want to respond to: democracy; science; elite conspiracy; and permaculture. You mention that democracy works best in small groups, and I would say it works best at the level of the band or tribe. I would go further and say that humans are best adapted to live at that level, and that mass culture, and cities, are an aberration born of agriculture. We who were born into these living conditions find mass culture and cities to be normal, but consider that it might not be at all, It might be a bubble just like the oil bubble we were also born into. And maybe, if our species is lucky, we may be able to live in the Old Way again. That, at least is my hope.
    I see science as one tool within a repertoire of many. In our culture we have deified reason, logic, and the conscious mind, while denigrating other forms of intelligence and ways of knowing. Also, contrary to what Steve Solomy seems to believe, science is not culture-free or objective at all. It is Euro-centric, and of course it is extremely anthropocentric in all its assumptions. The book, Native Science by Gregory Cajete is a good one to broaden one’s definition of what science can and should be. I also highly recommend The Ascent of Humanity by Charles Eisenstein, wherein he brilliantly discusses how the culture of civilization came to see itself as separate from Nature, and also above Nature. These misconceptions of Nature and ourselves naturally infiltrates all of our thinking, including our science. He then goes on to describe in detail two of our cultural myths about science. One is the Scientific Program of complete understanding. The other is the Technological Program of complete control. We believe that science will reveal the ultimate truth of our existence, and that technology will lead us to an ever-better future. He then masterfully demonstrates the absurdity of both these propositions. If you have an open mind, I think you will find his arguments convincing beyond doubt.
    As for permaculture, I am living on two acres of former clearcut in Oregon, doing my best to practice the techniques of permaculture, and enjoying it immensely. I live close to Nature, anyway, and am fortunate to be able to walk in old growth forest every day, but even so, working closely with plants, and trying to design a workable two-acre ecosystem, keeps me in touch with Nature—and that makes the work worth doing for its own sake. In the short term, and possibly for awhile, permaculture offers a way for small groups of people to sustain themselves, while not absolutely destroying the land. But what I’m doing here is very far from sustainable in the long term. The biological legacy of this land was stripped away and hauled off on log trucks. Even the topsoil was stripped off and sold. That means I have to import most of the nutrition these plants receive. This may be an extreme case, but also pretty typical of most land available today. Aids to fertility must be brought in from elsewhere, probably (just as I do) by means of gas-guzzling vehicle, and fossil fuels are implicated in many phases of the process of creating this not-quite-natural fertility. You use the word “sustainable” in the same sentence with the word “permaculture”—but sustainable for how long? When our energy slaves are no longer working for us, fertility has to be created in place. And while I agree with you that permaculture is the best model we have now for how to proceed with feeding ourselves in the near term, it’s not a permanent solution. The most sustainable agriculture practiced in the world, back in the days before petro-chemical agriculture, took place on large river bottoms, where fresh fertility was transferred from the mountains to the valleys. Most of those river bottoms have now been turned into impoundments by concrete dams. If you are up for a sobering view of what is truly sustainable on this planet, even (and inevitably) with far fewer people, see Richard Adrian Reese’s book, What is Sustainable. He sees clearly what is sustainable, and almost nothing we’re doing today fills the bill. Which reminds me: Many of the entries I’ve seen on this thread tend to project the familiar present into the future, like we can just fine-tune our present system and all will be well. I’m sorry, folks, but barring some miraculous intervention, that’s just impossible, and here’s one reason why. Since the dawn of agriculture, and our culture of civilization, we have mined four billion years of the Earth’s natural resilience. Whatever we’ve taken that can be replenished, we’ve taken at well beyond the rate of renewal. We’ve been locusts, and have stripped the planet nearly bare. That doesn’t leave us much to work with, and it leaves the future even less. Yes, that’s a depressing thought, but I’m afraid it’s an inescapable fact of our lives now.
    Born during WWII, I grew up in post-war boom times. I was lucky to be born when I was, white, male, and American middle-class. A very fortunate situation, but I recognize that I was also born in a bubble, a bubble that is soon going to burst. I’m a believer in intergenerational justice. I don’t think it’s right to steal from our grandchildren, or from their grandchildren, should such a generation be able to make a life here. But what can we do for these future humans, to give them a chance at life? I don’t know. The best I can think of is to come up with a better story for them to live in than the one we’ve been living as we’ve devoured the planet. The locust and the grasshopper are pretty much identical creatures. Some trigger has been tripped in the grasshopper to turn it into the all-devouring locust, some trigger not unrelated to mass culture. What is a sustainable number for humans on this planet, the word sustainable implying that we are also living in right relationship to the Community of Life? I don’t know what that number might be, but I’m convinced that it must be below the threshold of mass society. When we’re small in number, we can take our rightful place and live as we ought to live—not just taking, but giving back to Mother Earth and to the Community of Life that sustains us.
    That’s my best case scenario, and the good news cannot happen before quite a lot of bad news.
    I grew up in an anthropocentric household in an anthropocentric community in a nation of human-centered people. Yet, somehow, I take my primary identity as an Earthling, a creature of Nature, surrounded by All my Relations—all the other creatures of Earth. I don’t like the words bio-centric or eco-centric to describe my condition. I know that I am very much in the minority, as things stand now. And yet I don’t feel that I’m wrong. Quite the opposite. I am able to maintain what I regard as right relationship with the natural world, because I live my everyday life in the natural world. It’s hard to do when you live in the city. It’s hard to do when everyone around you seems to confirm that life on this planet is all about humans. Part of my best case scenario is that the survivors of the coming reset will also live close to Nature, and maintain themselves in good relationship to every living being and the living Earth.
    The elite conspiracy folks could make a lot of trouble for what is left of the world, if they maintain their power. But if their power is based upon money, and money becomes worthless, as often happens when things fall apart, maybe they would be rendered moot, along with their irrelevant corporations. But then that could just be wishful thinking, from someone who also favors the egalitarian option and small- group democracy.

  105. Population in Europe is decreasing in most countries, also in China (due to one chile policy). IMHO, the fuel of growth of human population is lack of reliable pension system and wars as secondary factor, as in that case average man’s best bet for decent life in his old days is to have many children.

    So, limiting the growth is actually much more simple than you would think, just limit fuel supply of that.

  106. Mike K: people are going to have a lot of problems with a lot of things as the system keeps unraveling. But as studies at Emmaus, PA showed, organic growing can beat industrial ag, solely with manures and such. I was just objecting to what seemed to me like panic mongering. We are running out of rock phosphate, and maybe that’s a good thing. We will never run out of phosphate-rich, cheap fertilizers; they come out of our own behinds. 🙂

  107. Judging from Mike Ks’ comment above, I would say that through his efforts he has managed to put himself in an elite position which in my opinion is “about as good as it gets” in our society. At one time I had a vision of moving myself into a life situation similar to his but gave up after I got a few bad rolls of the dice (as I see it) and here I am teaching English in Japan.
    I believe Mike K has at least temporarily overcome a fatal flaw in human society. The flaw is not a result of anything he had control over. The flaw is that he had to become the “owner” of the land to do the good things he is doing.
    I believe that ownership by an individual or even a group often results in a flawed situation. I believe that a study of history will show that almost any kind “real property” ownership eventually leads to wars and severe strife.
    I have read that the American Indian did not understand the idea of land ownership and felt that the concept was dishonest and basically impossible to implement. I agree with that basic idea. Of course some system of stabilization is needed to keep a society from falling into chaos if land ownership was not allowed. Perhaps a study of the American Indian society would point the way to a more equitable law in regard to land usage.
    I believe that homo sapiens’s big brain should be able to come up with something. However, implementing even a super idea may be impossible due to human infighting over almost anything.

  108. I feel the same way, Ron. I believe that to regard land, water, air and minerals… all that the planet gives and nobody “earns,” as commons, is the way to go. The devil is in the details, however. Elinor Ostrom had much to say about it, as do others continuing in that vein.

  109. Gary I can see that we do in fact see alot of things in a very similar light. We are a minority, but I have come to realise and it is my own belief that being in the minority correlates more with being “right” than being in the majority on any particular issue!

    Science is very flawed in many ways. One of the main flaws I note is that science is very much divided into various categories and specialties however the world around us is so interconnected that it seems absurd to separate and categorise the various sciences. It is also frowned upon for anyone to comment outside of their specific scientific expertise which is ridiculous. And I have mentioned in my previous posts how corrupted I believe science has become.

    I agree that humans are designed to live at a tribal small village level. In fact my father was born in a beautiful place called Kavieng in Papua New Guinea. His father came down from China and married into the locals in Kavieng and had 10 children which he sent to boarding school in Australia (to be indoctrinated into western culture and values). The life that he lived back in Kavieng growing up seemed to me to be so much more enjoyable and fulfilling than the life that he ended up living (he passed 4 years ago aged 65). My father was a successful entrepreneur however he chased $$$ all of his life at the expense of family life. I think he enjoyed making money more than spending it! He enjoyed the challenges that business gave him. He went from a boy growing up in a village who had never used a toilet (until aged 10!) to a business man making big bucks destroying rainforests for timber, mining granite and gold. He never once considered what he was doing was harming the planet. He grew up at a time when the world seemed boundless and ripe for the picking.

    I’d like to share a fictional story I heard that I think is quite profound:

    There was a worn out but highly successful Wall Street banker who decided he had had enough and needed a break from the Jungle of NYC. So he pays for a charter down to the Amazon and gets a chopper to lower him into the most dense remote part of the jungle. Quickly he is discovered by the local people and they take care of him and over time he learns about the food they eat, their customs, their language etc after many months of living like this he decides that he wants to use his satellite phone and get the chopper back to take him home. So he tells the chief of the tribe that he would love to return their hospitality by taking him to see his jungle. So the chief agrees and they go to NYC.

    Once there, the chief looks around and sees the cars everywhere, and asks, what are these? And the banker replies “they are cars, they take us places” then the chief asks “what are these” pointing to the highrise buildings everywhere, and the banker responds “these are high rise buildings”, “what are they for?” asks the chief. “They are where we work” says the banker. “work? what is this work?” the chief asks. “work is what we do to earn money” advised the banker, “money? what is this money?” probes the chief. “Money, is what we use to trade for things and we also save it up for when we retire” explains the banker. “Retire? tell me of this retire?” enquirers the chief. “Retiring is when we dont have to work and we can live in a nice peaceful place and go fishing everyday” says the banker. The cheif confused exclaims “BUT I ALREADY live in a beautiful place and go fishing!?”.

    So to me, when I compare the tribal village lifestyle to the typical modern 1st world one it is a no brainer which I would prefer to partake in! I have done factory jobs where I was working in 24hr shift work sucking up burnt plastic fumes whilst a machine cut up acrylic sheets to be molded into car parts, I have worked as a courier, driver racing around under pressure all day, door to door sales and all the joy that brings, on the phones at London’s 4th largest hotel dealing with customers with 1st world problems, for local governments trying to regulate the masses, in my own small business which was a real roller coaster ride, and the daily grind and repetitiveness that comes from all of these jobs does not compare to the stories my father told me about growing up with nature. One day they would go to a reef and dive for lobsters, another day they might hunt bush pigs, another day they take canoes out to fish for sharks, another day they might make a long journey into the jungles to find honey. Often their essential work for any particular day would be done before lunch. They would have picked coconuts or harvested some sweet potatoes and caught a couple of fish or some birds etc etc. The food was always fresh and wholesome. They never wasted anything, everything would be used for something. They would visit neighbouring islands and have dances etc (cant marry from within your own clan so these dances were important to find potential wives/husbands). If you really think about the things in life that matter the most its things like health, family, friends, good food, music, festivities, etc etc they can all be found in tribal/village situations.

    Permaculture isnt going to defeat Entropy, it would if widely practiced greatly sustain what resources are left though. Easily improving on current methods of making a living. And there are ways to harvest surrounding nutrients and bring them into a garden to keep it fertile if you are removing and trading or selling harvests (which deplete from the soil cause farming is mining if you think about it).

    I myself am very fortunate to be able to have 3 acres of fertile land in the Hinterland of the Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia. The soils are beautiful rich volcanic soils and the area is known for its above average rainfall which is essential in Australia. It is 500m above sea level on a plateau atop a mountain range meaning we are spared some of the summer heat. Its a subtropical climate and this enables me to successfully grow everything from tropical type fruits to temperate types.

    I have mangoes, paw paw, passion-fruit, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, cucumbers, tree tomato (Tamarillo), Jack Fruit, macadamia nut, avocadoes, oranges, mandarines, grapefruit, lemons, kiwifruit, pears, peaches, apples, blueberries, blackberries, boysenberries, raspberries, bananas, corn, broccoli, cabbages, strawberries, asparagus, lillypillies, custard apples, tomatoes, chillies, carrots and a plethora of herbs (real medicines!).

    So I consider myself very lucky and love having my young children being able to go out and pick their own food etc. I also have 3 Dexter cows (short/small cows known as beefy little milkers, an old Irish breed) about 15 ducks, 30 or so chickens. The lifestyle this provides my family is amazing, its very interesting trying to figure out various challenges that occur on a small holding all the time. Very interesting lifestyle to lead. Especially when you use permaculture principles to design it in a way that requires very little input (after the initial set up phase which is plenty of hard work) and where the various elements synergise and greatly benefit each other. My chickens free range 100%, they love it under the orchid area around the citrus and I usually keep there chicken tractor (where they sleep) uphill from the trees for a week or so each before moving along to the next tree. This ensures that the chicken poo is deposited perfectly and provides nutrients and increases the soil acidity which citrus trees love. The chickens also break the cycle of various pests as they eat any larvae or old fruit that drops to the ground so the pests dont get a chance to mature etc. So much enjoyment and the food is second to none. We often get excess of one thing or another and share it with neighbours which helps to forge a bond and encourages them to grow some things and share back when they can. The place I live is only 40 mins from a City of half a million people but it is a small community of 1200 and most people have never heard of the place. I wish there was no imminent global troubles so that I could peacefully live out my days in this bliss and pass it all onto my children. Unfortunately I believe an economic collapse is imminent and resource scarcity is going to turn the masses into marauding hordes, good fathers will do whatever it takes to feed their children so things could get ugly. Especially so in high density populated areas. Ownership of anything in this scenario may be fleeting.

    Ron and Vera, I agree that land ownership is a flaw in our society. I know that in PNG the clans own the land and do not buy it. Their children simply build houses out of natural local materials on it and make their gardens, raise their pigs and share it will their people. They can work for money if they want to but if they quit or are laid off, no problem, they just return to their land and plant some sweet potatoes. They live very simple lives and do not go into debt (which I see as a form of slavery 😉 ). They are free to work for money or not as they see fit. This is not the case in the capital Port Moresby where the housing prices/land prices are astronomical due to all of the mining happening in PNG at the moment. This has meant so many companies are keeping staff in PNG accommdations and driving the prices up. If people didnt need to go into debt (slavery) to pay off their land then they could live quite fullfilling village lifestyles growing their own food on their own land and maybe doing some paid work if they wanted extras. Although, from what I have seen in PNG the people that work for extras usually spend their earned money on cigarettes, alcohol or terrible western processed foods so I dont see the extra money doing them much good.

    Gary, I also agree that we are locusts, we are the most damaging plague this planet has ever had to endure! We are a very resilient pest species that defy the natural methods of population control with our ingenuity. We are not limited by weather, or distance, or specific food types, we overcome diseases and figure out ever more ingenious ways to consume fossil fuel energy to satisfy our urges. We consume so much that we consume our childrens futures and their childrens futures and so and so on 🙁 . However due to our lack of true understanding we dont see it. We are oblivious to the big picture. It should be obvious and plain as day that what we are doing is stupid and cannot continue. Not because it is the wrong thing to do (which it is!) but because it physically just cannot be sustained. We are supposed to be super intelligent (if we believe ourselves), we are above all other life, superior and therefore we will not follow the population curve that all known population explosions follow. We are going to be able to figure out a way around our problems because we have technology. The truth is technology is just various ways of using fossil fuel energy. Technology is not energy. Energy is our key limiting factor. We are not as smart as we think we are. We are animals, with animal instincts. The difference with us is that instead of big claws, teeth, thick hides, great ability to smell etc etc we have a large brain. However we simply use this tool in order to pursue our primal urges (which are all short term). Everything that we do as individuals is based upon making ourselves more attractive to the other sex, men want to be wealthy as this attracts women, women want a man that is able to provide for them and their future family. All the games people play in their daily lives are driven by natural instincts however the tools of modern technology are used to achieve them. The strive for status, the fancy car, the bigger house, keeping up with the Jones’, fancy brand name clothing, etc etc. We might be smart but we are still behaving as a collective just like bacteria in an agar plate… consuming relentlessly expanding until we hit our wall.

    I would argue that peak oil is our civilisation’s wall as it has been the trigger that has begun the collapse of our growth based economic system and is actually “just what the doctor ordered” in terms of what is best for mother earth and all her other creatures. The collapse of human civilisation will be the best thing that ever happened for the remaining natural world. We will no longer be able to simply bully the natural world, raping and pillaging it for our own benefit. We wont have the ability to continue overfishing the oceans the way we currently do. The planet might actually get a chance to recover a little bit. Unfortunately, what is good for the planet sucks for people. Its going to get ugly. But communities will form and in time a new much lower population will continue and hopefully it doesnt take too long? Hence why I dont think it would be an entirely bad thing for a serious outbreak of deadly disease that ends the life of the majority of people quickly. This will permit any remnants to start again without the relentless fighting over limited resources (hopefully they learn from what has happened and put cultural practices in place that ensure our populations never blow out again (7 billion can never be reached again due to depletion of fossil fuel) but a lower population spike would still be just as bad due to the even more limited resources available. I personally would rather run that gauntlet and either perish or come out the other side to a life worth living rather than a degenerating struggle to survive in a mad max type scenario.

    Dont think the elite dont know about the global problems facing humanity today and the easiest solution to these problems… Any release of a biological agent could never be linked back to them anyway. All they need is the agent and the vaccine and the timing… they know releasing that would cause devastation, they know it would get ugly, they like the current lifestyle they lead and do not want to change anything. They also know that the system is collapsing and it is only a matter of time. They know that if left to play out naturally, 7 billion people would take alot of messy years to get down to 1 or 2 billion which is probably closer to the “normal” carrying capacity of the natural world without fossil fuel inputs. This mass die off would free up the remaining oil, water, land, save the biodiversity, and give the planet a chance to recover.

    A final thought I would like to share for this comment, all wines are the remnants of mini civilisations that boomed and hit “their” wall. I wonder if we are a red, white or maybe a sparkling? Could be just a beer?

    We live in interesting times…

    Mike K

  110. It’s hard to have villages without some sense of group proprietorship. The Indians didn’t follow the western model of surveyed lots but they were able to make land treaties with the Europeans using familiar land markers, which the Europeans then broke.

    Even wolves mark their own territories.

    I do however like the idea of the commons in which the individual understands that he is part of a shared land and may enjoy temporary conditional proprietary rights but not outright ownership.

    Alaska has something like that idea with oil and gas rights being leased to the energy companies in exchange for royalties on production. The royalties are then invested for the residents and the dividends so to speak from that investment are then divvied up equally to each official Alaskan resident.

  111. What an awesome(sic) and perceptive essay. Looking into the Abyss with common sense, calm analysis… a true scientist.

  112. Great discussion!
    The Indians had markers for their hunting grounds, but they did not own them. Ownership is when someone steals a piece of land from the commons, and privatizes it, to be put on the selling/buying market like a slab of meat.

    This is at the very core of the evils of Babylon…

  113. I read the phosphorus string with some interest. Here is something else to think about: potassium is another essential element for soils/plants.
    I just looked at the soil samples from my farm – phosphorus is not a serious issue for my soils, but Potassium is. From what I have looked up, it is only mined in a few places around the world. I also think it is harder to come by as a soil amendment.
    So here is the crux of the issue, one that pertains to many of the comments that have been posted:
    Agriculture requires supplements to keep soils healthy. That’s just the way it is. We take nutrients out through crops or animals; agriculture it cannot be a completely closed system, even where a farmer uses rotations, cover crops, and applies the manure from animals back on the land. Some degree of amendments will always be required. There are very few soils that are naturally balanced; decades of industrial agriculture have not helped the health of soils.

    In the future, society is going to have to decide to allocate resources to maintaining soils. We currently do it through mining ancient fossil fuel deposits for chemical fertilizers, and the application of various blends of minerals. The horizon for this practice is already visible for those who can see clearly. But we will all have to make choices in coming years about what gets the available energy resources. If we don’t allocate them to moving essential soil amendments to well managed farms, there will be even more disruption than many of the comments posted here suggest.

  114. Mike K Thanks for your posts, I appreciate how thoughtful and grounded they are. In one, you state that “. . . what is good for the planet sucks for people,” which implies the opposite — what is good for people sucks for the planet. You also wrote in an earlier post how “. . . rapid change occurs when a new idea is developed that is so advantageous that it can’t help but spread like wildfire.” I think just such a new idea will come in the form of a story that will show us how, and compel us to live in a way that affirms, what is good for the planet is good for people too. I see that story as a re-mythologization (there’s a mouthful) that basically fosters a worldview where the notion that ‘what is good for the planet is good for people too’ is as unquestioned and unquestionable as its opposite is at present. In other words, this new story will flip the ideas we most take for granted on their heads, in an appealing way.
    To that end I offer the following piece I wrote in response to one of the myths that I feel underlies the notion that people and the planet are mismatched. The piece also seems fitting here as it offers another take on the state of the species.

    Original Integrity

    “While industrial society has the collective momentum of nearly seven billion humans, wild aliveness has the collective momentum of everything else in the universe. Tap into that.”
    Miles Olson (Unlearn, Rewild)

    “Cases like that of the Koyukon offer little support for the widely held view that humans are by definition a blight; that we cannot exist without destroying our environment; that we have no rightful place on earth. These self-accusations many not reflect a human condition so much as a cultural condition brought about by agriculture and domestication – what anthropologist Hugh Brody has called ‘the neolithic catastrophe.'”
    Richard Nelson
    (“Searching for the Lost Arrow: Physical and Spiritual Ecology in the Hunter’s World”
    in The Biophiolia Hypothesis edited by Stephen R. Kellert and Edward O. Wilson)

    In a healthy culture, the tendency to knee-jerk reject modes of human existence that deviate from the cultural norms gives the members of that culture a profound adaptive advantage. This is the case because the odds are great that deviance will lead to conditions that are sub-optimal when compared to the cultural norms, long-adapted as they are to integrating the humans who live by them into the greater Community of Life, which is the ultimate measure of health for any culture.
    However, when, over millennia of deliberate efforts by a few beneficiaries of the short-term, exclusive gains made possible through various forms of cultural corruption, a cultural matrix comes into existence that is, in almost every way, maladaptive for the vast majority of the constituent humans who compose it (as well as the biosphere as a whole), then this aspect of human nature – being extremely well-evolved to preserve the cultural context into which one is born and comes of age – is potentially catastrophic. It compels a most bull-headed form of conservative stubbornness and denial in the face of inarguable evidence pointing to the dire necessity for deep cultural change.
    What this means is, contrary to prevailing near-universal sentiments, today’s global socio-ecological crises in all their forms are not the result of an inherent human flaw. They have reached present catastrophic proportions for the exact opposite reason. They are born of a learned misapplication of our inherent human integrity. In other words, we are unconsciously passing on our broken culture with near-perfect fidelity, generation after generation, exactly how humans are supposed to pass on their culture, and have always done. The problem lies not with our humanity, but with the cultural matrix we are unconsciously passing on.
    Only through consciously overriding the subconscious impulses that compel us to hold to habits largely learned in utero and in our pre-lingual childhood, will we turn from the catastrophe toward a viable health-fostering cultural matrix. Since stories are the vehicles of cultural inheritance, replacing the dysfunctional stories with viable stories will be key in this effort.
    And an ideal story to start with is the core fallacy of the prevailing cultural matrix. That fallacious story goes by the name of “original sin” among the adherents of the Abrahamic religious traditions. Many other traditions, both Western and Eastern, as well as the scientific and secular and others, have different conceptualizations of the idea that humans as a species are inherently broken. It is a deep myth of our culture that transcends religion and infuses our every action. It is actually what I call a keystone myth; without the behavioral rationalizations it offers, a whole cultural superstructure of dependent, subsidiary rationalizations and mutually reinforcing behavioral responses to those rationalizations built up over the last ten thousand years, collapses.
    Due to the extreme age and reach of this keystone myth, to see its fallaciousness requires something that is, these days, nearly impossible to find in the global monoculture of consumerism. It requires a contrast; going outside the conceptual frame of the myth. Yet, both Olson and Nelson do exactly this in the quotes above. By entering the alternative frames, we can see that the deep error we’ve too often ascribed to the human organism is not now, and never has been, universal to the species. Rather, it is cultural in origin. The human organism evolved as a thoroughly integrated well-adapted being – in fact, we could not exist if this were not the case given that flawed organisms quickly go extinct. If our most definitive trait — culture — represented an evolutionary botch-job then we would not have lived well for tens of thousands of years with that very trait only to have it reveal its maladaptiveness now. Only the relatively recent transformation of a single human cultural potential into a cultural reality can account for the turn of that culture’s members from being ecologically well-adapted (tapped into the universal cycles) to being on the fast track toward oblivion.
    To blame the species is to miss the scale at which the wrong turn occurred and thus, to impair remedial efforts by focusing them on the wrong level of cause, a level where the specific problems in need of solutions don’t exist. Thus, when our efforts inevitably prove futile and we blame it on inherent defects in the species, we’ve effectively entered into a nice circularity that circumvents affecting any real change. Blaming the species is also a convenient absolver of responsibility to, and for, the here and now as well as future generations. In other words, it is a cop out.
    After all, species change is far less open to conscious alteration than cultural change. So, if the species is just broken, well there’s really nothing we can do. But as I alluded to above, the global socio-ecological crises of the present era stem not from a species level defect. In truth, a flawed, relatively recent (6 to 10 thousand years old) cultural emergent has learned to use the strengths of the species against the greater Being of which both culture and species are but two facets.
    We are called then, for the sake of our species’ integrity, to expose and dissolve the treacherous cultural warp that has infected so many of us, to the point that the very atmosphere and oceans of Earth (two other facets of the greater Being) are in the process of initiating their own remedial response. The target of that response is not humanity writ large, but rather one aberrant human cultural tradition that went rogue ten thousand years ago and has now gone global. We can ally ourselves with the remedial response in sound conscience even though it means actively working to dissolve much of what we have for centuries, if not millennia, built up, come to take for granted and even celebrated: the human condition defined by greed, warfare, tragedy, suffering, misery and loneliness.
    It is time to undertake the most radical conceptual leap imaginable in the modern era and celebrate our beautiful humanity in its generosity, wholeness and integrity.
    Only from such a viewpoint can we have a positive vision toward which to aim in the necessary reconstitution of our broken cultural identity into, not only a viable, but a truly awe- inspiring expression of our multi-faceted Being-ness. The first step is to see and admit that we have deceived ourselves into believing our cultural identity is our species identity. From this awareness, we can then direct our response at the level of identity that is truly in need of major alteration. And I reiterate, the species level is not it.
    At this very moment, the profound strength, beauty and integrity of the human species are as sound as ever. The human organism belongs within the Earth community as much as any other form of Earthly life. Western culture, on the other hand (and all other cultures suffering from the contagion of westernization) omni-prevalent as it may seem, is threatening to take us with it as it begins its death throes. We need to realize, that without our cooperation, without our collusion in passing on and enacting the broken stories that preserve the culture, those throes could not manifest in reality. And the first step in becoming non-cooperative is awareness of the real situation. Abandoning notions of original sin and the like is that step. This will require the understanding that potentiality does not equate to inevitability.
    Yes, humans can embody a flawed existence (an addict’s existence). That potential is part of our humanity. But so is the opposite (living by cultural habits that foster a healthy fulfilling existence as a contributing member of the Community of Life) (see the Elaboration). Coming to understand and embrace that opposite may be the most challenging, yet essential, conceptual revolution we as individuals and as a culture face. Nothing short of a complete personal/cultural make-over will suffice. But we should be heartened that, even so, the integrity of our species is an asset of which we must take full advantage.
    That means re-learning the human ways that contribute positively to the Community of Life. I say re-learn because those ways represent the deepest traditions from which all subsequent cultural traditions, even the most defective, ultimately find their source. The vast majority of the ancestors of every human alive today lived by healthy cultural ways. These ways represent who we are as a species far more than anything born of the 6-10 millennia mis-step that is civilization. But over those six to ten thousand years many fallacious myths were, and continue to be, devised to keep us blind to that fact.
    The Nelson quote shows us a way out of our blindness, for if his observation about the Koyukon is true, then to claim that the species is flawed is an insult to them as well as to ourselves. It is an insult to our species and the evolutionary life-processes by which our species came into being.
    Convenient as the flawed-species view may be for rationalizing selfishness and inaction, it holds no merit. And I knee-jerk reject it every time it is trotted out in response to the all-to-frequent instances when a human, or group of humans commits some pathological atrocity. It is time to be honest and admit yes, the pathos is human-derived, but it is not the inevitable result of an inherent flaw in all of humanity (other species are capable of pathos as well. For example, the lions known as Ghost and the Darkness, who trophy-hunted railroad workers in Africa in the late 19th century, and the tiger in John Vaillant’s book The Tiger.). Every instance of pathos is simply a possibility someone, or a group of someones, has manifested as a result of enacting an extreme expression of a cultural story we have spent the last six to ten millennia actively perpetuating and reinforcing, a story that amplifies rather than mutes the pathos. Given our present near-total inundation in this story, is it any wonder there is so much pathos in the world today? Blaming it on the species is like saying that because the Titanic sank, all boats are doomed by design. The nonsense of this should be clear, as should the real danger. We need to stop damning the characteristic of boats that makes it possible for every single one of them to sink (buoyancy) and start emphasizing that the very same characteristic, first and foremost, keeps them from sinking. Perhaps even more importantly, we need to emphasize the most obvious truth of all boats: they can only sink because they were afloat first. And to float at all, they must be sound before they ever touch the water.
    Until we undergo this shift in emphasis, we will keep bemoaning our circumstance, while at the same time stoking the boilers and driving our Titanic on ever faster. Why? Because we have deluded ourselves into thinking that every boat is bound to go the way of Titanic, so there’s no way to escape our fate. And thus, it self-fulfills.
    The perceptual sea-change we must undergo will only be possible when we see that, for most boats, being afloat is not synonymous with being doomed to sink, but rather, is definitive of being what they are, as they are meant to be, ever at risk of sinking, but given proper care, far more likely to remain afloat. The Koyukon represent such a cultural boat. From the Koyukon, and countless other examples like theirs, including the example of most of our own ancestors, we Titanicans can begin transforming our doomed vessel into lifeboats capable of remaining afloat — note: I am not talking about saving civilization. Civilizations are, by definition, Titanics that have already struck the proverbial ice berg and are in the process of sinking (Toynbee’s “A Study of History” shows why this is the case). If the real Titanic took a little over two hours to founder, we might think of our culture’s two hours as the ten thousand year existence of agriculture/civilization relative to the 200,000+ year existence of our species. Agriculture represents the sighting of the ice berg and the turn to civilization/conquest represents the collision. As with the real Titanic, nobody noticed a thing at first – the band played on. But eventually, the slipping deck chairs could not be kept in place. And now, the stern is rising high out of the water. Yet, even so, denial prevails – the crew continues to reset the breakers so the lights keep shining.
    By seeing that the real problem is our titanic cultural boat and not boats in general, we can see that real options are available. Failure to act on that knowledge — failure to dismantle the monolithic superstructure and build life-boats out of it — is then nobody’s fault but our own. And the reason we might fail to act despite the overwhelming evidence for the need to act is the discussion that opened this piece. We’re in the habit of our singular luxury liner, and long adapted to hold true to our collective habit no-matter-what because, over the span of our species’ existence, holding true to cultural habits has proven the best likely strategy for optimal survival. Now, however, reality for the members of the 10,000 year old agricultural/civilized tradition is exactly the opposite, and our well-evolved loyalty to our cultural identity has become a liability, quite possibly a fatal one. The inherent wholeness of our species is the well-spring from which we must draw in the regeneration of healthy cultural traditions, the human traditions that are our deepest birthright.


    When the measure of personal success within a culture (productivity/monetary wealth) is inversely proportional to the measure of personal success within the Community of Life (integrity/long-term viability), the result can be an inner conflict capable of tearing a conscientious person apart. Most people are content to restrict the recognition of success to the cultural sphere. And in a healthy culture this works fine because the culture is well-integrated into the Community of Life, so the persons of that culture are covered from birth to death no matter their personal quirks. But when the culture is not well-integrated, and is in fact diametrically at odds with the imperatives for preserving the health of the Community of Life, then the celebration of people who work well within that culture, no matter how fully and happily they live their lives, comes across as hollow. Such people can be considered upstanding citizens by one measure only. This situation represents the ultimate betrayal: people betrayed by their culture. They are, as persons, living as they have been long-evolved to live – as full participants and contributors to their culture — but their actions are corrupted by the culture itself such that the greater their cultural success, the greater the damage incurred by the Community of Life. Nobody in the present cultural matrix can fully succeed in both realms. And few choose, or even can choose, to focus on success in the Community of Life. The people who do tend to disappear from the cultural radar in direct proportion to their success. And so we’re left with wealthy tech entrepreneurs, wealthy politicians, wealthy celebrities, wealthy athletes (see the common denominator here?) etc. as the exemplars of success. They are, however, the people least suited to deliver the message so desperately needed today: how to succeed as members of the Community of Life. And so, the hollow feeling remains . . .


  115. Rob, for potash:
    Compost, wood ash, kelp, greensand, granite dust.

    Does ag always require supplements? That is a very interesting question. We’ve been conditioned to say yes without hesitation… hm…

  116. Tim Fox, that is awesome well said. Will there be another installment?

  117. TF

    ““Cases like that of the Koyukon offer little support for the widely held view that humans are by definition a blight; that we cannot exist without destroying our environment; that we have no rightful place on earth. These self-accusations many not reflect a human condition so much as a cultural condition brought about by agriculture and domestication – what anthropologist Hugh Brody has called ‘the neolithic catastrophe.’””

    So what are the implications of that? Is agriculture and animal husbandry where we drove off the rail? It seems like we wiped out a good number of species even before we got to that stage, not to mention apparently pushing the Neanderthals into extinction.

    I think there are probably historically many examples of fairly small steady state cultures but they inevitably fell to the predatory ones. One wonders if there is a kind Gresham’s Law of human cultural development. It would seem one needs to impose some policy of universal restraint to get out of this dilemma but then the power to do that would itself become a problem.

  118. Thank you for your comments. It is a great pleasure for a writer to get to eavesdrop, so to speak, on readers’ thoughts. Here I would like to discuss a few factual criticisms.

    Prakash wrote: “In the positive trends you mention, please add the fact that developed world is greatly limiting its population growth.”

    It is indeed true that population growth rates are declining in rich nations. But levels of consumption are rising, so it has been claimed that in terms of per-capita environmental costs the population of rich countries is continuing to rise. There are lots of complexities to this argument, which I won’t get into here. The point is that the decline in fertility in rich nations may not be the simple panacea it is sometimes painted as.

    Gary Gripp writes to criticize:

    “Taking a cue from microbiologist Lynn Margilus, Mann defines the human domination of the planet as ‘species success.’ This is consistent with his propensity to mislabel and confound categories. What we’re really talking about here is a species out of balance with its ecosystem, a species which is not integrating into the Community of Life, but is instead dominating and destroying that community.”

    Tim Fox makes a similar point:

    “Here among the trees, success is not about species exploding in numbers then wiping themselves out, which hardly seems like success at all. Forest success is about mutual reciprocity that results in optimal long-term flourishing for every species who, all together, compose the greater green whole.”

    Margulis was arguing that a single species’s success, in evolutionary terms, would be to proliferate madly — even if this was at great ultimate cost to the larger ecosystem. The point she was trying to make is that *evolutionary* success and *ecological* success are not at all the same thing. Hence her apothegm that every successful species wipes itself out.

    Vera has a list of criticisms, which I will try to answer in order:

    “First of all, [Homo] sapiens did not invent clothing. Neanderthals lived in northern, very cold latitudes since maybe half a million years ago, and they wore clothing.”

    This is incorrect. Let me quote a soon-to-be-published article (Wales, N. “Modeling Neanderthal Clothing Using Ethnographic Analogues,” Journal of Human Evolution, in press,

    “Compared to recent advances in understanding Neanderthal subsistence strategies (Kuhn and Stiner, 2006; Hardy et al., 2012), symbolic behavior (Caron et al., 2011), mobility (Richards et al., 2008; Lalueza-Fox et al., 2011), and evolutionary history (Endicott et al., 2010; Wills, 2011), the paucity of data on Neanderthal clothing is remarkable. … The lack of clothing-specific tools from Neanderthal sites is made more apparent when compared with sites attributed to the earliest anatomically modern humans in Europe. Soffer (2004) cites multiple lines of evidence that anatomically modern humans in Eurasia engaged in weaving and sewing, including the presence of weaving battens and textile impressions at Dolní VÄ•stonice, dating at least 26,000 years before present (BP) (Adovasio et al., 2001; Soffer et al., 2001). Other sites, including Vogelherd (Germany) and Kostenki 15 (Russia) have sewing needles between 35,000 and 30,000 BP (Soffer, 2004; Hoffecker, 2005). In addition, Kvavadze et al. (2009) claim to have identified dye-colored flax fibers from Dzuduana Cave, Georgia, dating to 32,000–26,000 14C BP.” To put it briefly: there is no good evidence of Neanderthal clothing, and lots of evidence of H. sapiens clothing dating to ~30,000 BP.

    Vera says: “People did say boo about slavery for a long time.” Then she cites Wikipedia as proof that slavery didn’t exist in parts of Europe in the late medieval period. Wikipedia has it wrong. True, as David Brion Davis (one of the leading historians of slavery) says, “in most parts of Europe slavery declined and then virtually disappeared with the emergence of the feudal system.” But the changeover in legal systems from Roman-style slavery to feudal serfdom meant little on the ground. In late medieval law, Davis notes, “the concept of chattel slavery [was taken] as the proper model for serfdom.” Similar things happened in England. In the Domesday Book of 1086, “approximately 10 percent of the recorded population were classified as outright slaves.” But slavery declined and was replaced by “villenage,” which meant a class of laborers who were owned by their masters. “Despite the effects of enclosure, the widening of markets, the Black Death, and the Hundred Years’ War, the legal conditions of villeins remained practically unchanged” (Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, pp. 37-39).

    I don’t know much about Poland, but I can report that the Cambridge World History of Slavery (vol. 3, Eltis and Engerman, eds.) reports on the effective enslavement of Poles and Russians during the reign of Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century. So many rights were taken from serfs that “slaves and serfs were beginning to be thought of as the same.” (pp. 287-88) The same book reports that Lithuania’s statutes in 1566 and 1588 (which presumably are what Wikipedia refers to) actually “granted estate owners powerful new rights of lordship over their subjects (310). I could go on, but I think the point is clear: unfree labor of the sort we regard as “slavery” was common in late medieval Europe.

    Finally, Vera writes: “About the domination of men by women; I have seen a lot of ancient Cretan art, and it sure seems quite clearly to portray a society where women were dominant. I doubt Cretans were the only ones.”

    For a discussion of early matriarchy, I can only urge the reader to look at Cynthia Eller’s “The Myth of Matriarchal History” (2000) or Michael Balter’s “The Goddess and the Bull” (2005). Regarding Crete, most archaeologists agree with Susan Deacy (“Athena”, 2008) that “the central tent of the theory of a primordial matriarchy has come in for a sustained attack, with doubts being expressed as to whether the prevalence of feminine imagery presumes female dominance. We need only look at historical societies to realize that images of powerful females hardly providence of matriarchy, the proliferation of female imagery from fifth-century Athens being a case in point. Women were notoriously marginalized in that society… We might also adduce the adoration of the Virgin in Roman Catholic countries as further evidence that venerating female figures need not denote matriarchy.” (p40)


  119. I hope Derrick Jenssen is reading this essay. His work pretty much deflates both Mann’s incorrect notions of 19th & 20th C history but also his irrational exuberance concerning our improbable future.

  120. My musing for the next few months stems from this observation :
    When I take my scissors to a piece of fabric, I can see before me the “right” side of the fabric I’m cutting, but I can’t see… the “wrong” side, which is equally ? being cut.
    We still do not understand the incredible power our ideas have over the way we see the world, and the transformations we produce in it, nor do we perceive how our language is organic, and controls us much more than we control it.
    This article, and the science behind it, have a debt to our Enlightenment heritage which, itself has a debt to our Judeo-Christian ideas, and way of organizing the world. Human rights are a modern variation of secularized Judaism/Christianity.
    I am not very keen on the idea of progress, for the rather simple reason that the more you move TOWARDS a particular ideal ? goal ? the more you are simultaneously moving away from another place with other ideals ? goals ?
    It is indeed possible to make a case FOR WAR, as a means of controlling our population (sorry friends, birth control will just not do the whole trick, and CONTROL is a big problem too.).
    A case can be made to suggest that women have forfeited the once considerable.. PRIVATE power that they had in society in favor of reduced power but greater visibilty in the public sphere with considerable tensions between the sexes in consequence.
    The post 1945 world that we live in has a tremendous, all too often unacknowledged debt to the Paulinian project : all ONE, in the body of Christ, in one great fellowship of love.. without Christ, for many of us who know nothing about our past ideological debts, but the great fellowship of love, nonetheless.
    Our delusions ? of control are largely the result of our belief ? that “we” can be reduced to what we can see of ourselves, in true positivist fashion.
    I think that any scientist worth his salt would be willing to admit that it is impossible to see what’s going on from the inside of a situation…
    We ARE creatures, and not.. creators.
    No matter how much we would like to believe… the contrary.
    Perhaps the 19th century date marks a significant erosion in THIS belief, and the resulting.. DISASTROUS consequences for our SPECIES, even as we, as INDIVIDUAL consciousness, get an inflated estimate put on our value ? (But this inflated estimate is also part of our Judeo Christian heritage too..)

  121. Tim,

    Thank you for your post, you are making some very interesting points. I would like to comment on some of them.

    When I said, “what is good for the planet sucks for people” I stand by the statement, because it will suck – for a time – however, in the longer term, once the “transition period” is over and a much smaller population is left in small communities living much simpler and more self sufficient lifestyles, well for them, those particular survivors, life will be better for them due to the recovering ecosystems, and hopefully some mitigation of any climate change damage. I did not mean it to be an all encompassing statement for humanity. Rather an opinion of the current predicament and civilisation collapsing. I do not see human “success” and “planetary/everything else’s” success as incompatible. There are many historical examples of humans living successfully with nature thriving simultaneously.

    I agree that culture is a key part of our problem however I posit that what changed our ability to damage the earth so greatly is our discovery of stored accumulated cheap energy (fossil fuels). I believe that despite our cultural flaws it was the discovery and use of such awesome power that turned us from a minor irritant on the global scale into a planetary superbug. Without this fossil fuel energy, I do not think we would have the ability to:

    a) reach the population of 7 billion people

    b) pollute the planet’s air, water and land to anywhere near the extent that we have (so many serious pollutants stem from petroleum products)

    c) consumed so many of the worlds finite resources

    d) caused such a mass extinction event as that which we are continuing to live through

    e) destroyed anywhere near as much habitat – rainforests, woodlands, ocean floors, deforestation in general

    f) created technology capable of destroying the planet – nukes, GMOs, nano technology, gene technologies (biowarfare)

    g) created cities with such high population densities

    h) created a culture which is so disconnected from our land, our food, nature

    We would have been able to have various “bad” cultures around the world however none would be anything more than a minor blemish on the planet. Meanwhile, I believe that there would be so many other cultures that would live symbiotically with the ecosystem they were part of as this is far more beneficial than “going Easter Island” on it! Evolution would sort those cultures that are “bad” pretty quickly (esp from a geological time-frame perspective).

    You may be right that in our current predicament that we need to change our culture somehow however (some call me pessimistic, I think I am a realist) I just cant see it happening. So much of what humans do is part of our instinct. The damage caused by us pursuing our objectives driven by these instincts is simply amplified by the fact that we have figured out how to use stored sunlight (that took eons of time to sequester by algae in shallow oceans and ancient forests through photosynthesis and we have burnt half of our endowment in a mere 150 years!) to drive our technologies that allow us to move mountains, overfish all the worlds vast oceans, deforest some ridiculous percentage of the planets forests, and exponentially balloon our population to 7 billion people.

    (hope the above image and or link works on this forum??) Interesting to note that humans first extracted oil commercially in 1856 when Edwin Drake saved the whales by taping into oil in Pennsylvania for kerosene so whale blubber became expensive for lamps in comparison to the cheap easy stuff that jumped out of the ground under its own pressure! 150 years later and we have peaked in oil production which usually occurs for individual oil wells at about halfway through the reserve. The oil years of human civilisation will be such a tiny blip on a geological time scale, yet our impact on the biosphere will not be.

    So back to my original point, my opinion, for what it is worth, is that yes the predominant western culture causing our problems is a big part of our predicament, however I believe that it would be a benign culture (impotent on a global scale) if the power of fossil fuels had never existed.

    Mike K

  122. Mike K, your three acre spread in Australia sounds positively idyllic, rich in diversity and abundant with life. You are obviously much further along in the permaculture process than we are here on this two acres, but what you describe offers a fine model to be emulated by those fortunate enough to find themselves on good arable land. What is your water source there? A nice spring, conveniently located uphill of your forest garden? I’m sure you’ve seen the book, Creating a Forest Garden by Martin Crawford. He’s located in England and is working with something like four hundred different species. I’m not sure the human being is capable of creating a fully functional ecosystem, the way Nature does, but it is fun and rewarding to try.
    Yes, I was afraid my dismissal of the elite conspiracy as something that might go away when money does was a bit naïve. I’ve read Seeds of Destruction, which goes into the Bilderburg Group and quite a bit about a long term Rockerfeller eugenics project. I‘ve also listened to the ravings of Alex Jones, who, though off-putting in manner, may not be entirely wrong. I agree with you that the wealthy and powerful who populate these elite groups are well aware that the present status quo cannot continue for long, and that they are likely to take action to protect what they see as their own interests. I don’t know if you are aware of a little incident that took place in July off the coast of British Columbia—the dumping of 120 tons of powdered iron into the Pacific, with the questionable intent of promoting the growth of plankton and creating a carbon sink. The idea of this little science experiment was to find some way that we could go on living in the same old energy-squandering way, but without the inconvenience of climate chaos. I find this sort of geo-engineering quite spooky, and very much subject to the Law of Unintended Consequences. Naomi Klein, who is working on a book on climate change, has written a very good article on this subject titled “Goeengineering: Testing the Waters.” (I’d provide you a link, if I knew how, but it can be found on the Common Dreams website.) Anyway, any crackpot with some money can just go out on their own and dabble in Earth-changing science experiments like this one, and the rest of us are stuck with the results. I think I prefer one of the scenarios you mention, where the die-off is quick and clean, and targeted at humans, and doesn’t take out the remainder of the living planet. That would give any human survivors much more to work with in order to build new lives.
    So let’s just suppose that each continent on this wondrous planet had a scattering of people who, seeing the results of ten thousand years of civilization and the human enslavement of the biosphere, wanted to start the human experiment afresh. What, that we take for granted in our present state of civilization, would they have to leave behind? They are not trying to rebuild civilization, mind you; they are trying to build viable, satisfying, sustainable lives. Where, in their world, should technology stand? I’m going to take another unpopular stand here and suggest, counter to everything we as a society tell ourselves on a daily basis, that technology has produced far, far more negative results in this world than any positive contribution it might have made. And the higher the technology the worse it is—that is, the more negative the results to the Earth and its biotic community. I believe this can be easily demonstrated, but what I’ve noticed is, we’ve never been able to say no to technology. Technology seems to be a force unto itself, with an agenda of its own—and it has proved irresistible to humans. That’s why I worry about our descendents. How are they going to be able to say no to technology, and end up ultimately repeating our mistakes? I wish I had a satisfactory answer to this question. The best I can come up with at the moment is some version of the following. All the survivors agree that long-term sustainability is their rock-solid Golden Rule. Anything that cannot be sustained into the far future will not be undertaken. That means no more mining of any “resource” whatsoever, whether water, topsoil, forests, or anything under the skin of the Earth. With this as a powerful taboo—no mining whatsoever—maybe, possibly, these humans could resist the siren call of technology—and thus not devour the Earth, as we are devouring the Earth today.
    In our lifetimes we’ve seen nuclear technology threaten the very existence of life on Earth—and that threat is no less today than it’s ever been. Nanotechnology is up and coming, and that’s not a good thing. We’re fiddling around with genetic engineering, and now geoengineering. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the Disney film Fantasia, but I’m reminded of Mickey Mouse as the sorcerer’s apprentice, making bucket-carrying slaves of the mops. The problem is, when he gets all the water he needs, he doesn’t know how to turn them off, and they just keep coming. That’s us and our technology. We’ve let it into our lives, and now it has overrun us. My best hope for our descendents is they don’t let it overrun them.
    What is your take on the place of technology in the future?

  123. Charles, regarding clothing, the article you link says that “after accounting for higher tolerances to cold temperatures, it is predicted that some Neanderthals would have covered up to 80% of their bodies during the winter, probably with non-tailored clothing. It is also likely that some populations covered the hands and feet. In comparison with Neanderthals, Upper Paleolithic modern humans are found to have worn more sophisticated clothing.” Simpler clothing for Neanderthals is what this article claims. Not no clothing. (And simple tailoring can be accomplished via flint awls and thongs. You don’t need needles.)

    I apologize regarding “matriarchy.” I have not seen anyone arguing for it for decades, and I don’t believe it myself. But people do mention gynocentric or matristic societies, of which Crete certainly was one, and amazingly peaceful at that as well. In addition, there are records of societies where both men and women played decisive roles, and the “grandmothers” acted as an effective check to the power of men. For those reasons, I do not buy your sweeping statement about the domination of women by men everywhere.

    Have you actually looked at Cretan art in great detail? It’s not about “venerating female imagery” — there are women everywhere doing stuff, being priestesses, leaping over bulls, gathering together in assemblies, receiving tribute, wearing lovely yet practical flouncy culottes. It goes on and on. The feel of rest of the lively art (cavorting dolphins and other critters, flowers) is decidedly feminine in spirit, full of joy and color and lightness, and nothing at all like the rigid and perfectionistic Athenian art.

    You claim about slavery: “Then, in the space of a few decades in the nineteenth century, slavery, one of humankind’s most enduring institutions, almost vanished.” We commenters, on the other hand, have argued that it did not vanish, that civilization is based on one form of slavery or another, they just morph and rename themselves. You objected to that argument, while now you use it yourself when you (correctly) point out that morphing from slavery to serfdom was not necessarily much of an improvement for the serfs. And serfdom itself varied in its strength and injurious demands from locality to locality. Then there was indentured servitude. Then there was dispossession and wage-slavery in the horrible factories where desperate people labored 16 hours a day, and children were chained to the looms they worked so they could not run away. In that same 19th century. In what world could this not be described as yet another form of slavery?!

  124. Vera,

    I quoted the article because you wrote “Neanderthals lived in northern, very cold latitudes since maybe half a million years ago, and they wore clothing”–that is, they are known to have worn clothing, and known to have done so tens of thousands of years before Homo sapiens existed. The article states that there is no known evidence for Neanderthals wearing clothes and plenty of evidence for Homo sapiens wearing clothes. True, the article goes on to predict that Neanderthals *would* have worn clothes. That’s fine with me — but (to repeat my point) there is no evidence that this prediction is true. Given the large number of Neanderthal living sites and graves that scientists have investigated, it is striking that no evidence has turned up for clothing. This suggests to me that the scientists’ prediction will not hold up.

    Re: matriarchy. To say that no societies were matriarchal is not to say that no women in any place or time had any ability to control their own destiny. Even in the most male-dominated societies women had what scientists call “agency,” and of course the degree of subjugation greatly varied from place to place and time to time. But it is the general consensus of anthropologists and archaeologists that there are no known examples of societies where women had more political and social power than men. (If you’re curious about this, the Wikipedia article on matriarchy cites some of the relevant texts.)

    The Minoan art that I have seen indeed has lots of images of women doing interesting things. But so does medieval Christian art — think of the countless images of the Virgin bestowing blessings, accepting homage, etc. Just as nobody would think of 13th-century Catholic Europe as remotely gynocentric, so it may be for early Crete. From what I have read, archaeologists believe that much of the power in Minoan Crete rested with the island’s powerful sea-trading networks, which were entirely male.

    Finally, I suspect that we must agree to disagree about slavery. My argument in the article is that there is a staggering difference between the chattel slavery and serfdom that existed almost everywhere as recently as the 19th century and conditions today, in the 21st century. Take the sweatshops in China that I visited during my research for my last book. Most Orion readers would regard these as extremely unpleasant places — I certainly did. Yet the workers in those factories and dormitories are free to leave. I talked with people who had done just that. Slaves and serfs are not free to leave — their masters can punish or kill them for trying. The dormitories are spare, noisy and have next to no privacy, but workers do have families and private lives. By contrast, slave and serf families could be freely broken up by their masters; it often wasn’t a crime for the owner to rape his slaves. This simply isn’t the case in China. Sure, some factory owners and managers there do awful things and get away with it. People are horribly underpaid for jobs that are dirty and dangerous. But even there the system is not based on systematic murder, brutality and destruction of families, as it was in the past.

    But let me direct your attention to the wonderful writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, who makes the same point better than I ever will:



    Charles, here are two articles dealing with Neanderthal clothing. The Smithsonian people assume they did, and there are plenty of references to thermal studies showing that Neanderthals would not have been able to exist in the cold of the ice age without clothing. Since most of the clothing finds deal with later ages when Neanderthals were extinct, I am not sure why you keep pushing the issue. If you want to be scholarly, then tell people there is a controversy, and mention both sides.

    An interesting aside is that the Neanderthals show tooth wear, and arm asymmetry, that is attributed to intensive hide processing. That could be considered an indirect argument that the creation of skin clothing took up a lot of their energies.

    For me, the thermal conjecture trumps all others.

    If you don’t want to see gynocentric societies, then you won’t. We agree re matriarchies.

    I see slavery on a continuum. Chattel slavery was one part of the continuum. Many other types have existed. I am not sure why you would rather separate chattel slavery from all other types (except for the worst examples of serfdom). To prove a point that industrial civ got something right?

  126. P.S. Serfdom was not like chattel slavery at all, in most places. A noble bought the land with the people on it, and rights to some of their labor. But that did not mean he owned the people, or have the right to sell a man’s family to somebody else. And people did leave those estates; that’s how those medieval towns grew. Again… a continuum…

  127. Here’s an idea: perhaps the Cretans had an androcentric society at sea, and gynocentric society on land. Sensible, given their circumstance, and it would replicate the situation of many tribes where men’s and women’s societies (within each tribe) stayed anchored in their respective spheres of influence.

    Maybe we need a new category?

  128. Gary, I am very lucky to be able to live and have my family where we are situated. That said, it is not all luck. A saying that I have recently come up with myself goes “knowledge is not power, unless the knowledge is appropriately understood and acted upon”. This is an obvious expansion of the more concise yet I believe insufficient saying that “knowledge is power”. The reason I felt the need to expand on the saying is due to my observations and frustrations in getting others to see, learn, understand and to foresee the harsh consequences of the peaking of oil production rates. And then if they did, to take appropriate personal actions to mitigate at the very least the impact on them and their loved ones. This is what I have done, acting upon my knowledge and understanding of the problem before any of the current visible evidence of the effects of peak oil and subsequent economic collapse. It is also handy that I have a natural affinity to living the lifestyle of growing as much of my own food as possible (given my constraints of needing to work (I am still a debt slave, although my debt is counterbalanced by some strategic investments 😉 ).

    I first heard about the peak oil theory in about 2006 and I was very dismissive of the idea that peaking of oil production would have much of an impact on humanity and the information I was being told seemed to be very much scaremongering and also likely to be lacking other key considerations such as technological advancements, alternative energy sources, and incremental adjustments in our economy to easy cope with the claimed 2-3% decline rate in production. So to respond to my friend properly I decided to do a little bit of digging/research and to offer him a quick solution to his supposed catastrophic theory. I recall my initial reaction was to look into the alternative energy technologies and explain how quickly they could be developed and deployed if required. The more I investigated each potential alternative the more I realised how poorly they stacked up against oil which was such a concentrated source of energy, so easy to store, transport and cheap too. It did not take too much investigation to see the multitude of issues the hydrogen economy had:

    no large source of pure hydrogen – all known sources are bound up with other elements (egH2O) which requires energy to break these bonds (see laws of thermodynamics for understanding why this is a major problem)
    storage at something like minus 252C! Which required immense pressurisation and figuring out a way to stop the universes smallest atom from leaking from each and every join in a system
    energy density is very poor compared to oil/diesel so tanks for a truck would be required to be quite huge to cover same distance
    danger of transport storage and use with something so explosive
    technology to solve these problems is nowhere near where it needs to be if the timing of peak oil is 2005 and we are currently riding the plateau before the relentless decline
    the sheer scalability of the problem, to convert all known vehicles to run on hydrogen would consume so much oil it would exacerbate the oil shortages!
    I would like to use this last issue to once again reiterate the first issue, which alone should be enough to prevent any further wasted thought on a potential for a hydrogen economy. If it does not exist in a pure ready to use form that is of considerable (or at least comparable) quantities and instead we have to use energy created from some other source to break the hydrogen bond and free the hydrogen up then we may as well use the first form of energy rather than to lose some in the transaction

    The other alternatives like nuclear, solar, wind, wave, etc etc are so miniscule in their energy production in comparison to oil and I believe make up something less than 5% of the current total energy mix and probably much less if you focus on transport energy which is so dependent on oil. The other thing to realise here is how oil dependent all of these alternative energy souces are! You wont ever see a solar powered bulldozer collecting the silicon required for solar panels, or a wind powered one for mining copper for the wiring etc etc, even nuclear power stations are so capital energy intensive requiring immense amounts of fossil fuels to set them up and construct them. Nuclear should definitely not be pursued when you understand the implications of a potential collapse of the economic system and subsequent chaos over what I term a “transition period” until organically formed societies emerge (along with a likely centrally focused “gated community” for the elites). To have numerous nuclear facilities go unmaintained for a period and facing potential meltdowns does not bode well for any survivors of the transition period.

    There are so many concepts and connections to be made that it is difficult when attempting to explain the entire overview of this predicament as I see it to not get side tracked into specific details. Having already stated the above-mentioned possible future it is likely to put off many readers who would not like the message and instinctively choose to dismiss it without further investigation. For those with the stomach or curiosity still reading, I will continue with my thoughts on this broad topic.

    After this investigation of alternate energy sources and refamiliarising myself with the laws of thermodynamics (which most people need to do!) it has become clear that oil is very very special stuff. It was an endowment that really should have been utilised much more intelligently (in hindsight!). To me the best analogy is to see the human race as a young teenager when we stumbled upon oil and its powers. It can be compared to a teenager inheriting a million dollars and not having anyone responsible to advise them that this inheritance whilst considerable needs to be managed to ensure best benefit to them and their children. Instead the teenager receives the windfall and proceeds to party with it, wasting it, harming themselves and their surrounds in a 150 year long party! If we had been more mature as a species we may have considered that oil was a finite resource with no other easy alternative. The laws of thermodynamics dictate that we are not going to find a better cheap source of energy. We basically stumbled upon a stash of accumulated sunlight that as I have said before, took eons and eons of time for algae and forests to sequester into the earth through photosynthesis and we have gone through the easy half of it in 150 short years!

    Okay, so we know that oil is special and not likely to be cheaply, easily or actually replaced in terms of energy. So the next concept to understand the consequences of is the decline rate. So what if the production rate is going to fall at 2-3% per year post plateau? To me, at first thought, that seemed like a manageable decline rate. I could see myself using that much less energy and adapting year on year. So what is the problem? The answer is the global economic system is the problem. We have a system of banking and trading that is based on growth. Fractional Reserve Banking is something that simply requires growth to exist and without it will collapse. There is no ability for it to go sideways or “steady state”. I will use a story to explain the origins of this system as I understand it:

    Back in the day, when humans first started accumulating wealth, it would have been in the form of land, tools, animals, slaves, and grains. After a time as metals became more utilised they would have been seen as very good indicators of wealth however not all metals are good for long term storage or accumulation as they may rust (iron), they may be too abundant (copper) or they may be too variable (e.g. diamonds – not a metal but a good example of how something of value is not uniform and requires some expertise to evaluate its worth, one diamond is not the same as another). So it came to be that Gold and Silver possessed some properties that made them attractive as longer term stores of wealth. They were not over abundant, they were inherently stable metals which did not corrode away, they were very uniform in that gold or silver from anywhere was identical to gold and silver from other locations. So everyone, especially the wealthy accumulated these metals and traded them which led to the formation of coinage. Coinage is an important step in money as it gave the traders something of a set weight to trade with. A coin is imprinted on every surface which greatly reduces the ability for anyone to “shave” the coin as they might with a nugget or a bar etc. Any tampering with a coin would be evident to the potential receiver of the coin.

    The next step in the story of money as I understand it, related to wealthy people deciding to store their money with their local blacksmith as his store was very secure (to protect his valuable wares) and they would request him to store their 20 pieces of Gold or Silver and to provide them with a paper receipt with their seal on it which they could use to return with later and recover their coins. This would enable them to more easily move around without as much threat of losing their wealth etc. Now at first you can imagine that the transactions may have required the owner of the gold coins to return to get the coins to hand over as part of a trade. However, after a time you could also imagine that the receipt paper could be passed on in the trade and the receiving party would then go and retrieve the gold coins in their own time. As trust in this system grew, the paper receipt would rarely ever be returned for the gold and instead it would continue circulating as the first money. The problem started when the blacksmith came to realise an opportunity with this system. He realised that rarely did anyone come to retrieve the gold so this enabled him to loan out newly created money via contract. So an individual would sign a contract stating that they would borrow X amount of money and pay it back over a set time with interest and have some sort of collateral on the line if he failed to do so. This would then be acted upon by the blacksmith (Goldsmith) to draft up a new piece of paper (money) based on no actual gold (or real existing wealth) thus money was created out of nothing! Now this system works beautifully as long as everyone doesnt understand it and come rushing at the same time to redeem their gold. These original bankers (black/goldsmiths) would have gotten very wealthy and passed these money printing ideas down their family trees until this very day. I am sure they likely share the same surnames as the current bankers. I know I would do the same thing!

    This above-mentioned story is a simplified generalisation of how I learned money came into existence. I am sure there is much more detail etc that could be added however it is a very understandable series of events that lead to Fractional Reserve Banking being born. The same system exists today with money being created out of thin air for each loan created (I believe somewhere in order of 90% is created out of thin air). Even our governments are borrowing money on the taxpayers (and future taxpayers) behalves from private central banks.

    Now the problem with this money creation, Fractional Reserve System is that (beside the fact it is not even slightly backed by gold anymore! See Bretton Woods agreement 1970) it needs growth to exist. This is because, if you just had the “principal” or original loan amount that needed to be repaid without any “interest” then it is a zero sum game with all moneys being able to be paid back as it all exist on the account that it was created and put into the system. So if all loans happened to get repaid everything would be square. And there would be no debt. However, the requirement for interest to be paid on the borrowed money is what requires the system to grow. The interest was never created and thus to pay this money back borrowers need to pull it out of the pool of “principal” thus there is not enough money to pay all the principal and the interest! Thus the system needs more and more new loans creating more and more principal to enable the system to continue to function. Without growth it will collapse as people inevitably default on their loans.

    So peaking of oil production rates in 2005 and subsequent plateau of production rates lead to a separation between demand and supply which leads to an increase in price as those who can pay more get oil and those who cant outbid the price missing out on it. Hence, the price of oil crossing $100 per barrel in Jan 2008 and then $147 per barrel in July 08 before “demand destruction” caused by economic collapse of numerous companies (Lehman Bros, and 26 international airlines that year!) brought the price back down again. I have detailed this explanation in earlier posts if anyone is interested.

    Another important concept to understand is the peak oil theory. There can be no debate that oil isnt finite. Some do argue that oil may come from the centre of the earth however even if it did, it is not oozing out at a rate that is replenishing what we are drawing down. There are so many examples of oil regions that have peaked and gone into decline. The US for example peaked in 1970 and despite technology and more wells have failed to increase domestic oil production with it decreasing year on year ever since. More straws does not provide you with more smoothie! All oil wells follow what appears to be a fairly evenly distributed bell curve. With the production ramping up to a peak, a short plateau before a decent in production rate that follows a similar rate of decline as the rate of production on the other side. Sure, in individual oil wells there are politcal or mechanical disruptions to oil supply however when a large number of well production rates are added together, this tends to even out the bumps variables and forms a more smooth bell curve diagram. This is likely to be repeated with regards to the global oil production rate.

    So to sum it up, alternative energies are not going to replace oil, oil is going to decline and probably at 2-3% per year according to reputable independent geologists (if you follow the advice of the USGS or EIA etc they are going to mislead you, imagine if they told the truth on their projections? It would cause immediate collapse in the economic system as people pulled money out of airlines and other vulnerable stocks – pretty much all of them). The economic system was doomed to failure from its conception as it is based on Fractional Reserve Banking and as explained (briefly) it must grow to exist. No growth equals collapse. Collapse of the economic system would cause food distribution networks to fail, chaos would rein shortly after. It isnt going to be pretty. What is hard to determine is what specifically will occur to trigger the collapse?

    At the moment, we are continuing along the plateau of the oil production rate… once it starts declining the price of oil will spike into uncharted territories. This will raise the price of everything (look around yourself, is there anything man-made that does not require oil to exist whether it is for raw materials to be mined, made out of oil, transported with trucks using oil etc etc). This inflation can and did lead to the raising of interest rates in a vain attempt to curb the inflation (inflation in usually caused by excess money supply caused by too many loans so to combat this interest rates are raised to discourage lending and slow the increase in money supply) which will cause people to default on their loans en-mass. These defaults will cause banks to collapse but they may well be bailed out by more money printing which will devalue the US dollar (global reserve currency). There are going to be massive deflationary forces at work as house prices crash further (banks often keep houses on the books at original estimated values and refuse to put them to market to determine true market value which would be much lower). Money printing is the usual cause of inflation but to cause inflation the money has to get out into circulation. The money that has been created through quantitative easing that the US Fed Reserve has being doing has simply gone to the troubled banks’ balance sheets to make them all appear solvent. Remember all banks are insolvent, they only have a fraction in reserve (hence the Fractional Reserve Banking system name) so if any bank has its customers come to draw down on their deposits they will fall short. This is called a “run on a bank” and it actually happened to Northern Rock (6th largest investment bank in UK) in the wake of the GFC but you wouldnt know that if you rely on mainstream media. This is because a run on one bank can cause others to consider pulling their deposits out of another bank just in case. Now if enough people do this it also becomes a run on that bank and it can cascade into a collapse of confidence in the system. Banks would likely restrict withdrawals. I think in Europe where this has occurred in the past they limited withdrawals to a small amount each day.

    So I do not know exactly how the details of this will play out however I know that the system is in a terminal decline and I fear there is sufficient logic and evidence when you understand the system to see that a significant collapse could devolve into widespread chaos. I am not sure how long this would last, or whether it would recover temporarily but all I know is that I am planning for the worst (have been since 2006) and hoping for the best. The bonus I have is that my family and I love living the lifestyle we are even though it correlates beautifully with being as prepared as one can be given the resources and time constraints available. My advice to others, is to at the very least investigate my outrageous claims and attempt to prove me wrong! If you do find something I have not considered please tell me about about it, would be good to know my comfortable life and my children’s easy happy future would be prolonged somehow. Even without any physical preparations for the consequences of peak oil and subsequent economic collapse, I believe it is a distinct advantage to at the very least understand that things are going to change and that clinging to the past is not the best way to deal with the change. Instead, working towards some kind of independence from the system is far more productive and a more fruitful way to invest your time and resources. Those who do not know what is coming will tend to cling to the hope that the past may return (if only we win the war with Iran for example). However, this hope will be flawed and likely to lead to wasted time and resources spent on attempting to hold onto the past.

    Mike K

  129. Gary, you asked “What is your take on the place of technology in the future?”

    That is a very good question that I had never contemplated previously. In fact, I believe I am thinking out loud about it as I type :).

    I cannot argue that there seems to be an obvious correlation between technology and negative impacts on our environment and social fabric. I am trying to think of any technology that benefits humanity as a whole. Many may suggest various life saving technologies, others may suggest technology that creates more food etc. However, I can see that these types of “improvements” are in fact part of our problem with regards to being too successful and all powerful. These types of technology may in the short term be quite humane and good but in the bigger picture they cause us to overpopulate and damage our environment.

    In my opinion, technology will play a very reduced role post economic/societal collapse. What role should it play? Well, that is very difficult to say. I have always advised people that would care to listen to my musings that to be healthy they should never eat something that their grandmother would not recognise as food. By doing this they cut out most processed foods. I have also said to people, that in all my investigations into health related issues I have come to the conclusion that if something involves using a man-made chemical avoid it. This idea about technology being inherently a negative thing is very much along those lines of thinking and my intuition does not reject the idea that you are right about this view.

    That said, I plan on milking every bit of assistance from technology to make my and my families life easier into the future! I have invested in expensive yet high quality hand tools which I believe I will be able to pass onto my children one day. I have invested in 4kw of solar panels, which are high quality well researched brands to give me the best chance of keeping them working for 25 – 30 years. I am also looking to invest in a battery bank and power management system which will apparently pay itself off in 5 years (if prices stay the same AND economic collapse does not occur in the meantime! Which unfortunately I believe it will 😐 ). I am also installing an extra 50 000L concrete rainwater tank to improve my water security. My water source is primarily rainfall however my neighbour has a spring that I am planning to tap into. I also plan on having a dam built along with some contour swales to help get any heavy rainfall into the soil rather than flowing across it and taking it away.

    Now I know what I have just elaborated on supports your argument that technology is harmful, because if everyone in the world did the same thing it would cause massive damage to the environment. And just like me, if given the choice, people will always choose the easier option. What makes life easier and more likely to be successful is what most people will choose at the expense of the greater good. We are inherently selfish and as I have said before, we simply use technology to fulfill the desires driven by our natural instincts.

    That said, I do not believe we need to have technology to lead very happy and fulfilling lives. My father’s story which I told part of in previous posts is a very real example of a very happy lifestyle without much technology. Growing up in the tropical paradise islands of PNG’s New Ireland province… it doesnt get much better! That said, those islands are probably some of the easiest locations for people to live with abundant fish, coconuts, fertile volcanic soils, plenty of regular rainfall etc etc etc. When you compare this to where most people in the world live… the simple life might be a little harsher!

    Actually, I am contemplating taking my wife and kids for a holiday to visit extended family in that part of the world. Secretly, I am hoping my wife falls in love with the place and maybe I could sell my property (in time) and move to New Ireland permanently. I just think it would be the best place for the long term. Isolated yet abundant and with a population that is still very much living with the land. PNG in general will be one place where life will not change too much post collapse. The people (who are often frowned upon for being so primitive and “behind”) are still very intune with their land and their old ways and cultures. The main threat to PNG is its neighbour Indonesia who has a population of 260 MILLION people compared to PNG’s 7 million people.

    Finally, what is technology? Is it figuring out how to tie a sharp pointy rock to the end of a long straight stick to enable a spear to be formed? Or is it just things like nano technology and genetic engineering?? Its tough to suggest a spear is a negative technology? Then again, as I have said in an earlier post, I think it is the fossil fuel energy that is dangerous as it amplifies our abilities. Without it, our technologies may be fairly benign on a global scale?

    Mike K

  130. Peak oil:
    First we should recognise that oil prices are being held artificially high by the cartel nature of oil supplies. If oil prices were at market-clearing levels, then Saudi Arabia and the rest would not be running enormous current account surpluses. Nonetheless, we should be grateful for artificially high oil prices, as this inadvertently prices in some of the global warming externality and finiteness of oil.
    As oil becomes more scarce, prices will steadily rise. This will trigger investment in more marginal oil sources, alternative energy sources and greater energy efficiency. We are already seeing this with things like Canadian tar sands, shale gas and home insulation. There is a great potential for a country like China to use its energy sources more efficiently, provided that state owned companies are forced to take price signals into account.
    Having said that, a 2-3% decline in supply (if correct) is actually quite scary, because demand is growing very rapidly, and will continue to do so if India and Africa follow China’s example. But the point I would make is that it will be steady pain, spread out over many many years, not a big worldwide crisis.
    Can the world live without oil? I think so. Probably the easiest solution would be (a) long life batteries combined with greatly improved alternative sources of wholesale electrical energy, and (b) crop-based energy sources, as used in Brazil.
    I don’t buy into the whole fractional reserve banking thing. Money supply issues can easily be solved by central bank helicopter money, and I am sure that this is where we will end up in time. Central banks will buy zero-interest perpetual callable debt from governments, governments will write a cheque for $10,000 each to citizens, citizens will be allowed to use their cheques to repay debts, invest in their pension fund, or buy an annuity. The balance sheet issues for households, banks and the government could be solved very easily if the will were there. As for the banking system, it will move towards a much more deleveraged model, with much more conservative lending. The real issue for banks is capital adequacy, not liquidity (many in the fractional reserve banking crowd fail to appreciate the distinction). What’s more, most credit creation in the US does not even involve a bank these days anyway.
    For me, the big social issue in the coming century is that commodity and food prices must inevitably rise. That will hurt those on low incomes much harder than the rest. Meanwhile, the global nature of our economy (in the absence of a global governance framework) continues to increase income skew. Either you are a highly valued and highly networked creative or manager or entrepreneur, able to arbitrage jurisdictions to minimise your tax bill, or you are an underpaid drone in competition (for both employment and scarce resources) with cheap workers in China and increasingly clever machines.
    What worries me is that this system is unstable. You cannot have a world in which purchasing power is increasingly concentrated in a few hands. It leads to problems of inadequate demand and debt-dependence (because the rich save and therefore lend more), and it leads to increasing resentment. This is not a problem that national democracies can solve individually (due e.g. to international competition over tax rates, regulatory laxness, etc). Either they have to agree and implement international solutions (which faces all sorts of collective action problems), or they have to return to autarchy as during the interwar years, with all that this means for disruption to the global economy.

  131. On slavery:
    Leaving aside the moral questions, slavery is not a very efficient system of labour relations. The slave owner is locked into a long-term commitment, and has to provide for the slave’s needs and his/her dependents. Slaves do have some bargaining power, due to the ever-present threat of violent revolt.
    Switching to paid employment goes hand-in-hand with the transition to industrial society. Industrialists want the flexibility of hiring rather than owning labour, and they prefer to delegate responsibility for managing workers’ needs and dependents to the workers themselves. The reason that industrialists can do this is that industrial employment is typically urban employment, which creates a large, shared pool of labour, and hence a liquid labour market, where workers can be freely hired and fired by industrialists located within spitting distance of each other.
    I agree that there is a continuum at play. The move from rural slavery/serfdom to urban labour exploitation DOES involve an increase in worker income and living standards (otherwise they wouldn’t migrate to the cities in the first place), but the workers are still barely living above subsistence level.
    However, over the long run the labour supply is finite. Urbanisation and industrialisation eventually run up against a taut labour supply. Once a country (like China today) reaches 50% urbanisation, the peaking supply of migrants arriving from off the land cannot keep pace with the exponential growth in labour demand by urban industrialists. As a result, the bargaining position of labour improves, and wages and employment conditions (not to mention human rights and democracy) steadily improve, sometimes through revolution, but more often through negotiation.

  132. On gynocracy:
    Crete is an island. Islands tend to be quirky due to their physical isolation. They also create the ideal conditions for more cooperative societies to evolve, since they are free from meddling by outsiders.
    If Crete had had land borders, it would have faced the continual threat of invasion, which would have tended to strengthen the position of men, as the physically stronger and more aggressive half of the species.
    The point I am making is that, whatever your view on Crete, it hardly disproves the rule of male-dominant societies through most of human history and pre-history.

  133. Mike K, fascinating musings on technology. I figure, either we slap limits on it, like the Amish, or nature will slap us. Please tell us more about New Ireland!

    Bena: I agree (re inefficiency of slavery) and if Americans had waited a few more years, no civil war would have been necessary.

    About the gender issue: I think that there have been enough societies in historical times that show men and women working together even though having distinct spheres, where the women’s influence is keenly felt. As for prehistory we don’t know, but since the predominant conjecture right now is that our species evolved in an egalitarian social environment, I would guess that the position of women had not been inconsiderable.

    Perhaps we should stop looking for matriarchies, and look for societies where there is a rough gender balance in the sense of both genders holding power to steer that particular society?

  134. Oh and one more thing. Charles focuses on the evidence of imagery. But what about the evidence of grave goods? There certainly have been proto-civilizations where women’s graves were honored more, with ochre and grave goods. Does that not provide evidence that should be counted?

  135. Bena…to Mike’s point on alternative energy: Most of us have only a vague notion of the limitations placed on energy harvesting by the laws of thermodynamics. Those with dreams of an alternative energy future are among the most deluded. As Mike pointed out, the so-called alternative energy sources (wind, biofuels, solar) are only achievable now due to heavy energy subsidies provided by (still) relatively inexpensive petroleum…an energy in a form of concentration never before seen on this planet. When those energy subsidies dwindle, as the oil supply dwindles and becomes more expensive, the energy-returned-on-energy-invested (EROI) numbers will not “pencil out” any longer. The whole ethanol boondoggle in the U.S. is a prime example of how little we truly “get” about the situation we are faced with. The low return of energy on corn, due to the large amounts of oil subsidies it takes to grow it, make it a supremely bad idea. Too, if anyone thinks the world is going to run trans-ocean commerce, the U.S. interstate highway system, and feed 7 billion souls on sugarcane ethanol…well, I’d just say that reality is going to deliver a whole ‘nother meme all together. Solar or wind? Ditto.

    As a world culture we still hold out this idea that if we throw enough money and research at it (i.e. confusing what is “technology” and what is “energy”…two different things and technology cannot create energy) we’ll discover some miraculous form of energy to take the place of oil. While anything within the rules that govern the universe is possible, so far we’ve not had any serious contenders. That we really, really, really want this to happen, and on schedule, is not going to change the probabilities one iota.

  136. Wade, have you seen Thrive? Foster Gamble goes on and on about “free energy (aka zero energy).” It makes no sense to me… have you at all peeked into that scene?

  137. Plowboy,

    I of course have little clue what the planet’s energy future will look like a century from now. But I doubt anybody really does. I would however hazard a guess that the following will make important differences:
    – Replacement of physical travel by virtual travel
    – Localised smart manufacturing
    – Room temperature superconductors
    – Nuclear power (which I suspect will yield scale economies and big technical improvements once it becomes a primary source of energy)
    – Energy efficient building design
    – The death of the disposable consumer good

    My point is that energy prices will rise steadily, but not uncontrollably, over the coming century, as we are forced to resort to more and more expensive sources of fossil fuel. And as prices rise, this will drive investment in research into alternative energy technologies and in energy efficiency.

    It may well also drive a shrinkage of the population, as more people consider it too expensive to raise more than one child. This will be long-term sustained pain for all. But it will be at a manageable rate – it’s not like one day there is cheap oil and the next day it is all gone. There is a long transition.

    My big concern is whether the sustained pain during the transition will be tolerable if people see a small lucky international elite continuing to live it large. That raises big questions about the viability of having a global economy without a global system of democratic governance. And that in turn raises extremely important questions about group identity – is the world ready to move to a global identity, particularly under the pressure of tightening energy supplies, or will national divisions persist? I consider what happens to the EU over the next 10 years a very important test case.

    While alternative energy sources may provide a much lower return on investment than fossil fuels today, I do not buy the idea that they cannot become much more efficient in future once they are subjected to much higher levels of R&D – which surely will happen as energy prices continue to rise. Of course, alternative sources will never reach the same level of energy return as fossil fuels, and that is what we all have to get used to via higher prices and much more efficient energy usage.


    My guess is that human society before agriculture (i.e. before 10kya) looked much like modern hunter-gather societies. I.e. highly egalitarian within group, but highly (and violently) competitive between groups. As such, women probably did enjoy much greater day-to-day equality than during the last 10k years, although male violence (practiced by men from rival groups) was probably also more commonplace.

  138. Yes, I have Vera.

    I believe John Michael Greer’s analogy covers it best. When your existing paradigm is threatened, and you see no earthly solutions or way back, or your solutions come only with lots of hard labor and misery, cultures turn to the Ghost Dance. This comparison is clear to anyone who knows the historic tragedy of the American Plains tribes who believed that dancing while wearing cloth “ghost shirts” would expel the wasi’chu invaders, bring back the bison herds, generally restore the good old days, and make the wearer bullet proof. The massacre known as the “battle” of Wounded Knee was the inevitable outcome of that. Faced with the equivelant threat to the modern energy rich life, we are prone to grasp at the same straws, and probably with the same outcome.

    The deliverance promised by this con man carries about the same degree of credibility for me. “Oh, yes, it is right around the corner, but we can’t show it to you now because it is too, umm, dangerous, yeah, that’s the ticket…” How convenient for you, and how really unfortunate for us, yes, hmmm.

    Note: Faith in the miraculous is a good trait in those bent on achieving eternal life. As an energy policy…not so much.

  139. I don’t differ with you much on those predictions Bena, with the sole exception of nuclear energy. It has always been unprofitable, and way too reliant on fossil fuel subsidies, despite the assurances by its proponents that nuclear power was going to produce energy too cheap to meter. Remember those claims? Any day, now…

    Oh, and that nasty little unsolved issue of where the spent fuel goes. Right, they’ll get right back to us on that problem. Meanwhile, full speed ahead!

  140. David M There is a large and growing body of evidence suggesting that, with regard to your question “Is agriculture and animal husbandry where we drove off the rail?” the short answer is, Yes. One book I found particularly insightful on the subject is An Unnatural Order by Jim Mason. If you haven’t read it, maybe check it out.
    Also, you cite the Pleistocene Overkill Hypothesis as evidence for human derailment prior to the “Neolithic catastrophe.” In my view, whether or not humans caused the mega-faunal and Neanderthal extinctions is irrelevant to what we face now for two reasons. First, the humans in question were hunter-gatherers and the hunting and gathering mode of human existence is not the mode responsible for the Earth Crises. And second, we of agricultural persuasion are used to thinking that the advent of agriculture represents the wholesale replacement of the hunting and gathering way of life with what amounts to soil mining, as if ten thousand years ago, the species underwent a profound behavioral transformation. In truth, most human cultures remained hunter gatherer cultures at the time agriculture was born. To this day, agriculture is not universal to humanity, so the problems born of it are not universally human problems, but cultural problems. It is worth noting as well, that hunter gatherers universally resist adopting agriculture when faced with the need to choose between it and their traditional life way.
    That choice was one all humans faced ten thousand years ago at the close of the Age of Dispersal, when the 60,000 year period throughout which we spread out of Africa and across the habitable globe came to an end for the simple reason that we filled it all up. At that moment, the slow generation of excess population that had fed the natural dispersal of our species became unsustainable. Mark Nathan Cohen labels that moment The Food Crisis in Prehistory (which is also the title of his excellent and very important book). But the moment could as easily have been called The Population Crisis in Prehistory. Most cultures dealt with it as such: they curtailed population growth and so preserved their traditional cultures — hunter gatherer cultures. In other words, they matured.
    Our cultural ancestors however interpreted the moment as a food crisis and thus made a different choice: they attempted to control their food supply instead of their population. This fateful choice guaranteed that the population/food crisis would not end in prehistory, but would continue indefinitely, which is exactly how it has played out, with every increase in food supply resulting in an increase in population that had to then be met by another increase in food supply etc. etc., right up to the present figure of seven billion and still climbing. What this means is that we have not yet matured, but have instead pursued a false dispersal for the last ten thousand years, a dispersal that has come at the expense of all in our path and put us ever more at odds with the community of life rather than preserved our good standing in that community. Given the roundness of the Earth, our culture’s false dispersal had to end and surely as our species’ genuine Dispersal out of Africa some 70,000 years ago had to end. The end of the false dispersal is now. And the imperative we face is exactly the same as the one our cultural ancestors faced 10,000 years ago (and every moment since), but continually put off and compounded by choosing deferral for all those years through conquest, slavery, genocide, ecocide, geocide (i.e. mining in all its many guises), consumerism and myriad other forms of atrocity that all boil down to a sacred trust violated. The Earth Crises is the planet’s way of telling us the violations will no longer be tolerated. It’s time to mature. It’s time to honor the sacredness of the Earth as our hunter gatherer ancestors did, as the mammoth hunters did, as all the cultures did that did not turn to agriculture ten thousand years ago or any time since (or tried it and gave it up or were conquered before they could give it up), and instead learned population restraint. Of course, this learning of the imperative for population restraint didn’t happen instantly, but in many cases required making the mistake of excess and responding accordingly. J. B. MacKinnon alludes to this in his May/June 2012 Orion article “False Idyll” when he writes: “A recent review of human impacts on the oceans found “overwhelming” evidence that aboriginal coastal cultures “often” depleted their local environments; in fact the editors speculate that it may have been the struggle to survive in increasingly degraded surroundings that gave rise to the conservation values many Native Americans appear to have held at the time of European contact.” I.e. they matured.
    Our response to the same struggle was expansion, a response that is now all but played out. That leaves the conservation ethic as the only open route before us. One of the most profound examples from which to learn can be found among the Kogi of Colombia, South America who call themselves the Elder Brothers and us the Younger Brothers. They have this understanding because they have been through what we have yet to go through, and now our time has come. How we express the new ethic will no doubt differ from theirs or any other cultural expression, but at its core will be the same motivation. And that motivation will come from the stories we tell ourselves. If one of those stories is about how we’re flawed as a species, I don’t think we’ll make it, because the lens of the story won’t allow us to see that making it is even a possibility for us. But if our story recognizes the flaw as a deep, inherited cultural mistake, we have the solid grounding of our species to work from. And so, by drawing on that deeper precedent, the option of acting as agents for positive change remains open. We’ll know we belong here, have a place, and are thus called to learn it for our own sake and for the sake of all the other kindred lives our current mode of existence dishonors through long term neglect and short term exploitation.

    Charles I think I see the distinction you (and Lynn Margulis) are trying to make between *evolutionary* and *ecological* success, but given that evolution happens through the interplay of ecological relationships, the singular focus on the evolutionary aspect in your essay strikes me as a significant oversight.

    Mike K Thanks for the clarification regarding the idea that “what’s good for the planet sucks for people.” The time qualification makes all the difference, especially when it is combined with what appears to be the popular global-industrial-cyber-consumer-culture-biased notion about what constitutes “good for people,” much of which is arguably very bad for people, nutritionally, technologically, energetically, ecologically, spiritually, intellectually, professionally and in almost every other way.

  141. Thanks, Wade, for confirming my suspicions. I figure, if all those zero energy inventors fear for their lives, or are in danger of being bought out and silenced, all they have to do is put their invention into the commons, the way scientists do. Open source. Then anyone can test it, see if it really works, and improve on it. Shrug.

    Nuclear? No way. Uranium is not going to last more then a few decades. Of course, people talk about thorium reactors, but that’s vaporware, so far. And the vulnerability of nuclear plants in the event of earthquakes and tornadoes does not help their cause.

    Tim Fox, I side with those who do not see ag as the culprit. I will look up the reference you mention before blabbing on. 🙂

  142. Yep Vera, I wouldn’t care so much abut charlatans like him except for the certainty there are plenty of willing ears that prick up at the sound of “get something for nothing.” Barnum’s axiom still holds true, and my grandfather’s addendum: “And most of them live.”

    I don’t begrudge a guy a living, but this loser is doing real damage and detracting from serious discussions about solutions.

    Of course, anytime he’d like to prove ME the loser, he can ship me, postage prepaid of course, my very own free energy turbo whatchamacallit so that I can get started selling electrical power back to my utility. Funny, you’d think they would be interested in this little gizmo, huh? Well, their bad!

  143. I’m interested that the conversation has turned back to agriculture again. I have a small diversified grass based farm, and I have to say that there is no agricultural model that doesn’t need inputs. Going back to the old conversation about phosphorus, another element that is essential is Potassium. My soils are very low in that (I have adequate phosphorus). There aren’t many sources of K around, Vera, you mentioned a few, but they are really all imports. I compost all my animal manure, but that cannot create K. I’m looking for ways to import it. The same is true for calcium – plant growth is very dependent on that.
    Even the bast, most sustainable farms require imported nutrients. I haven’t checked into the Rodale Institute farm recently, but I’m willing to bet they bring in some supplements.
    So the reality that farms are required to feed a huge global population, and that they WILL require energy inputs, is an issue that society is currently ignoring but will not be able to much longer. I see it as a hidden gorilla of unknown size lurking in the dark corner of the room.

  144. Mike K, You offer an excellent tutorial on peak oil, and why there will be no substitutes for what it has offered us in our (so far) 150 year-long bubble. James Howard Kunstler makes the same point in The Long Emergency, but not as clearly and succinctly as you do. John Michael Greer, another peak oil guru, believes that the fall of civilization will be gradual and prolonged, arriving in distinct stages, as, evidently, so some of the commenters in this forum. Not only do I not believe that, I fervently hope it isn’t true. And the reason is simple: I want the future to have something to work with, including a habitable planet. Those people who project a future that looks a lot like today, but smarter and more technologically sophisticated, evidently have not yet grasped how degraded and wounded a planet we are living on, and how close we are to the edge of positive feedback loops of methane release from which there can be no recovery on a time scale meaningful to humans. Gaia is going into convulsions, and however we might like to pretend we are separate from Nature, and In Charge, her convulsions are going to be our convulsions. And this is not off in some fairyland future. It has already begun.
    Your tutorial on the fractional reserve banking system is also first rate. Crucial is the point you make about interest on money loaned, and how it is the driver of growth, growth, and more growth. Charles Eisenstein goes into to this a bit in his book, The Ascent of Humanity, and elaborates in his follow-up book, Sacred Economics, where he demonstrates how a gift economy, and negative interest (which he calls demurrage) is much more compatible with human needs, and the requirements of a functioning planet. As a bonus, the gift economy also builds relationship and community.
    When you say we live in interesting times I think you might mean something like unstable—but also deeply interesting. If we had been born into a stable period of history, I’m sure we’d be lulled into some kind of everyday routine state of mind. I think of that painting by Brueghel, “The Fall if Icarus.” In the background, Icarus has plunged out of the sky and into the sea, only his legs visible. In the foreground is a sturdy farmer behind his plow, focused on his furrow, his back turned to both spectacle and myth. That could be us in less interesting times.
    May your trip to New Guinea lead you in a good direction.

  145. Vera, you seem to know a lot about prehistory, so I’m wondering if you might be able to help me in a matter of scholarship. Following up on Tim Fox’s point, that the food crisis in prehistory might be looked at as a population crisis instead, I’m thinking of it as a moral crisis. I’m seeing it as almost the equivalent of Original Sin, only I’d call it a falling out of grace with Nature. Up until that time, humans had always lived “in the hands of the gods,” to use Daniel Quinn’s eloquent phrase. Other groups of hunter-gatherers continued to thrive in the Old Way, living within the means provided by Nature, adjusting their population according to the available wild food supply, grateful for what they had. But not the early agriculturists and pastoralists. They broke their bond with Nature, and took their destiny into their own hands—playing at being gods themselves. This is my interpretation. Do you know of any scholarship that might support (or refute) this viewpoint? Thanks. Gary.

  146. Except for a little problem – All DNA is a uniform helix in which difference – the errors and changes bend and fold the helix into twisty proteins – so there must be less change and error in the DNA helix for us to have a reduced diversity of the group as opposed to more. We are not our DNA helix – we are the errors in it.

  147. To anyone interested, this links to an very informative map/graph which explains the peak oil scenario very nicely. If you will note on the graph that the last date of oil production measured was 2005 and the graph shows predicted increases following this date. This increases never eventuated. So it seems the situation is more dire than the predictions of this graph.

    Mike K

  148. Vera, yes I think constraints on technology post collapse would be a good idea although I really cant see it happening because humans will always seek easier ways of doing things. Once again, I see fossil fuels as being the real culprit to our current situation. They amplified our abilities immensely. Without fossil fuels to turbo charge our technologies I dont think we as a species would have dominated the natural world to anywhere near the degree we have today.

    As for more about New Ireland PNG, well what more do you want to know? Its a tropical paradise in a very undisturbed part of the world with people that have barely been tainted by the outside world. It wouldnt take much at all for them to return back to their customary ways if required. Its not all paradise however, Malaria can take a toll.

    Mike K

  149. Mike K

    “it seems the situation is more dire than the predictions of this graph.

    These graphs are from 2006. Interesting but the figures on Nat. Gas would appear to be way off as of now because of new discoveries and modern fracking capabilities.

    The result, cheap nat. gas and more time to drive the AGW machine toward climate disaster before we switch to nonfossil fuel. alternatives.

  150. Gary, that is a huge subject. I completely agree with you that at the root was a moral crisis. However, idealizing foragers and blaming ag people is not in accord with the record.

    As I and other people here have noted, foragers at times did a lot of damage to their environment. Most notably, this happened on a large scale in Australia, where prehistoric foragers so damaged the fragile land with fires, they directly caused the extinction of many marsupial herbivores and their predators, and ultimately badly and permanently damaged the climate of most of Australia.

    The NW Indian tribes are another example of how foragers do not necessarily “live in the hands of the gods” but take slaves and accumulate and compete with the Joneses.

    And here is my question to you, and Tim: if ag had been the culprit, what lesson would that provide? That we all should go back to foraging?

  151. Rob, you are right, energy of one sort or another must be imported for things to grow. My best guess right now is, do we simply import, or do we plunder? If you collect seaweed on the shore, or harvest some with restraint, and don’t ship it halfway around the globe… well, why not. Though I did see someone saying on a permie forum that after 10 years of ample compost, their soil balanced itself. Whether this would be true for others, I don’t know.

  152. Vera,
    Right now agriculture is mostly about plundering ancient oil resources.
    I feed kelp to my animals, but it comes from Iceland – a lot of energy goes into harvesting it and shipping it. I think those are the kind of energy choices and allocations that we are going to have to make in the future.
    I know soils can be balanced with the application of the right amendments – I know moderate scale farmers who have done that – the Lazors of Butterworks Farm in northern Vermont, for example. Once the land is balanced, the animals are balanced through the feed, and a carefully managed farm can chug along with only modest inputs of amendments. But the process requires near constant inputs, because some fertility is shipped out through meat or milk, veggies or grains.
    I know from my experience, I;m never going to balance my soils, no matter how much compost I apply, unless I also import the elements I am short of and apply that along with the compost. I really don’t think it can be done on any kind of scale simply through mineralizing the animals and applying their composted manure. really rich compost is probably feasible on a large garden scale, but even then, that garden is going to require imported nutrients and mineral supplements.
    The bottom line is that, like you said, ANY system of agriculture is very dependent on massive imports of energy, in one form or another. Look at how the ancient Egyptians depended on the annual flooding of the Nile: imported fertility.
    Society faces a steep reckoning in coming years!

  153. Speaking of nonneoliths apparently Genghis Khan and his bands of nomadic herders conquered much of the known world. An interesting pov in this article is along the way he and his successors wiped out so many farmers that large areas reforested causing the earth to cool.

  154. David M, Genghis Khan’s exploits may have contributed to the Little Ice Age, but so far, the best theory seems to be a series of volcanic eruptions that triggered it. Though I am sure we have not heard the last of the speculation.


    The Purpose of Soil And Health Library

    The wisest student learns from the originators of a body of knowledge because those who later follow in the founders’ footsteps are not trailblazers of equivalent depth. This is especially true of the writings from many post WWII academics and professors who mainly write because they must publish . . . or perish. Even when the earliest works in a field contain errors because their authors lacked some bit of data or had a fact wrong, their books still contain enormous wisdom. If nothing else, study of older books lets us discover that the conditions that prevail today aren’t the way things always were—whilst on some levels, some things hardly ever change at all.

    There are powerful forces on Earth obscuring the foundations of knowledge. That would be okay if there were better knowledge and wiser wisdoms coming on line to replace them. But usually the opposite is the case. As the sort of person Sir Albert Howard called “the laboratory hermit . . . someone who knows more and more about less and less” . . . increasingly dominates ever-wider areas of scholarship, the focus of scholarship gets ever narrower, and less wise. Manipulative social-political-economic interests attempt to create Orwellian realities that suit them; their domination of academia and media makes people forget the fundamentals. Ferdanand Lundberg’s book The Rich and the Super Rich explains exactly how this works. You may find Lundberg’s book in the Social Criticism collection.

    Here’s an example of the result of foundation- and industry-influenced “science.” Despite all the apparent advances in broadacre industrial agriculture, the nutritional qualities of our basic foodstuffs have been declining during this century. That’s largely because most agronomists focus on bulk yield and profitability of the crop, whilst knowing next to nothing about animal/human nutrition. However, there’s a little-appreciated “law” about this area: nutritional value usually drops in direct relationship to the increase in bulk production. Or, in agriculture at any rate, “quality” seems the opposite of “quantity.”

    Industrial agriculture has devastated self-sufficient, independent lifestyles. Take the U.S. as an example. In 1870, something like 90 percent of all Americans lived on free-and-clear farms or in tiny villages. And in consequence, enjoyed enormously greater personal liberty than today. The current decline in personal rights in America, Canada and in Australia is NOT the result of there being more people dividing up a fixed and limited amount of total possible liberty into smaller and smaller slices. It is a consequence of financial insecurity, financial dependency and wage slavery. Persons lacking financial independence rarely possess the strength to forthrightly demand social liberties.

    This is what happened: since 1870 as the industrial food system became ever more “efficient” it lowered the price of basic agricultural commodities. Consequently most country folk rejected their self-sufficient-farm birthright for a better-paying job in town, abandoned their technologically primitive free-and-clear homestead in favour of a city apartment (with electric power and running water) and soon became wage-enslaved. The ones who remained on the farm borrowed to invest in capital-intensive production methods and so became debt slaves. Wage- and debt-slaves, like all other kinds of slaves, feel insecure and think that in order to survive they must not reveal their true feelings, must suppress themselves whilst pleasing those in authority.

    The global industrial system’s imperative is balance-sheet efficiency in all areas, including farming, but the apparent cheapness of economically-rational agriculture does not reflect a true accounting of costs. Despite the statistical increase in average lifespan, our average health and feelings of wellness have been declining. Consider as an example the large proportion of your neighbours whose mental awareness seems wrapped in fat. Americans especially are disdained world wide for being hugely obese. Australians and Canadians are going the same way, spending ever-larger portions of their productivity on the treatment and cure of disease. This whole activity of “health” care is not a productive use of human attention, but in reality constitutes enormous waste, pain, and suffering, suffering whose main source, poor nutrition, is almost entirely unappreciated.

    Dr. Isabelle Moser, who spent 25 years conducting a clinical practice using holistic approaches, suggested in private conversations that what she termed the “constitution” of her older patients was typically much stronger than the constitution of her younger ones. Each generation got a poorer start than the one before it as each generation built the foundation of their health from foods produced on ever-more degraded soils grown ever-more “scientifically,” and more and more consisting of processed, denatured fodder. (The full text of Dr. Moser’s book How And When To Be Your Own Doctor, is in the Health Library.) (For a good discussion of the concept of “start,” read Wrench’s Wheel of Health in the Longevity Library. See also: Shelton’s Orthotrophy, Chapter 36.)

    It was a sage who quipped: “if they can stop you from asking the right questions, you’ll never come up with the right answers.” In this library you will encounter individuals who DID ask the right questions and even came up with some of the answers. Modern higher education points people’s attention away from the Truth and toward an ever-increasing confusion created by too much data. This library restores the availability of key books written by amazing individuals, books that offer major illumination to those who can already see, books that speak the truth to those who can still hear.

  156. Mike K, a great resource. I was intrigued to see that the descendant of Yeomans Keyline system is writing a book on sequestering carbon in the soil. I recommend the work of Australian soil scientist Christine Jones, who has been a voice of enlightenment in this area.

    May I recommend my post called Can humus save humans? on that same topic… and a huge amount of extra material in the comments.

  157. Vera, before I try to answer your parting question, I want to address the issue you bring up when you speak of “idealizing foragers,” and note that “foragers did a lot of damage to the environment.” If, as seems to be the case, you yourself are trained in anthropology and archeology, then you should be aware of the cultural matrix out of which these disciplines evolved. Even such early luminaries as Franz Boaz and Alfred Kroeber were staunch partisans for civilization. The European roots of these disciplines came out of class conscious, Euro-centric societies, thoroughly indoctrinated to believe that civilization is the highest form of social organization possible, with all other ways of living being inferior, and of course those who lived by hunting and gathering were nothing but primitive savages. This cultural bias has colored the observations of anthropologists, and the literature of anthropology, ever since. Take, for instance, the outrageous claim made by Charles Mann that historically one in four Indians died at the hands of their fellows, and that we live in a less violent age than they. Ha! Ug! Grr! Where does this information come from? If it’s pre-contact, I’d like to know how it was gathered. If it was post-contact, you’re talking about people with post-colonial stress disorder, dazed and disoriented by having their land, their culture, their way of life—their very identity—taken away from them, not to mention the extermination of most of their relatives. So I don’t think we can project backward and extrapolate valuable data from these traumatized people. Along these lines, books such as The Ecological Indian have, as their sole purpose for being, the agenda of demonstrating that the Indians weren’t t any more ecologically wise or restrained than we are. After all, some of them drove bison over cliffs.
    Now, I’m not saying that no indigenous individual or group has ever made a mistake or error in judgment or action. They’re just as human as we are. But the condition of North America when our European ancestors arrived here provides eloquent testimony to their lifeway, and how they used the natural world. Although fully inhabited, America was described by our ancestors as pure, endless wilderness—and of course the sooner it was tamed the better. (See the writings of William Bradford and Cotton Mather, among others.) When the gold-crazed and land-hungry immigrants came west to California, they described it as positively park-like. That land was inhabited by forty-some tribes. Like the aborigines of Australia, these people used fire to manage their landscape, and what they were doing was optimizing the natural landscape to suit their own needs: burning raggedy stands of hazel, for instance, to bring on strong new growth for basket making; creating meadows in forested areas for deer browse, and better hunting. They did this wisely, and they were able to do it wisely, because they lived in place generation after generation. They had incentive to get it right, and they had the knowledge to get it right. To get a sense of what these people’s lives were like, see Kat Anderson’s very fine book, Tending the Wild. The thing is, they took the rights of usufruct, as offered freely by Nature, but they took no more than that. They didn’t take what was under the Earth, because that didn’t belong to them. That belonged to the Earth itself—and that’s a lesson we still need to learn. Maybe after we’ve removed all the mountaintops in the way of our clean coal, and fracked our aquifers into undrinkability, and smeared the Arctic with deepwater oil, maybe we, too, will learn not to take what doesn’t belong to us, and learn to content ourselves with what’s freely offered.
    Vera, you mention the Northwest tribes and point to their inegalitarian practices, including that of slavery. As it happens I have spent several years in the company of three such tribes: the Hupa; the Yuroks; and the Karuks. The Karuks, for instance, are documented to have lived on their stretch of the mid-lower Klamath River for at least 9,000 years. The Yuroks occupied (and still do) the lower river and its mouth. The Hupa’s territory was (and is) located on the Lower Trinity River to very near where it joins the Klamath. These three tribes have been neighbors for thousands of years, and although each speaks a different language, they inter-marry and share the same cultural practices. I’ll get to slavery in a minute, but I want to point out that none of these tribes overran their resource base, nor did they overrun each other. Before we whites came in and messed up their river, they had a pretty comfortable food supply come up the river almost every month of the year. Mushrooms and acorns and venison also figured large in their diet. But here’s one of the advantages of living in place for a long time—you get to know the place where you live. In an oral culture, important local knowledge gets passed down. There can be boom years and bust years, but you learn what your chosen territory will give you, and what it won’t. The sleeping arrangements of these tribal people is interesting. The men sleep apart from the women, and most sexual contact traditionally occurred in the mountains in hunting camp. This was a discipline enforced by peer pressure and long tradition, and this is primarily how they kept their population in check. And of course they also knew their herbs. Now, these tribal people are just as human as you and me, and they made mistakes. When the mistakes were interpersonal, they had an elaborate system of fines levied against the perp and enforced by peer pressure—as is possible in a close-knit community. When their mistakes were environmental, or spiritual, or otherwise an offense to the spirit world, they had (and have) ceremonies and rituals to try to make things right. One of these is the World Renewal Ceremony, and I was lucky enough to take part in a number of these over the years, and experience firsthand something of what was lost, and something of what still remains, of a spiritual tradition born and practiced over scores of generations in one particular place. This particular place was Ishi Pishi Falls, where the Karuks have used dipnets to catch their salmon over the millennia. None of the Indians I danced with was a perfect human being, any more than I am. But they were here wearing their regalia over blue jeans, trying to get back in touch with the spirit world and with their own true identity. It’s a ten day affair, three times a year, and what they believe is, that they are not only fixing their own small Klamath world, but the larger world as well. I’d say they’ve got quite a challenge there.
    As I studied the cultures of these three tribal peoples, I have to admit I was put off by the stratification within tribal society. Certain families have fishing rights at the best fishing holes. Certain families are considered “owners” of particular dances, and they are held in higher esteem than others. But the slavery thing is at least partly a red herring. Their form of slavery, to the extent that is was at all common, seems to have been far less brutal than the slavery we know. For one thing, the “slave” and the “owner” worked together and lived together, and kindness was bound to produce better outcomes than unkindness. I don’t really know enough about this practice to pass judgment, and maybe no one not an insider can pretend to understand the internal dynamics of the tribe—though Alfred Kroeber made a stab at it.
    People who feel an affinity toward tribal peoples are routinely cautioned not to sentimentalize or romanticize the Noble Savage that never was. This is kind if a standard line, I find, and it feels like it is fed by a deep insecurity about any possible rival to civilization. If you look at the history of our treatment of Indians in this country, from massacres to broken treaties to concentration camps to the Dawes Act to boarding schools to termination, and on and on, the people of our culture could not tolerate Indians remaining Indians. Kill the Indian to save the man. Turn them into farmers. Just don’t let them go on being Indians. Get rid of any possible competition to the way we superior white people live; that way there can’t be any embarrassing comparisons made, no other way of life to be chosen. At least that’s what the underlying dynamic looks like to me.
    What I have found, almost universally, with most of the Indians I’ve known is a reverence for all of life. When they speak of All My Relations, they see themselves as part of the Community of Life. They speak of other creatures as being people, that is, as having personality and individuality and a spirit of their own, and they speak of their brothers and sisters with respect. All the Indians I know live in two worlds, the white man’s world, and what’s left of their traditional culture. These are all wounded, damaged people, divided within themselves, and the traditional culture they try to practice is fragmented, corrupted, and partial at best. Some of them recognize that they have been colonized from within; that they’ve taken in the Trojan horse of our culture into themselves, and just as their blood is mixed with ours, so are some of their values and beliefs. And at this point it seems impossible to sort it all out.
    The Karuk people I spent time with see themselves as a salmon people. The salmon have traditionally kept the people alive and the people feel a strong sense of reciprocity toward the salmon, and feel that they need to keep the salmon alive– not only for their own sakes, but truly for the sake of the salmon themselves. They have a real love of this fish, and a kind of reverence. Because these people still live in their own aboriginal territory, they feel that the land itself reminds them of who they are, and what is of value. So, I’m telling you all this because there is no clear, glib, simple answer about indigenous people and their relationship to Nature. But in general I’d say they have proved themselves better stewards of the land than we have.
    I’ll get back to your important question later.


  158. Gary, I counted 7 repetitions of the same commentary with the last one being cut short.

    What’s going on?

  159. While this article is fascinating and well-written, it’s a near-duplicate of William Catton’s magnificent first chapter “The Tragic Story of Human Success” in his book “Overshoot.”

    While it’s time we heard Catton’s message again, it’s difficult to see the hopeful message at the end as a very lovely heap of words.

  160. While this article is fascinating and well-written, it’s a near-duplicate of William Catton’s magnificent first chapter “The Tragic Story of Human Success” in his book “Overshoot.”

    While it’s time we heard Catton’s message again, it’s difficult to see the hopeful message at the end as anything but a very lovely heap of words.

  161. Vera, my main point about Genghis Khan and the Mongol conquerors was these were not a settle agricultural people but nomadic herders which suggests it may be a little too simple to characterize the neolithic period as some kind of line-in-the-sand tipping point where humans went to war against nature.

    My guess is the distinct emergence of a hunter-warrior class with a cultural-religio conquering mentality(GK – “One God in heaven, one leader for earth”) may be part of what tipped things over the edge.

    The fairly peaceful settled Pueblo Indian agriculturalists felt somewhat under siege I understand from the more aggressive recently arrived hunter-gatherer Navajos migrating down from the North. If someone has their Indian history differently I’m open to correction. What I’m relating is a Hopi perspective that I heard.

  162. Gary, I appreciate your long post. It’s difficult to have in depth discussions this way, not knowing where each one of us is coming from. It’s much easier to just send snippets and barbs in each other’s direction! 🙂

    I am aware of what you speak. I agree that there have been many more forager tribes living in harmony than ag people. Also, while foraging practices can ruin the environment, it generally does so at a much slower pace (thousand years, say) where subsistence ag can do it in centuries, and industrial ag in decades. The point I was trying to make is this: the root of the problem is not in the difference between the various food getting strategies. All of these strategies are vulnerable to pushing nature past her limits. Being a forager is not a guarantee that the environment will be protected.

    As for slavery among the tribes, them’s weasel words. If somebody stole you from your tribe, forced you to live with them and work for them, and had the power to kill you at a yearly festival… in what sense are you NOT a slave?!

    As for the ruin of Australia, this is new stuff, not something come up with by those biased white old men. Check out, for example, the work of Tim Flannery. In fact, people were reluctant to make it public for fear of offending the aborigines and their allies.

  163. Greg, I also hasten to add that I draw tremendous inspiration from the egalitarian tribes, and their ways of living, and dealing with power.

    David: “it may be a little too simple to characterize the neolithic period as some kind of line-in-the-sand tipping point where humans went to war against nature”

    I agree.

  164. Could it be that evolution which has no foresight or plan in mind and is simply a name for a process that occurs without conscience or design might be our problem? History shows repeatedly how aggressive oppressors have moved into areas where people where living in relative harmony and disrupted this harmony to their own evolutionary advantage. There seems to be a correlation between those who choose to be dominators and whom utilise technologies to take over new territories and change the local cultures etc and evolutionary success (temporary maybe). Sort of like a good parasite never kills the host, it seems maybe we are a terrible parasite doing our damnedest to kill the host? Maybe our species developing into what we have become was inevitable due to the evolutionary principles behind it. Which rewarded those destructive domineering traits with more successful offspring and those with peaceful and harmonic traits with less successful offspring? Personally, I dont like the idea as it implies that we have no ability to change our destiny. That said, our preferences to not make something the truth.

  165. Ah, it does me soul good to see you hitting the nail on the head, Mike K. Except it’s cultural evolution that pushed us thataway. So, it can be changed. Good news! 🙂

    It looks like for most of our existence of the species, we practiced “vigilant sharing.” Only the last several thousand years, we the civilized have badly diverged from it, while our tribal cousins often stuck to the good ol’ way. And became vulnerable to the game of power…

  166. Definitely cultural evolution however does that mean it can be changed? Maybe at an individual level however as long as there are groups who continue to pursue technologies to amplify their will to dominate others we will have problems? A simple culture working in harmony with nature and forsaking technological advancement for this simple life cannot be expected to be able to defend themselves or their environment from the relentless domineering onslaught of groups who do not harbour such foresight? Thus, would it not be an evolutionary advantage to be an all conquering technophile than a simple, healthy, happy and fulfilled member of a small subsistent community? I am often referred to as a pessimist however I truely see myself as a “realist”. Like I said previously, just because it is our preference does not make something true. Interested in thoughts on this matter.

  167. Vera, I agree that my last post was long, and in fact it was not quite to the point I wanted to make. Sorry I got carried away. What I think is relevant is not whether indigenous people were capable of outrages to the land or to each other. What is relevant is what we could possibly learn from them. Foragers were successful for tens of thousands of years, so maybe, after all, they were doing something right. I’ll tell you what I think is at the heart of their success: they were in right relationship to Nature. We are not. So I look to them for clues about how we might improve our relationship to the natural world—not so much in the present moment, but later, after the transition period of things falling apart. Most of the people who have commented on this blog are focused on the coming crisis, and are considering how to negotiate it. Most have families, and want to see those families survive and thrive (and don’t get me going on the DVD by that name). I am seventy years old, and don’t have the same concerns. My tendency is to be a long thinker, to consider the long arc of history and pre-history and ahead into the middle and distant future. What has shown itself to work, and what has shown itself not to work? And how could an assessment of what works and what doesn’t be made useful to human survivors in the middle and distant future? I am a partisan for my own species, and want to see it survive. I am not a partisan for my culture, because I believe it’s this culture—the culture of civilization–that is destroying this wondrous living planet. I’d like to see it replaced with something better, and I think we can look back to other successful cultures to take some inspiration. Gary

  168. Mike K, you seem to see the problem clearly. For most of our species history, we lived in those small, simple and fulfilling communities. But something happened, and the game of domination got started, and then those who did not participate in it got marginalized, wiped out, or eventually absorbed. The problem of power. How to deal?

    On one hand, I have been looking for the root of this… I think that once we know the trigger, it can inform our solution. On the other hand, regardless of the trigger, we need to find the solution to the problem of power. Without it, all the many various good ideas of how to face our challenges will not deliver, because the problem right now is not the lack of technical know-how, it’s the lack of a social system where wisdom, rather than power, prevails.

    Gary, we are in synch. I wish permies would study other cultures more, both horti and forager. There is much to be learned there. And I think they were not only in the right relationship with nature, but also with each other. Btw, you promised to answer my question… 🙂

  169. On the place of technology in our world…
    There is something neat about the word “technology”.
    It has… “logos” in it.
    That.. says a lot, in my book.
    The slavery question has obsessed our civilization since… at least, Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt, and out of slavery (not to mention the Greco-Roman branch of our heritage).
    It is interesting to note how little we know about how our ancestors really practiced slavery, and even more interesting is how much we think we know, and how little we care about trying to discover if our beliefs can be founded on anything at all.
    To me, this observation is very significant.
    At this time, I have ceased being a democrat because I happen to believe that democratic… egalitarianism (the Paulinian project in disguise) is the powerful motor behind the consumer society.
    Needless to say, this belief is very very unpopular, but, I survive with it, nevertheless.
    Not growing all my own food yet, but practicing… austerity…and learning to even enjoy it.
    One methodological comment : I do not believe that because we can find analogies between practices going on 2000 years ago, and current practices, we are justified in treating analogy as identity.
    That method discounts the particular context and history of any culture which makes it unique, and distinct.
    Variations on a theme will contain repetitions, but they will always remain variations, and distinct from the theme.

  170. Vera Sorry it took me so long to get back to you. First, a question: if you think the idea of Original Integrity has merit, but you don’t think agriculture is the point of derailment that led to the present Earth Crisis, where do you think the derailment occurred? And second, in response to the two questions you had for me, I think the lesson of agriculture is that living beyond Earth’s annual solar budget (through mining the stored surpluses of past solar-budgets) can only go on for so long, and eventually, those who live this way will either expire or go back to living well within Earth’s annual solar budget. Right now, our collective trend is to continue accelerating the 10,000 year-long agricultural/mining-subsidized break-away from living well within Earth’s annual solar budget. Before we can even imagine what a post-Earth-Crisis solar-budget-balanced (i.e. viable and sustainable) human way of life might look like, we have to reverse the trend and start heading in that energetic direction (which, one way or another, we will).
    Whether or not the trend-reversal will entail going back to foraging (aka hunting/gathering), who can say, but foraging is the only available human precedent of living well within Earth’s annual solar budget, so I can’t help but think wherever we are headed, if it is to be sustainable, it will have many similarities. But for now, the imperative is the trend-shift, which must take place concurrently at all levels of our culture, from the personal to the planetary. We can be active agents in this or let ‘peak everything’ do it for us. Active agency will come from the stories we tell ourselves that compel us to engage, rather than continue to deny, the new age before us. Our choices in that regard appear to be an age of contraction or an age of collapse. Which one we get will depend on how fast we agree that we must stop pretending (and stop trying to force the Earth to conform to our pretense) that the 10,000 year long age of expansion (the false dispersal) is not over.
    It is, and the first step in making the essential trend-shift, I think, will be for each of us to get as close as possible to the source of our food, learn its story and make it part of us in spirit as well as body. For most of us, there are many food loops that could be greatly shortened. And doing so will, like nothing else I can imagine, send positive reverberations throughout every level of our culture, from the personal to the planetary. The first ripple may spread from an act as simple as choosing local apples over imported mangos or, better yet, the apples on the feral roadside tree that often fall and rot as people drive by on the way to the grocery store. Stopping to gather those apples is what the early stage of contraction will look like. And curious passersby by will take note, especially as food and fuel prices soar. Then they’ll try it too, and tell the story. And the idea will spread, and the incentive will grow to find the apple-equivalents for everything else that comes to us in the same way as mangos. And as the process gains momentum, we’ll find that the rewards extend well beyond money saved to include reinvigorated community life, landscape intimacy, increased health and the sense of well-being these bring.
    For me, this story is itself an apple, ripe and sweet, one of many to be found on the ground beneath the feral tree.

  171. Debra, if you are selling excuses for biblical slavery, I ain’t buying. 😉

    But I would be very interested in your thoughts on why you see democratic egalitarianism as the underpinning for the consumer society. And how is that related to Paul?

  172. Svante Pääbo (The Neanderthal Genome Project) describes what he calls a possible Faustian Gene we aggressive, dominant species possess. When the Neanderthal got to a barrier like a mountain or ocean he settled. When Cro-Magnon got there he started building ladders and canoes. We seem to have some driving force keeping us ever exploring, conquering consuming and imagining. We are a species blessed and cursed.

    Read”Sleeping With The Enemy” by Elizabeth Kolbert in the Aug
    15th New Yorker.

  173. Bob, Vera, that was a very interesting read. It reinforces to me the idea that it is part of our very nature to dominate and take over new territory. Maybe not in every single person? Its tough to see how we could change this trait in our population? Maybe we need a Genghis Khan who defends villagers?? For some evolutionary benefit? :

    Mike K

  174. Fantastic – thank you for that, unadulterated, incisive science writing at last.

  175. I’m not selling excuses for slavery.. I AM… suggesting that the changes in meaning that we have pinned to the word “liberty” (which we necessarily have historically opposed to slavery, I think you will agree…) take us towards a place where French adolescents have been saying for the past twenty years or so “Liberty is the possibility of doing what I want, when I want to do it”… I call that an absolute definition of the word, one which admits no…limitations…
    I learned this summer that under the Roman Empire (the later Empire, I think), wealthy Roman citizens (citizens were free, of course…) turned over their.. financial portfolios to the… SLAVES who handled them.
    Those… slaves were not running around in rags, they were well treated, perfumed… housed and fed, encouraged to show.. initiative, etc. They lived well, most of the time. They had.. good jobs, we might say…
    But… if ever they were dishonest, they were brought back into line fast, with corporal punishment. (I think that Joseph in Egypt was Putiphar’s slave, if I remember, and HE was definitely a well respected, well treated… slave, too.)
    There is a kind of good sense involved in having your financial portfolio handled by somebody who is definitely under your thumb, in one way or another. (But if you think HARD about it, dependency is like liberty… the limits keep… receding the more you think you have… escaped OR arrived, for that matter. Constraint just moves into another area.)
    On democratic egalitarianism, I hold that its goal is to furnish the most to the greatest number, with the BEST intentions.
    A cult of.. “most” “greatest” and “best”. Its relation to the Paulinian project (yes, Paul was a colonizer…) is to make differences and distinctions disappear in a great magma where we are all… EQUAL. In the body of Christ, for Paul, in the Church, but words never stay the same, like species they keep changing ? evolving ?
    The idea is to abolish privilege in any form.
    But at a certain point in time, you can start asking yourself if by abolishing any form of perceived privilege, you aren’t also seeking to… abolish any perception of the sacred in civilization. We almost instinctively have a perception that what is sacred is… apart. A part, we say in French. Not mixed in with all the rest in a.. ragout ? melting pot ?
    I contend that man cannot live well without some form of sacred.
    Ironically enough… austerity is ALSO a great…opportunity for our species.
    It could… teach us how to use our neurons once again in relation to what is left of our.. natural ? surroundings.
    The Paulinian project, as I said, is a motor.
    Because, you must have noticed, Western Civilization is a CRUSADING civilization.
    It.. evangelizes… In more than 2000 years it has not stopped evangelizing, and I see no evidence that right now, it is stopping either.
    Do you ??
    Some people may think that evangelizing will… SAVE us.
    But if you start asking the question, “why are we always looking for ways to be saved ?”, then interesting things start happening.
    In my opinion…

  176. Our cultural conditioning predisposes us to consider our problems from a materialistic, individualistic point of view. These are the very foundations of our most threatening difficulties. Such approaches will never cure our sickness or heal the world we are destroying. The contempt that we hold for spiritual realities cuts us off from the essential help available from them. Our rational, scientific, materialist, power obsessed hubris blinds us to the sources of help available for our necessary transformation. We have become addicted to a worldview that ensures our suffering and eventual self destruction.

    Human beings centered in love, goodness, peacefulness, sharing and truth are the only real lasting solution to living together on this or any planet. This is as deep a universal cosmic truth as any so called law of physics. Failure to achieve this will doom whatever substitute solutions we may dream up. Only better people can make a better world.

    Sufficient knowledge of how to achieve this needed transformation of human consciousness already exists. Our job is to deepen and apply this knowledge. This has been rightly called the Great Work.

  177. So I wrote a long post to several here, and the system ate it. As it’s been eating people’s posts for years. Frustrating.

    I am gonna chunk it down now. Tim, your write up on Original integrity is tremendous, and I completely agree. Where did the derailment occur? You say it yourself: in warping the cultural matrix. Intensive ag followed.

    I have written a while ago a post on the origins of ag, and I wonder if you’d be interested in participating on my blog, I am working now on the next installment of the ag series. I would love your input as the ideas get clearer (and the invitation goes to anyone else here with the historical aspects of ag as an interest).

  178. Vera, You put two questions to Tim Fox and me: “If ag had been the culprit, what lessons would that provide? That we should all go back to foragers?” I feel that Tim has answered the question about the future clearly and articulately, by stating that we have a solar budget, and must, in a sustainable society, live within that budget. We are cheating the natural conditions of life on this planet by using, and using up, past solar energy stored under the skin of the Earth. As some other commenters have noted, including Mike K, now that we’ve become aware of the bubble we’re living in, we could use what’s left of this stored solar budget to ease the transition into a life of living within Earth’s normal, everyday solar budget. We are not doing this, and some blame our economic system for it, and rightly so. (See Gus Speth’s Bridge at the Edge of the World, for instance.) But our economic system evolved and took on legitimacy within the context of the larger culture—a culture whose roots, I would argue, go all the way back to the Neolithic Revolution.
    The domestication of plants and animals fundamentally changed our relationship to Nature. If you believe Jim Mason, in his underappreciated contribution to the discussion (see An Unnatural Order: Uncovering the Roots of our Domination of Nature and each Other) the culprits, to use your term, were the herders, the pastoralists. Hunters, in general, revered and respected their prey, and conducted elaborate ceremonies to atone for the taking of life—because they understood life to be sacred. The enslavers of animals, on the other hand, were an aggress bunch, brutalizing themselves in the process of stealing other creatures’ freedom (maybe they also had the Faustian gene, who knows?). These people became marauders, and the like. If you believe Daniel Quinn, it was the farmers, who were the “culprits.” The case he makes, which I find rather persuasive, is that agriculture (at least in good years) creates a surplus. Surplus food leads to a population explosion, and the storage of grains and foodstuffs that require security arrangements. And out of nowhere you have this thing called private property. Groups of hunter-gatherers had tribal territories, but they never pretended to own any part of the Earth. So, with private property and surplus food to be guarded you get the rise of a stratified society and the beginnings of a military class. Meanwhile, as your population grows, you find you need more lebensraum, and you put your military types to work expanding your territory. The way I read it, agriculture has set in motion the dynamic of violence, greed, and overpopulation which has characterized our history for the past five or six millennia.
    Was agriculture inevitable? Was ever-expanding technology? I don’t know, but when you look at the results of these innovations, they are blessings that come with a curse, and that curse seems recalcitrant to reversal. Gary

  179. The work being done by this paleogeneticist is deeply interesting, and may ultimately reveal insights into our deep past unavailable in any other way. The quest after the Faustian gene is no doubt a worthy enterprise, as long as it doesn’t lead to reductionist interpretations, as in biological determinism. The human is a cultural animal, as well as a biological one, and for better or for worse culture often trumps biology.

  180. mike k? Who are you? Is it just a coincidence that you used this name? Just to clarify for others on the forum, I have been adding posts as Mike K (with capitals) the new mike k whom recently posted is someone new. That said, I do not disagree with his post and think it to be well written! It is a common name so understandable that it could happen. I know there was an earlier “Mike” which is why I added the K.

    Cheers Mike K

  181. Hello Mike K, and Mike! There sure are a lot of Mike’s around, I run into them all the time. I have been posting for several years here at Orion under mike k (small letters). I got in late on this thread due to a recent back injury that prevented getting to the computer. I am favorably impressed by the contributions of my namesakes. A brainy bunch indeed. Keep it coming!

  182. I am getting overwhelmed here.

    Surely those who have studied Quinn recognize the voice of Mother Culture when she tells us, this time via a science journalist, human nature is flawed? Not this culture, or some other old nasty culture which became destructive, but well, *we sapiens* are warped from the get go. So, nothing to see here, eh? There is nothing to be done anyways… Sleep, sleep, don’t listen to the nasty gorilla…

    Btw, those boats to Australia were built by non-sapiens.

  183. “Hunters, in general, revered and respected their prey”

    Some did, and others didn’t. Look up horse magma in Solutre, on wiki. And keep in mind that the horses survived the slaughter. The European rhino, aurochs, and mammoth didn’t. Those tales of animals being driven over cliffs or into culdesacs to be trampled when only a few animals could be used, are not the figment of farmer or herder imagination.

  184. In the opinion of many in the world (including many on this blog), homo sapiens together with the earth are headed towards a crisis. This crisis is reputed to be the result of many “activities” related to homo sapiens. These worrisome activities are principally but not limited to: causing global warming, overuse of oil, wasting water by polluting and overusing it, over-populating, causing gross pollution of every kind i.e. the oceans and food and allowing non-egalitarian politics.

    A large number of the participants on this thread seem pessimistic in regard to the future of earth. Some discuss the situation but do not offer their opinion as to the outcome. Many seem worried about the future but do not provide specifics as to a way out.

    I myself, can see no way of saving the animal homo sapiens of which I am a member. The species seems fatally flawed to my analysis.

    The above has led me to a question and it is:

    Does anybody see anything that could be done to alleviate this projected crisis?

    Of course a blue sky answer or invoking a Deus ex Machina to save us may be of some value but what I would like to hear is a actual realistic doable answer.

  185. The quest to uncover the origin(s) of our dysfunctions is fascinating if you are into archeology. But it may not really be that useful in extricating us from our present predicaments. Reminds me of the time I mostly wasted seeking the solution to my personal dysfunctions through psychoanalysis. All that kind of retrogressive theory eventually led to rebirthing and past lives recovery fantasies. The possible solutions to our situation lie in the future, not the past. We don’t really need to know how we came to be screwed up, but rather how do we stop manifesting it. One of the defences against directly confronting our faults, and doing something to change them is endless elaborate intellectualizing about the whole affair. Reminds me of Buddha’s cautionary tale about the man shot with a poisoned arrow, who refused to have it removed before he new all about the circumstances surrounding the incident. He died.

  186. RH
    “Does anybody see anything that could be done to alleviate this projected crisis?”

    Yes folks can recognize the elephant in the room consistently. Whatever the solution you specialize in whether it is alternative energy, greater food production, more justice or whatever, always include moving toward less people on this planet.

    It should be clear if you don’t then you are not being serious about whatever special palliative you are backing. As long as there are many poor and desperate there are too many people.

    Of course on the positive side you back groups like Planned Parenthood and very pro-active education and birth control access.


  187. No Ron, the crisis is not due to the activities of H. sapiens. The tribe of Piraha, for example, has nothing whatsover to do with the crisis. It’s due to the activities of this one culture that you and I happen to be part. Which tells us, does it not, that we don’t need to fix human nature. We need to walk away from this culture into another one. Doable? I don’t know. But heck, it sure beats wring our hands about the Faustian gene.

  188. As always, lots of interesting, thoughtful comments.
    To Ron: I don’t see human nature as flawed at all. To me saying that sounds like so much religious original sin junk. We, like most species, just want to go about the business of surviving and procreating. If that is a flaw, then every species is flawed. But humans have created countless societies that existed within the constraints of their ecosystems very successfully. What I do see as flawed is Western culture (which is pretty much the only real model out there right now, save for a few indigenous groups here and there). As has been mentioned before, it is addicted to growth, much like a virus.
    Culture CAN be changed – we have seen that over and over. As a history teacher, pretty much the only examples I can think of are change from the bottom up. How do we make that change? – by each of us deciding what is just and right, and then choosing to limit our actions. That is how movements start. As Gary said, each of us needs to get as close to our food sources as possible. That in itself is revolutionary and would probably have the side benefit of undermining huge cities, which I do not believe are energy efficient or sustainable. Just look at how difficult it will be for NYC and NJ suburbia to recover from Sandy. Then look at Vermont’s recovery from Irene. It is hard either way, but I’ll take The ability of rural areas to recover any day.
    Back to focus.
    I believe it is our culture that is driving us to consume everything like a plague of locusts, more than any biological imperative. Our brain gives us the ability to over ride biological imperative, IF our culture supports the effort. What is the source of the problem today? I think it can be summed up by a famous quote from Upton Sinclair: “It is very hard to convince a man of something when his paycheck depends on his not understanding it.”

    Gary mentioned the solar budget – he is absolutely correct. We HAVE to redesign our society to live within that reality. There is no other viable alternative. We CAN get creative in maximizing our use of that. With respect to ag, that means maintaining optimum soil health and multicropping/layering so that something is always going on biologically during the growing season. There are lots of examples out there – my favorite is Newman Turner. However, as I have said before, ag only works with lots of inputs. Society is going to have to decide to place emphasis on that is everyone is to be fed down the road.

  189. Debra, I am not understanding it. How does getting rid of gross privilege damage the sacred?

  190. Gary, there is too much stuff here in this thread, going all over the place. You know where to find me to talk more.

    I will just mention one thing. Double and triple check what you hear is being assumed. Do agriculturists somehow automatically produce surplus? Or do they produce when and only when they choose to produce it? Look for evidence.

    And once you find out that choice is involved, then you may back track and say, so why would anyone bust their gut to produce surplus when that surplus is not needed?

    Good luck following the trail. 🙂

  191. Rob, it’s been a pleasure. We are in synch. I just haven’t got the umph to fight against the perennial “sapiens is flawed” folks. 🙂

  192. Ron, you ask “Does anyone see anything that could be done to alleviate the projected crisis?” In that regard, I’d like to bring up something that almost never gets mentioned. We talk about carbon footprints but never speak of methane footprints. I believe methane is 20 to 25 time more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and the big emitters of methane are natural gas extraction, the growing of rice in paddies, and the flatulence of ungulates. From what I understand, on a global scale, the damage done by methane exceeds that caused by all our vehicles and coal fired power plants combined. It’s those darned deer and elk that are causing all the problems! Oh, yeah, and then we do graze a few cattle here and there. We breed them and graze them so that we can eat them. The chapter in Collapse that I found most suggestive and worrisome was the one having to do with the Greenland Norse. They were big meat eaters who ran goats, sheep, and cattle. That worked pretty well for several hundred years, but when the climate went south on them, they did not attempt to adapt to the new conditions, and over-grazing, and the erosion that followed, so depleted their soil that almost nothing would grow. They were set in their ways, and they weren’t about to change them. I’m afraid that we, as a people, are a little too much like them, and aren’t willing to consider adaptive changes in a timely manner. If we all became non-beefeaters, that would actually do some good, though maybe not enough to significantly slow what’s already been set in motion.
    Now I’m not one of those who wants see a planet that will feed ten billion of us—I’m with More Trees, Fewer People on that one. But just think about the allocation of water and arable land that goes to raise a pound of beef. It’s living high on the hog, so to speak, and it will continue to work for as long as it does, and then will fail utterly–and, as happened with the Greenland Norse, the damage will be beyond repair. It’s interesting to note that Greenland also had an Inuit population which was exposed to the same conditions as their Eurocentric neighbors. They adapted to the changing conditions, and they survived.

  193. Gary,
    Just a point of detail: ruminants can’t fart. They do burp, though.
    In many ways I agree with your comments about the modern Western diet and its reliance on meat/beef. But here is a point to consider:
    Proper grazing, using management intensive practices, builds soil and sequesters carbon. Think of what the buffalo did on the great plains, or what Alan Savory advocates with his holistic management practices. There are many graziers who are implementing those practices, on relatively large and small scales – Greg Judy in MO, Joel Salatin in VA – just to name two. You are right that the Greenland Norse overgrazed themselves into oblivion. We know a whole lot more about good grazing management today.
    I will agree with you that far too few farmers are doing it, but my point is that the nucleus is out there and it is growing. I have heard some tentative studies way that if we took all the cows out of the feedlots and put them on well managed pasture we could sequester enough carbon to seriously help deal with our modern crisis. The problem of all that grain grown on land that needs to be in permanent cover would also be dealt with. I know on my farm here in northern VT, with its shallow soils, the best thing I can do is grow grass.
    I think, as I’ve mentioned before, that it is all about wise resource management and allocation. Which is definitely an area where our society is failing badly. But I argue that the knowledge we need is out there and being refined by many practitioners.

  194. It puzzles me how so many posters found this article by Mann so interesting. He has not offered one useful insight into our predicament, or a single suggestion how to extricate ourselves. Endless clever commentary will do nothing to help us make the simple difficult changes we need to make. The plain truth is that our greedy, cowardly, violent behavior has caught up with us, and we need to make a 180 degree u-turn, or our goose is cooked.

  195. Mann offers demonstrations of collective behavioral plasticity from our history. From that he concludes we can keep from going off the cliff ie. the past is prologue.

    It is enough that he offers some thoughtful optimism and leaves the final lap up to all of us. Of course I think a sine qua non is negative population growth, but it is obviously going to have to be correlated with other efforts. The manual that answers in useful detail the questions “What” and “How” has yet to be written.


  196. “A large number of the participants on this thread seem pessimistic in regard to the future of earth. Some discuss the situation but do not offer their opinion as to the outcome. Many seem worried about the future but do not provide specifics as to a way out.”

    I am not pessimistic *at all* about the “future of earth” – earth will do just fine, there will be some weather changes, earthquakes, volcanoes and the like over the centuries/millennia, all “normal” things for planet earth, but earth has been here for a few billion years, and will be here for a few billion more (before the sun goes red giant or supernova and probably consumes the planet).

    Homo Sapiens are the ones who are going away, if we don’t change. 🙂

  197. David M — “The manual that answers in useful detail the questions “What” and “How” has yet to be written.” You have already written some pages of that manual: MORE TREES LESS PEOPLE! The ‘how’ is too simple to require explanation: plant more trees and cut down less. Also refrain from the reproductive act that keeps overproducing people. We have a tendency to over intellectualize everything. What is actually lacking is the will to do these and other simple things needed to solve our pressing problems. You can lead a horse to water, but….
    Until enough people become willing to make siple changes to their behavior, nothing will really change. To try to persuade those who turn a deaf ear, and mightily
    resist behaving with simple sanity is largely a waste of time, as you can easily ascertain by trying it on a couple of people. A very revealing experiment, and one I have performed often enough now to be convinced of its futility.

  198. Vera I’ve been away from this thread for a few days. Thanks for the invite to participate in your blog. I’ll go check it out.

  199. mike k

    “David M — “The manual that answers in useful detail the questions “What” and “How” has yet to be written.” You have already written some pages of that manual: MORE TREES LESS PEOPLE! The ‘how’ is too simple to require explanation: plant more trees and cut down less. Also refrain from the reproductive act that keeps overproducing people.”

    The key expression I used was “useful detail.” The general direction IS obvious. The manual of the WHAT and HOW of putting it into effect has yet to be written. Generally folks will toss off “make everybody rich” or words to that effect if they say anything at all and then dismiss the issue.


  200. David M — My point was simply to highlight the willful resistance people manifest to acknowledging the most obvious realities, and doing something about them. The source of all the problems we are facing is in people’s minds, not in some external conditions. And yet the focus of many otherwise intelligent folk’s earnest efforts is on changing external conditions. Only better (more rational, less deluded, more compassionate, better informed) people can (and will) make a better world. Such (partially) enlightened people would clearly opt for more trees and less people. Your slogans unfortunately now fall on the uncomprehending ears of a world of culturally conditioned zombies. What we are facing if we want a better world is the problem of how we educate a huge mass of uneducated and miseducated people who vigorously resist any change in their present pernicious mindsets. That is the koan that our fate as a species depends on our solving. Most of what people need to learn is incredibly simple and obvious, but how do you get past their indifference and refusal to see it? A long time ago a would be teacher of mankind said (perhaps in wonder and frustration) “They have eyes but do not see, ears but do not hear.” We have not come far from that sad commentary in today’s world.

  201. One of the best developed arguments on human evolution I’ve ever read. Human species was never in balance with its environment. I agree with Margulis’ idea that the mere idea of balance is not natural. The universe itself is unbalanced, movement and discontinuity are the source of everything we know. I don’t believe human species will be able to refrain growth. The cost would be billions of deaths. I think humankind will use the only tool that has proved successful: technology. To avoid falling from a bike we have to keep pedaling. Yes, the world is our Petri dish, but we are far from really exhausting all available resources: chemistry is far more efficient than agriculture. Nuclear power is far more efficient than other sources. And also, why not increasing the size of the dish? Hundreds of individuals left Africa some years ago. Hundreds will leave Earth in the next years. Thanks, Mr. Mann, for your so powerful essay.

  202. Having lost faith in the old Gods, we transfer our hopes to the new God — science and the magic of technology. Forget that our technologies have birthed many of our out of control problems. We must seek answers somewhere — anywhere but in our own minds and hearts.

  203. mike k is right – if addiction created a problem, more addiction isn’t going to solve the problem. Only ending the addiction will solve the problem. We must end our addiction to the fallacy that endless economic growth is possible- ‘taint so!
    I’m continually amazed that people continue to think that leaving Earth is a reasonable solution to our modern problems. We will just bring our current mindset with us and abuse whatever place we go to! I just can’t understand such simplistic thinking.
    We modify our society and recognize reasonable limits, or we grow until we bring about a major crisis. As individuals, we all recognize certain limits – with food consumption, for example. So we know how to do it. We, like all addicts, just currently choose to believe our addiction will bring about miraculous cures, or at least so anesthetize us that our condition will be bearable.
    So the solution is very simple – we all recognize we are addicted to the luxurious lifestyle massive consumption of carbon allows us and choose to limit or end our consumption of that drug.
    It is a simple matter of admitting addiction, seeking help from like minded recovering addicts, and changing our behavior

  204. Rob M — It is a pleasure to hear from someone willing to acknowledge the real roots of our problems — within our own minds. Lies, denial, alibis, rationalizations, self glorification (think American exceptionalism, for example) — all the stock and trade of addicts. it’s a problem that I know from personal experience. Fortunately there is an answer: honesty, humility, spirituality, asking for help. AA is a model of these simple direct methods for recognizing and acknowledging our problem, and doing what is needed to deal with it.

    Who can look at our society and deny that selfishness, materialism, greed, violence, and immorality are rampant? Is it possible to see all this and not recognize that these are symptom of a diseased state that can only end in disaster for ourselves and others? Any so called measures to understand our plight that do not take these fundamental facts as basic can only result in temporary cosmetic results that leave the underlying disease process untouched. Does anyone imagine that the ruling classes of Babylon or Rome had the slightest inclination to look at the rot within themselves to explain the total failure of their societies? What did the ignored prophets get from these debauchees? Scorn, contempt, and persecution. Does overweening pride and hubris ever question itself?

  205. Not a bad read, if a bit long. It would be a good idea to remember that the species is very good at surviving in extremum, and equally good at failing to survive in very positive environments. Don’t forget, we are led by folk only a bit smarter than IQ100. Not at all shabby for such dumb apes. I wonder what the future holds?

  206. Apart from the obvious one, to get fire ants under control import diverse new colonies in volume, possibly as fertilized Queens and release them in a fire ant area, repeat until we acquire the state of self control found in South America.

    Man obviously needs a curb on birth rate, and not a bigger death rate. The best way is full female equality. Once women have full control over their own bodies, they will become less impregnable slaves and more as free equals (but different). This has come to Western civilization, but not the third world, nor to the Islamic world, where women are still slave breeders.

  207. @mike, you’re my hero. You made my day. Haters gonna hate lol.

    Oh, and this article made me smile in my soul, and made me weep a little bit too. It was written so beautifully, but also with so much clarity and facts backing it up. A rare kind of writer you are Charles.

    Your chilling accounts of the petri dish and ants made me fear for the world, a feeling of inevitable calamity.

    And yet, you’re right, in that I too wondered quite often to myself about the abolition of slavery, the sheer wonder of its abrupt disposal. Too many times, especially in the corporate driven culture we live in today, have we seen profit trump over the environment, common decency and human dignity. Yet slavery, which was such a behemoth of an industry, was shut down in a span of a few decades based entirely on the power of ideas, idea of human rights.

    And thanks for the powerful reminder that the UN, despite all its flaws and the world’s pastime of poking fun at its impotence, has served its role, and has made a measurable difference, in fostering a more peaceful world community.

    Although I still share the same optimism in the human spirit as you seem to have for the future, thank you very much for writing this article. It was a pleasure to read, made me feel enlightened, and brings me a bit of (real and authentic, not false) hope for the future.

  208. I sometimes ask folks what they feel the optimum human population on Earth would be? Gives me a feel for where their heads are at. For me, about two million would be a nice figure. We would have quite a bit of elbow room at that level. Room to let really vast tracts remain wild and unexploited. No resource crunches in that scenario. Plenty for everybody. Foolish to fight wars for such vast and unneeded tracts. Time to relax and slow our pace, develop our artistic and truly creative possibilities. We would develop the good sense to ignore those who would push us into pointless and unsatisfying pursuits.

    Maybe one of the super bugs we are culturing will give us a shot at such a life. Or would we follow some remnants of our crazy conditioning and start the whole crazy nightmare of “Civilization” all over again?

  209. n comment #194 I asked the following question:
    “Does anybody see anything that could be done to alleviate this projected crisis?”
    A number have responded to that question and I would like to express my thanks. I presently feel that the most realistic answers to this question were made by “mike k” in comments #195, #205, #208, and #211.
    His comments strike me as being very close to the truth of our situation. It seems to me that implicit in his answers is that a disaster for homo sapiens is unavoidably on the way. Rearranging and/or analyzing the deck chairs on the Titanic will not help. There simply is no avoiding the monstrous ice berg up ahead.
    However I think sadness is not appropriate here. Homo sapiens succeeded in that it could be compared to a shooting star. And lets face it: We really have no idea what is going on.

  210. Maybe we could train those fire ants to infest people’s beds, and keep them too busy to do the deed, and thus insure lower population numbers??

  211. Thanks for your comment Ron. Sometimes quite a spell elapses between amens. Have you read Carolyn Baker’s book Sacred Demise, Walking the Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse?
    Lot of excellent thought on how to absorb and transform the realization that we are headed for an unprecedented disaster, without caving in to fear and despair. Major Initiations always show two faces: on of doom and the other of transformative growth to a new level.

  212. “The current extinction is being caused by human action within a cultural tradition shaped in a biblical-Christian and classical-humanist matrix. The tragic flaw in both traditions seems to be an anthropocentrism that has turned into a profound cultural pathology.” –Thomas Berry
    “By multiplying till we reach our maximum possible numbers, even as we take out much of the planet, we are fulfilling our destiny.”– Charles Mann
    When I first read these words of Charles Mann I felt their wrongness but couldn’t quite articulate what that wrongness was. Now I think I get it. In Charles Mann’s world, it’s all about humans and human agency, as if humans existed in a vacuum, and had no relationship whatever with Nature, Gaia, or the Life Force, and as if these had no agency of their own. In thinking over the piece as a whole it became clear to me that Mann was such a captive of our narcissistic culture that he didn’t even realize that all of his thinking had fallen under its anthropocentric spell. It seems never to have occurred to him that Nature might have a destiny of her own—one that may, or may not, include us.
    To be fair, all of us are captives of culture, to some degree or other. That’s normal and natural. We’re cultural animals, after all, and when one’s culture is whole and healthy it is appropriate to be fully invested in it. Such a culture is a positive adaptation for group survival. But our culture is not whole and healthy; it is pathological in the extreme. It is an imperial culture with an agenda of total domination. It has colonized each of us with its daily indoctrinations, from cradle to grave—and it means to colonize every last corner of the globe. The culture of civilization is nothing if not a self-promoting, self-aggrandizing propaganda machine. Its mission and method is to turn everything into itself, and to destroy all that resist its hegemony. Even a casual reading of Western civilization’s history will corroborate this proposition, and a close reading seals the deal. I know there will be resistance to what I’m trying to say here. Our individual identities have been so infiltrated by our culture that questioning it in any way makes us uncomfortable. We have taken culture into ourselves, and so identified with its stories and memes, that we’re not sure where it leaves on and we begin. I know this because I’ve been through the acculturation process, too. But I’ve also been through another process, one that some Native Americans refer to as decolonization, and that is what allows me to see through culture at all.
    In this regard I can identify with Neo in the film called Matrix. When Neo and Morpheus first meet, Morpheus lays it out like this: “Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life; that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is but it’s like a splinter in your mind. It is this feeling that has brought you to me.” Maybe you, too, have felt that splinter in your mind.
    What we have to realize is that we also live in the matrix, but it’s not some faux world created for us by machine intelligence. Our matrix is our culture. And until we learn to resist it, it will make us see the world the way it wants us to see it. Our matrix programs our values, our perceptions, the way we live our lives. And this is why I don’t entirely agree with MIKE K when he says, “Uncovering the origins of our dysfunction…may not really be that useful in extricating us from our present predicament.” To take right action toward a viable future, you must first understand the nature of the world you are living in. Equally important is discovering your own (wild) nature. Who is the deeper you, who hasn’t been tamed by culture? My guess is, that’s a better you than the one that’s been colonized and made compliant to the culture’s larger agenda. So, Rob, you ask, “What can we do?” Maybe a good place to start would be with deprogramming our colonized selves and learning to reclaim our more authentic, wild selves. (Unlearn, Rewild, according to a recent book title.) We might then cease acting as if Nature were something separate from, and subordinate to, ourselves.
    Seeing through culture is not as easy as taking the red pill instead of the blue. It’s an ongoing lifelong process that separates us from the comfort zone of being in the majority. But unless more of us do this, we’re going to be getting more of the same, until civilization has consumed the world.

  213. Excellent post Gary. I agree with your insights completely. My remarks about not wasting too much time on how we got here referred to those who have almost made a career of researching distant origins. We need to wake up NOW to the gross dysfunctions of our culture, and especially to our unconscious acceptance and enactment of those errors. Your ‘decolonization’ translates to me as waking up to the whole conditioned state of one’s mind. And you are right, taking the red pill is not a one time affair. You have to take it again and again. Although a major shock is often helpful to initiate the process of awakening, one must then continue to intentionally give oneself shocks to grow in consciousness of one’s sorry inner state, as an essential step towards growing into our unconditioned authentic selfhood.

    I concur with James Joyce in saying, “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” This work is not new. It has been referred to as the Great Work — to become an authentic conscious human being. Without a sufficient number undertaking this work humankind is doomed to failure. To do this work is to serve the great Purpose that has brought forth this Universe.

  214. Thanks for the kind words, Mike. You’ve mentioned the Great Work. Is this related to the book with that title by Thomas Berry, or something else? Also, your figure of two million as a sustainable human population (after the dust settles, so to speak) is lower than what I had in mind, but may be more realistic. A lot depends on what they’re left to work with. I’d be interested to know how you arrived at that figure. It seems that such a number puts the human back in scale with the planet and with the rest of the Earth Community.

  215. Certainly population per se is a hugh problem plus there are numerous other problems (Global Warming, Pollution, etc. etc.) that will surely lower the number of homo sapiens sustainable. Perhaps two million, which seems extremely low compared to the present, is an optimistic figure and please call me a pessimist or whatever if you want, but I wonder if even less or perhaps none will survive. Homo Sapiens has looked under a few rocks and found what might be a few hints but the truth of what we have here remains a mystery. If homo sapiens bows out of existence, it is difficult to say what significance that might have in the broad scheme of things because the actual broad scheme of things has yet to be uncovered.

  216. Gary — I was not thinking of Thomas Berry’s book when I used the term the Great Work. I first heard this phrase while studying/practicing under a Sufi teacher. He said that the practices needed to bring forth the true human potential were referred to that way in the middle east from ancient times.

    I suppose that the figure two million humans was my guess at the range conscious and evolved humans would set for an intelligently determined Earth population. Of course this presumes that such a wise self-determining population would come to exist here at some future time. That’s a lot to presume at this dire stage of our evolutionary process. But for me it is important to be able to envision such an outcome as a thought experiment ala Einstein. Who knows, such imaginative excursions might improve our aims going forward, or even act as a strange attractor of a possible future.

    One thing is clear to me; without a deep transformation of human consciousness positive futures will never come into being. The inner determines the outer. As Plato pointed out, our outer society is a projection of our inner selves. Only if we change ourselves can we change our world in positive directions.

  217. Ron — “If homo sapiens bows out of existence, it is difficult to say what significance that might have in the broad scheme of things because the actual broad scheme of things has yet to be uncovered.”

    Perhaps some among us have begun to discern that our existence here on Earth is part of a deep purpose in the unfolding of the Universe. The development of intelligent beings was somehow enfolded as a cosmic DNA in the primordial Atom or Seed that evolved and developed into all the vast majestic Universe we are now an integral part of. Our existence is not an adventitious accident as some blinded by materialist philosophy might think. We are the intended and destined result of the unfoldment of that primal Cosmic Seed. There is nothing in existence that is not an expression, however limited, of that Cosmic Intelligence that has brought it forth and maintains it. I could say more, but I have already said too much for those constrained within the limitations of so called scientific thought. Real science, or the paths of understanding reality are another matter, mostly ignored and denied by those under the spell of current thinking. Let me add that what I have said has very little to do with the deluded thinking of some Christians that goes under the name of “creationism”.

  218. Bilderberg Group Quietly Meets in Italy

    Posted: 15 Nov 2012 11:55 PM PST

    …. it appears that the Bilderberg Group has arranged what some have described as an impromptu meeting in Rome, Italy.

  219. Ron, as per your suggestion I checked into Allan Savory, watching his hour-long lecture on desertification titled “Keeping Cattle: Cause or Cure for Climate Crisis,” in which he made a persuasive case for the co-evolution of grass and large herbivores, and how the grass requires trampling under many hooves, followed by a period of rest. The bison you mentioned, grazing by the thousands on the open plains of the mid-west, or gazelle on the plains of Africa, offer a natural model of how this has worked in the past without degrading the landscape. Savory’s suggestion seems to be that we substitute cattle for these wild ungulates, and keep them moving before they do serious damage. To do this in the present age would seem to require large land holdings and extremely active herd management. But I want to put a hypothetical question to you. If you were born into Futureland, and there were just small scatterings of people here and there, which scenario would you prefer: managed domestic herds grazing the land, or herds of wild animals following their own internal urges? And here is a further question: Can we domesticate and manage animals without also taming (and possibly brutalizing) ourselves? Just asking.

  220. Help is available for our situation, but certain conditions must be fulfilled in order for us to access it. A prime condition is that we submit to work designed to lessen and eventually remove the dangerous hubris that is at the root of all our problems. Lacking such willingness, we will be eliminated from cosmic evolution, and fail to realize our higher possibilities.

  221. I am very positive to the the thoughts of mike k and Gary Gripp and many on this thread. I agree that some “deprogramming” if not a lot as explained by Gary is necessary for survival of homo sapiens. However, how is this to be done? Deprogramming is not an easy thing and at times can be very nearly impossible. And in any form, deprogramming is a two edged sword and must kept out of nefarious hands. If the programming could be controlled or directed only by those that I personally rate as “knowledgeable” then I would believe that our chances for a “successful” future would be good. I know the word “successful” is somewhat controversial but still, if the “right” people or concepts were “in charge” then I would relax and believe that the chances were good for an extended natural world.

    The most ubiquitous reprogramming these days or maybe it always has been seems to involve ersatz “success” thinking. Homo sapiens seems to easily fall into this kind of thinking especially if it is reinforced by ignorance, narcissism, and hubris. Such thinking seems to rise in importance unchallenged by our society like cream in raw milk and takes control. As a result we have raging chaos that relegates wisdom to a very minor role with little voice and influence. It seems that what has grown is a crazed culture pushing toward disaster with massive momentum while hidden in the push are brilliant ideas by a minuscule and virtually powerless group that has very little momentum.

  222. Ron — You really go to the heart of all our problems with your thoughts about deconditioning. This crucial process is not easy, especially in the beginning. Later on it gets easier. And it is not without its dangers, although these can be largely avoided and dealt with.

    The two edged sword aspect of deprogramming is brought out and deeply considered in a book by William Sargant, The Battle For The Mind. Among other things he compares the religious conversion methods of Methodists and Jesuits to Chinese brainwashing and reeducation camps. When I spent several two month summer camps with a Sufi teacher’s group, where we fasted and did intensive exercises such as whirling for an hour or more, once he said to us that the same things we were doing could be used to create a bunch of Nazis.

    This problem relates to the difference between a dangerous cult and a constructive and healthy spiritual group. One very crucial factor is the group or leader’s attitude towards questioning. In a valid group questioning everything is encouraged. Also the leader does not pretend to any special status or authority. Real humility is essential in a good guide. The goal is real openness and freedom to find one’s way beyond dogmatisms of any kind.

    The goal of real practice is the discovery of your own authentic unconditioned mind, as a precondition for discerning and discovering the truth. To keep this intent and purpose alive in one’s consciousness is an essential need for practice uncontaminated by ego and its flawed intentions and interpretations. The goal is not to become unconditioned merely to invite a new conditioning, but to become as far as possible free in one’s unconditioned consciousness.

    As far as the reeducation aspect of awakening, a small group that discusses books by Derrick Jensen, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, etc. can be very helpful in helping one to question long held beliefs about one’s society and other sacred cows such as religion and science. Knowledge is not equivalent to conditioning. Everything needs to be held somewhat lightly, open to further investigation or new information. To initiate groups dedicated to an awakening process is IMO the real work of this age, without which we are doomed to repeat over and over the mistakes of our unconscious conditioned minds.

  223. Gary,
    I implement aspects of Alan Savory’s practices on my farm with 23 cows. It is all a matter of scale and management. People like Joel Salatin and Greg Judy do it on a scale of hundreds of cows and acres over the course of a year. I do it on a scale of dozens. It is all about managing the paddock size and, as Alan Savory says, moving the cattle before they can do harm and giving the pastures plenty of time to regrow and re-energize. I am not going to argue that there are enough people REALLY managing their grass along these lines, nut he number is growing, and with proper management it can work in any climate.
    As far as managed herd or natural herds, I think it can work either way. I personally prefer the surety of calories represented by well managed herds. I also think an intelligently managed agrarian landscape is quite beautiful. We have black bears, coyotes, pretty much the full range of species, where I live. By the way, while some of my neighbors have had predation problems with coyotes and other animals, we really haven’t, except with our chickens(foxes from time to time, but not in recent years even though the chickens free roam. We figure slight predation losses of something like chickens just fits us into the natural ecosystem Again, it is all a matter of management. I time calving so that the cows are near the barn, not in some far corner of the farm. The chickens live next to the horses and donkeys, thus keeping many predators at a distance.
    As for your final question of taming ourselves along with animals, I don’t think that is perhaps the right way to look at it. Keeping animals does limit one’s freedom – they always have to be chored. But for me, it is a matter of a symbiotic relationship. I gain a lot of satisfaction from caring for them and from interacting with them. But animal husbandry is not for everybody. Cows and horses have personalities and do interact, with each other and with people. As for brutalizing ourselves because we kill and eat the animals we keep, I don’t think it is any more true for a hunter gatherer than it is for an agrarian farmer/herder. People can be loving and kind or harsh and brutal in any situation – it is all a matter of personal choice and acculturation.

  224. Ron,
    Frankly, I find your willingness to delegate reprogramming to people you think have the “right” mindset to be truly frightening. It smacks of Eurocentric ethnocentrism in the extreme. What is right for you may be completely wrong for me, and I take great care to live as lightly as possible. You set such a subjective standard – as mike k points out, the line between a sufi teacher and nazism is mighty thin.
    All that said, I do believe there are universal rules – even the Bible attempted to lay them out: “Do unto others. . .” I recommend reading Martin Luther King, Jr’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”, where he lays out an argument for distinguishing between just and unjust laws. I teach my students that anyone can apply King’s test to their lives. I also recommend Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic” essay in Sand County Almanac.

  225. To do what we are doing now as we deny our responsibilities for massively extirpating biodiversity, recklessly dissipating natural resources and irreversibly degrading the environment while we righteously fulfill dubious duties of ravagi
    ng the world; to leave for the children the task of cleaning up the mess we are making, for returning the world to a habitat fit for life as we know it. Something seems somehow not quite right about all of it, especially the absence of balance.

  226. Rob M — You said, “as mike k points out, the line between a Sufi teacher and Nazism is mighty thin.” Actually I did not mean to convey that idea. The line between Sufism and Nazism is very clear and obvious to all but the most unconscious and deluded. It is just that some of the methods of each of those schools of thought bear superficial resemblance.

    The whole issue of cults and reprogramming bears a lot of highly emotional baggage, and needs some study to be clear about. We are constantly exposed to experiences that program our brains. There are those who seek to influence us from various motives. We are bombarded with advertising messages, political ideology, cultural mythology. The fact that we have memory means that we are chock full of conditioning, programming — some functional, some not. The important issue is whether we are conscious of our conditioning, and hence in a position to choose whether to be guided by it, or to change or delete it. Real education helps us to develop this capacity for self reflective consciousness. Without it we are no better than mindless zombies unthinkingly and reflexively enacting our programming.

    Authentic spiritual paths of practice are about awakening our capacity to live consciously. A cursory glance at our world makes it clear that it is not the product of such minds. Only madpersons could create the kind of nightmare we are inhabiting. To not see this would be symptomatic of the problem in question. The healing we need is to become free of the learned madness of our own minds. I append a little poem I wrote about Hubris.

    If you don’t hurt
    You may be sicker
    Than you think

    If you don’t cry
    Your heart
    May be frozen

    If you haven’t
    Screamed yet
    Your sanity has
    Become a disease

  227. Ron, Rob, Mike K: I feel that this is a fruitful area of discussion, and very much pertains to the state of the species. I was looking at unlearning and rewilding out of my own experience and was thinking of it primarily as an inner process. Now that you speak about this as a group behavior I can see that I have had my own small support group. That group has consisted of one friend and maybe a score or so of authors, with Daniel Quinn, Chellis Glendenning, Jim Mason, Fritjof Capra, Lewis Mumford, Paul Sheppard, Charles Eisenstein, Richard Adrian Reese, and Derrick Jensen being the most influential. For anyone who has not yet seen through civilization, I highly recommend Jensen’s Endgame: The Problem of Civilization. If you think cities are great, he’ll get you to reconsider that proposition, too. (They are unsustainable mini-empires.) Richard Adrain Reese has written a sentence that I very much identify with. “I also happened to notice that people who had not been intensely studying and discussing the Earth Crisis for 20 years inhabited a mindscape that was totally unrelated to my own.” Luckily, I’ve had a friend for those twenty years who has read the same books I have, which we’ve discussed at length. Two other factors have helped me in this process of decolonizing and reindigenizing: I’ve learned to allow a lot of quiet in my life, so that I can hear my own inner voices; and I live close to Nature. I have the luxury of walking in Old Growth forest every day. Spending time among the trees and the forest ecosystem offers a counterpoint (and antidote) to the manmade world and its craziness. As my friend Tim say, “No contrast, no information.” If you guys lived in my rural (rather redneck) community, I’d be excited to get together as a group. Since that isn’t the situation, I’m glad to meet you here. GG

  228. Gary — Welcome aboard our ship of not entirely fools. I too live in the boonies — Eastern Kentucky. I live on my farm in the forest and do quite a bit of reading along the lines you shared. I think your insight about the advantages of a shared journey of awakening are right on. Why not start a small group to meet on a weekly or biweekly basis? My wife and I took part in starting one twenty-five years ago, and it is still going. We share where we are on our journey, what we are reading, projects etc. It’s a great help. Awakening to the real nature of our society can be a lonely and disturbing process. Going through it with mutual support makes it more possible and even fun in spite of the serious nature of a lot of our discoveries. It is true that we grow apart in many ways from those who have yet to begin awakening to reality. It is a real pleasure if our sharing can help someone who is beginning to walk down that path. The living presence of Nature around us continues to be a profound influence and blessing on my life.

  229. Ron, in a recent post you speak about a group and its leader. I believe it is possible and desirable to have a group without a single leader. In fact, it may be that the whole concept of hierarchy is a cultural creation and not a reflection of the nature of the Universe. Thanks to Fritjof Capra’s book, The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems (1996) I got introduced to the concept of autopoiesis, which literally means self-making, but also includes other self-induced functions such as self-regulation and self-healing. An autopoetic network is self-bounded, self-generating, and self-perpetuating. Once you assimilate this concept you begin to realize that this is not what our culture tells us. The flip side of autopoiesis is allopoeisis, which assumes that something from the outside causes whatever is to be. If there is a creation there must be a creator. This is one of our cultural memes. But maybe that’s not the way it is at all, and indeed autopoiesis suggests otherwise. It would say that all that is is self-generating. We may still be stuck with chicken and egg problems, but the concept remains highly useful. Let me give an example that comes out of recent dialog in this forum. Prairie grasses and herding ungulates co-evolve in an emergent ice-free world and develop a symbiotic relationship in which each flourishes in interaction with the other. That’s an autopoetic system. Now comes along the Master Species with its own ideas about how things should be done. Let’s put a fence around some of that grass and put as much livestock on it as the land will bear, or perhaps a bit more. That’s an allopoetic system, directed from the outside by featherless bipeds. A more enlightened breed of these creatures comes along and figures they’ll mimic what Nature did long ago, only using managed cattle instead of the wild herds of old. This is better for the land, but it’s still an allopoetic system.
    I have to admit, Ron, that I too found your conception of the “right” group with the “right” leader pretty scary to contemplate. Too hierarchical, too allopoetic, too likely to go awry. Many Native groups held council without a single, authoritative leader, and slowly worked toward consensus. Groups of people CAN be self-organizing and self-regulating, and that’s the kind I find most attractive.

  230. Gary — Is it possible that because so many of our problems in the world have been exacerbated by really bad leadership, that the very word leader sticks in your craw? I have had the same reaction. All of the groups that I participate in now are “leaderless”. I like that format for many reasons. But on the other hand, over time, I have come to realize that there are situations and contexts where a leadership model is really the best way to go. In emergencies, for example. And although the groups I attend are formally and stubbornly “leaderless”, it turns out that some people spontaneously take on functions within the group that are hard to distinguish from leadership. Some have called this the emergence of sapiential leadership. Some have knowledge or skills that mean in given cicumstances they will take the lead in performing, sharing, or teaching what they are more qualified to do. This does not mean that they are given the title of leader, or that they will not resume an equal position as a member of the group when they have contributed what they had to. Does this make any sense to you?

  231. Let me say one more thing. Small groups can be the crucible in which what is needed to create a new human world can be forged. They represent a creative challenge essential to discovering/creating the kind of people who can live together in peace and harmony, and realize the maximum potential of all of us.
    There is no more sacred vessel than a few people coming together to discover and enact the truth. If we are unable to see the wisdom and necessity of engaging this process on an expanding scale, we have little chance to solve our problems, or eventually to even survive. I see this as the sine qua non of our possible future.

  232. mike k, There was a segment on NPR a couple weeks back highlighting a new study showing the Animal Kingdom was really more an Animal Democracy (with exceptions). When an elephant herd is on the move looking for food and water the oldest female often leads the way. It’s usually a large male who stands guard when the group is preoccupied with eating or drinking. This is much as you describe in your post when you say, ”it turns out that some people spontaneously take on functions within the group that are hard to distinguish from leadership.” Your right, this IS leadership, what I would call spontaneous or emergent leadership, and I would say that this form of shifting leadership is likelier to provide satisfactory results than a permanently installed authoritarian structure, which tends to very quickly ossify into rigidity. And I think you’re right about small, well-informed groups who have learned to work together as being our best hope for a viable future. A lot of people now recognize that going local and building community is the best way to weather an uncertain future, but that top-down, hierarchical model holds sway right now. I believe the autopoetic, self-organizing group is better adapted to evolutionary success.

  233. Gary — I agree with your thoughts on small groups completely. What we need to do now is get some of these going. Then we could think about networking with other groups, which could ultimately result in a movement. AA is an excellent model for how fully autonomous small groups can be part of a movement without giving rise to the hierarchical and monetary problems that beset so many groups and movements. I have lots of ideas and decades of experience with these types of groups, and would gladly share ideas on how to get started and how to structure such groups. Radical equality in the group process is a key consideration, somewhat along the lines developed by the Iroquois Confederacy. Let me know your thoughts on this…

  234. To start this, I would like to disagree with myself. In a previous entry, I mentioned having the “right” people “in charge”. True, these words and some of my others could indicate support for or lead to an autocratic system of governance. After posting, I realized that those words were misleading in regard to what I wanted to say. What I wanted to do was show support for a governance system that “I liked or approved of”.

    I have just read Gary and mike k’s discussion of allopoetic and autopoetic governance systems and I think the autopoetic idea comes closest to what I might like. Governance is a complex problem. I will check out the Fritjof Capra book.

    Also just so you know, I am an old codger who has been in Japan (about 40 miles north of Tokyo in the city of Tsuchiura) for around 20 years teaching English. Before Japan, when I lived in Texas, I designed and built my own house (using about 50% recycled wood) on 50 acres roughly 50 miles south of Dallas TX. When Gary Gripp talks about walking through Old Growth forest or mike k talks about living in the boonies in Kentucky, I become green with envy mixed with nostalgia thinking of the former 50 acres I had that was basically a tired old cotton field with a creek at the back. Most of the soil I had was depleted of nutrients and my biggest crop was scraggly locust trees. I lived on the place for ten years trying to maintain it as a nature preserve before selling and finding myself here in Japan. From my beginning I have been a science person although my interests have strayed widely over the mental landscape. I’ve done freelance technical writing as well as photography in fairly successful attempts to keep from starving. Japan appealed to my anthropological interest from the beginning and still does.

  235. Ron — Good to hear from you. From your sharing I would never characterize you as codgerly. I am entering my eighties myself, but don’t really consider myself “old”. Beware of ageism, a subtle negative mindset embraced by much of our culture. I admire your ability to respond thoughtfully to criticism. That shows me a maturity beyond the defensive egotism I am working to overcome in myself. From your previous thoughts I knew that your comments were not meant to support some sort of shallow authoritarianism.

    You say “governance is a complex problem”. In my mind it is THE problem we all face. It involves not only the situation of social governance, but the complex problem of internal rule of ourselves. How do we rule within our own brain/body system? As Plato wrote the two governances are intimately related. As Confucius saw, how we govern ourselves determines how we will behave in relation to others in widening circles. A fundamentalist mindset will project itself into the field of social relations, while a more open and flexible and thoughtful person will seek similar principles in larger social contexts. Thus work on ourselves will produce improved relations with others. Spiritual paths found themselves on this understanding. To improve oneself is key to creating a better world.

    My interest in Zen Buddhism almost brought me to Japan. There is much to be admired in authentic Japanese wisdom culture. I envy your immersion in all that.

  236. Ron and mike, you both speak of the issue of governance. I’m not sure we can look for good models in our own civilized history. We’ve been conquerors, dominators, and authoritarian oppressors for so long, we haven’t cultivated models of peace, justice and equality—though we’ve mouthed those words aplenty. When it comes to governance, I think scale is crucial. I’ve made a study of the Karuk Tribe of California, a people who have lived along the upper-mid Klamath River for at least nine thousand years. They lived in small settlements of from ten to thirty individuals scattered along some seventy miles of river. Each settlement was its own sovereign entity, consisting mostly of extended family units, with a respected male taking ultimate responsibility. What united these mini-villages was a shared language and culture. They had no judicial system, no prison system, no police or standing military. They enforced the mores of the group by peer pressure, and they dealt with interpersonal offenses, from battery to theft to murder, by levying specified fines for every infraction. When you live in place for a very long time, and you mean to continue to live there, you gauge your actions and punishments upon the knowledge that you are going to have to live with the land and the persons long after any particular action you might take. That causes people to be circumspect and rather conservative in what they do. I’m not denying that living a lifetime closely with others with little chance of escape has its own psychological tyrannies. Nor was this society perfectly egalitarian. Certain families had the best fishing sites, the best acorn gathering sites. Dance leaders “owned” certain dances, and were held in higher esteem than others. And the medicine people, the diviners and healers, were held in highest regard. But the flip side was, if they didn’t produce good results, they could lose not only their prestige but their lives. The human being is a contrary creature and people living together seldom produce perfect harmony. But, imperfect as it is, I like this model better than most others I’ve seen. And I believe that having a long-term relationship with the land helps complete a part of the human being– and that this is something most of us footloose occupiers have not had the pleasure of knowing. (Ron, you are right to envy my access to old growth forest. I in turn envy those with a deep long term relationship to one particular place—a relationship that goes back countless generations. Now that’s belonging!

  237. Ron, I want to echo mike’s admiration of your ability to react to criticism in a positive way. I guess other people take it for granted, but it amazes me that we are separated by so much space but can nevertheless confer on weighty issues. I guess I’m the youngster here at seventy. You know, in a sane society we would be revered as the wise elders and people would mark and weigh our words. In tribal societies that was the norm. In ours, not so much.

  238. mike k and Gary Gripp: thanks for your kind words. I also greatly appreciate your thinking. It is truly an amazing world that we can exchange ideas over such wide space.

    I was born in 1934, which is the year cited by Charles C. Mann as being the year the book “The Struggle for Existence” by Georgii Gause was published. For vague and probably irrational reasons I was pleased at getting this bit of information. I just had my 78th birthday.

    A thought for Gary Gripp: in regard to the Karuk Tribe. Did you find that the control of the tribe tended to be fair? In particular I’m wondering about the spiritual beliefs of the group. My own experience of growing up in a small town in Texas (a transplanted 19th century German town of about 500 population) was that from birth I was constantly pushed, maneuvered and the subject of brain-washing attempts. The idea of governance in small groups has great appeal to me but I worry about spiritual control. Then again perhaps spiritual freedom is really a separate topic from daily governance.

    P.S. I noticed some mention of forming a discussion group. I would be interested in taking part in that if it were to happen.

  239. Until environmentalists acknowledge that the human overpopulation of Earth is nothing less than a proverbial “mother” of all global human-induced challenges to future human well being and environmental health, there is no sensible way to begin addressing and overcoming such a rapidly growing, leviathan-like ‘elephant in the living room’ of our planetary home.

    It appears to me that anyone who wishes to acknowledge ‘the elephant’ has to accept the ecological science of human population dynamics and, by so doing, come to see that the population dynamics of the human species is essentially similar to the population dynamics of other species; that human beings are immutably bound by species-specific limits as well as Earth’s biophysical limitations.

  240. With respect to all, the most far-reaching and profound statement I have seen in this conversation follows.

    111 Ivan Icin on Nov 04, 2012

    So, limiting the {population}growth is actually much more simple than you would think, just limit fuel supply of that.

    Very best regards,


  241. Of course you are absolutely right, Steve, about the population elephant, but I wonder what you think that we humans, steeped in the culture we are, can, or will, do about it? Limiting our food supply, one way or another, is sure to work in limiting our numbers. Some super-bug may also help. I don’t see human agency coming into the matter, given (again) our culture. We could be preparing for a softer landing, but we’re not. Too many vested interests in the status quo. I would again recommend Daniel Quinn’s The Story of B—not your peer reviewed science journal, but a very clear-eyed vision of the population dynamic you speak of. According to scientist Guy McPherson (found somewhere on his blog, Nature Bats Last, we are soon to face positive feedback loops of methane release uncovered as arctic ice continues to melt. As you know, positive feedback loops are runaway self-amplifying processes that have their way with the world, no matter what. I know there are some scientific types and some crackpots out there willing to experiment with the Earth’s biosphere using geo-engineering. I’m also aware of the Law of Unintended Consequences. We just don’t know enough to run Spaceship Earth. According to McPherson, the only way to prevent this impending catastrophe is for industrial civilization to shut down tomorrow, and yesterday would have been better. For obvious reasons, you don’t hear about this in the mainstream media, but methane release is happening just the same.
    Ron and mike k, I too, would be interested in a discussion group if someone knows how to arrange such a thing. GG

  242. Ron, about the time you were growing up in Texas, Sherwood Anderson (Winesbutg, Ohio) and Sinclair Lewis (Main Street) were writing about the oppression of growing up in small town America. The psychological tyranny of small group living can be oppressive in the extreme. But I would point out one major difference between traditional indigenous cultures and our own. We are an imperial and missionary people who are owners of the One True Truth. It is our privilege and burden (the white man’s burden) to share this Truth with all, whether they like it or not. Near as I can tell from years of study on this issue, this is simply not the indigenous way. In general, they are respectful of diversity in all its manifestations. I cannot know all the nuanced dynamics of pre-contact group life in each of the small settlements along the Klamath River. But I take a cue from one of the finest pieces of anthropological work done in the twentieth century: Make Prayers to the Raven, by Richard Nelson. He lived among the Koyukon people for many years, and was scrupulously respectful and humble in all he recorded about their ways. He found them to be highly tolerant of idiosyncrasy and individuality among their peers. They all shared a reverence for life and every living thing, joining in group rituals and practices and ways of relating to the other natural beings who shared their world, but a person’s individual spiritual journey was considered their own private business and not the province of coercion of any kind.
    I spoke of the Karuk as a possible model for a future world with far fewer people, because their governance seemed to emerge autopoetically from their living conditions, their personalities, and their culture. It was not top-down and authoritarian. If human survivors try to reconstitute civilization, or take with them the seeds of autocratic imperialism, and they are the owners of the One True Truth, then it starts all over again: the overpopulation, the class system, private property, expansion, war, the will to power, runaway technology, and the deepening degradation of the Earth, and of all Life. As I’ve tried to make clear, I do not see all these things as inevitable expressions of a flawed human nature. I think it’s the culture. And though it’s not easy, culture is easier to change than nature. That means there is still hope for us as a species.

  243. Gary — In regard to your last post, the Koyukon seem to have had some good ways of balancing the need for some social cohesion with the equally important need for individual differences and creativity. The book The Different Drum by Scott Peck explores the search for synergy between these two goals. My work with a Sufi group, and my long association with AA have presented me with fruitful ways to harmonize the values of the one and the many that were liberating and enhancing rather than controlling and limiting.
    Whether our future will find ways to reorganize us along these spiritual and life affirming lines is an open question. We see the results of a world pursuing coercion, authority, and xenophobia. If we are ever to give birth to a different social system, then we need to create and live within models of such a possibility now. The creation of small groups designed to learn how to be the people who can live together thusly should be our business today. One inevitable function of such a small group has to be to help heal each of us of the dysfunctions and misunderstandings we have inherited from living within our deeply flawed present culture. In that sense the new type of group would engage in personal and group therapy, without the baggage of current psychological treatment systems. A group such as this would aim to be transformative, and would operate experimentally and creatively to give birth to the new human and the new society. Big order eh? But tell me how else we can elicit and field test the new world we long for?
    As an initial phase I do not envision people living closely together to do this work, but only being close enough geographically to have at least once a week meetings together. We need to reach a level of inner development that would be adequate to take on larger and more challenging endeavors. So many small intentional communities start up among folks, who only discover too late that they are not up to the requirements for bringing off such a project, due to the flawed egos and inadequate understandings that they bring to the game.

  244. As to starting an online discussion group — this is it. Orion provides an accessible venue with the kind of readership that might be interested in our ideas about the world’s problems and what we might propose to do about them. It is true that online discussion has some drawbacks compared to face to face groups, but it also has some advantages. At best it can lead us to convene face to face groups. Perhaps we can learn enough here to motivate us to start a group in our area. Meanwhile, carry on — I feel we are exploring some meaningful ideas…

  245. Who knows, maybe for now we have to constitute the struggle for a future on a win – lose basis to get folks interested, kind of a survival Olympics.

    How about this?


  246. I vote for:


    Actually Japanese elementary schools and to some extent high schools incorporate something of this idea in their sports. Winning accolades are rarely heaped on a single person. They have cleaver systems that spread the winning over many participants.

  247. Or: I will not cease to labor until all beings are free from suffering. (A version of the Bodhisattva’s Vow)

  248. Selfishness — an excessive and exclusive concern for one’s own well being is a root cause of our burgeoning difficulties. All real spiritual paths seek to undermine and reverse this pernicious tendency. Can we learn to replace vicious competition with loving cooperation? That question hangs over our human world. Those emergent intelligences in the universe who fail to solve this problem destroy themselves, and are prevented from spreading their disease beyond their planet of origin.

  249. Dear Gary G. and Friends,

    If only I had one ‘answer’ to the excellent series of questions prompted by Charles Mann’s superb work and the equally remarkable conversation deriving from it. That would be the very best thing. Sad to say, I am at a loss to know what to do. It appears to me after years of thinking and seeking that my lot is to apprehend dimly the human predicament, according to the lights and scientific knowledge possess, but not to discern more. Others will have to help all of us get from this moment in space-time to the future, I suppose. Getting from here to there appears as a mystery. All this said, my faith in the very best collected attributes of humankind gives rise to hope that somehow a humane and sustainable path to future human well being and environmental health will be consciously chosen and and deliberately followed…. come what may.

    As ever,


  250. Steve — You are not alone in being deeply daunted by our global problems. The nature of our situation is that there are no simple solutions to all we are confronting (or too often avoiding). Although our path is unclear, however we have a lot of knowledge and creative methods that can be brought to bear. Out of all the sincere efforts that are in progress it is likely that some real progress is possible, if not guaranteed. The irony of our present impasse is that we need to deeply experience the worst of it all in order to go forward intelligently. This can give rise to feelings of despair and hopelessness. But to look only at the bright side can be fatally deluding. I give you and others who look at our world without rose tinted glasses a lot of credit. We are realists in our own way. We have no choice but to go on seeking answers in spite of the gathering darkness. Good luck to all of us Seekers. Journey on friends…

  251. Steve, I too go blank, or nearly so, when it comes to envisioning a way to get from here to there, especially when I add the stipulation of “fairly painlessly.” (“Here” is destroying our life support system; “there” is living in balance with the entire Community of Life.) That is why my focus is on the “afterwards scenario.” Of course I would prefer for all of humans to come together and unanimously decide to take the necessary steps to forestall or prevent our demise, as well as that of our fellow Earthlings. But I’m afraid the preferred alternative just isn’t on the table. It would disrupt too many peoples’ revenue streams, and aren’t revenue streams what life is all about? Certainly that is the assumption that most of us share—while also neglecting to notice that the Human Economy is nested within the Natural Economy, and that when it goes ours goes. It’s magical thinking, but our corporate media assures us every day that there’s no such connection. Living in cities, how are they to know any better? Food just appears on the shelves. Water flows from the tap. What has that got to do with Nature? And today the Dow Jones is up eighty points because we may after all avoid the fiscal cliff. That’s the bubble we live in, and you know what happens to bubbles. A beautiful big bubble floats along, floats along, and then it pops. I want to know what’s going be left afterwards to rebuild a better life on this planet, and for me that includes not just humans but the entire—interdependent–Community of Life.

  252. Mike k, You are in Kentucky and I am in Oregon, Ron is in Japan, Steve is in North Carolina, and the other MIKE K (not heard from lately) is in Australia. I don’t think any of us will be able to make your weekly meetings, as interesting as that might prove. This is the first time I’ve joined this Orion forum, and I’m happy to hear from you, who are a veteran here, that we are using this venue as it is intended to be used, and are not just hijacking the site as a place to ride our own hobbyhorses. When it devolves to that, I’ll probably get onto other things. But meanwhile I think we are all still pretty much aiming at the target of the state of the species—or, as I see it, the state of the world in relation to the dominant culture.

  253. Gary — You echo many of my own thoughts and feelings. You might enjoy Carolyn Baker’s book Sacred Demise, in which she sees the ongoing collapse as a lawful and necessary event reflecting the inevitable karmic results of our age old dysfunctional living. And maybe there are things to be learned and new possibilities worth considering and preparing for whatever aftermath scenario unfolds. Her reasonable conclusion is that trying to stop the collapse from happening is no only wasted effort, but it is trying to abort a natural process needed to purify our world from the tendencies that are leading to collapse. To try to stop this inevitable result of our misbehavior is like the doting parent who tries to avoid the inevitable collapse of her addicted child. Trying to prop up our rotten culture is a waste of time that only prolongs the agony.

  254. mike k


    I recall Bucky Fuller saying he saw the future as going from YOU OR ME to YOU AND ME. Even if a bit utopian that does seem a worthy goal. But that is a long way off. Just think of the population level necessary to even imagine such a condition.

    In the mean time we live in a competitive environment. Given that, what would be the most healthy type of competition that would give us promise of a better future? I’ll go with:


    Its positive ecological implications would seem to be obvious. I think it nicely weds survival values to competition, whether individual or group competition.

  255. David — The competitive mythology that is doing so much to destroy the world is a dangerous lie. I would not recommend it for anything but the rubbish heap of history. There is an adrenal high associated with competitive activity that the ego grows to love, especially if one is a
    “winner”. Voluntary simplicity is part of most spiritual paths. But so is the reduction of ego and its addictions. Those who are the best competitors in the sordid game of greed and grab rise to the top of the power hierarchy. From there hubris completes the ruin of what could have been a simple human being. Let’s play games of cooperation where all are equally benefited. Differential economic rewards are a cornerstone of our failing societies. When we stop competing with each other a peaceful world will become a possibility. OMG is he talking about Socialism! Yes, something like that.

  256. David M, you say, “We live in a competitive environment,” and seem to accept that as our present reality. On one level you are absolutely right; but on another level, not. The competition and hyper-individualism we experience in our daily lives is not a clear, undistorted reflection of the world the way it actually is. For the most part, the dog-eat-dog world of ruthless competition is a cultural construction. Those who gain most by winner-take-all rules, make sure such rules stay in place. And this same elite Establishment who buys their politicians and their laws is not shy about co-opting legitimate science to their own ends, as they’ve done with the dogma, Survival of the Fittest. What applies partially at the group level, they have reduced to the level of the individual, and pretty soon you end with such reductionist nonsense as the “selfish gene.” In her eye-opening book, EarthDance: Living Systems in Evolution, evolutionary biologist Elisabet Sahtouris, takes a much longer and more holistic view of things. The first hundred pages of her excellent book are all about single celled life, the prokaryotes and the eukaryotes, and what she shows is how, in the first few billion years of life’s evolution on Earth, these organisms (or perhaps the Life Force itself) explored one experiment after another after another, to the point that all the multi-celled creatures that followed these pioneers never came up with an original strategy for living that was uniquely their own. They’d all been explored before, at a different, and simpler, scale. This is important because there were experiments that didn’t work out very well. One strategy, for one particular class of eukaryote, was the warring, imperial strategy. They’’d just wipe out all the competition, and enslave all the others that they didn’t kill. Can you guess why that strategy didn’t work out very well in the long run? (And by the way, does that strategy remind you of any particular contemporary group you can think of?)
    The reason this strategy didn’t work and doesn’t work is because, in the words of Heraclitus, ”All things come out of the One and the One out of all things.” In 1967 Arthur Koestler coined the word, holon, which means something that is a whole which is also part of a larger whole. A cell, for instance, is made up of atoms, and goes to make up an organ, which is part of an organ system, which goes to make up an organism. All are interrelated and interdependent and are part of a larger system which Koestler dubbed a holarchy. No living creature can ever be entirely independent. In Sahtouris’ words, “It is always a holon within larger holons.” The relationship of one holon to another is therefore not one of autonomy, but one of holonomy. Holons exist in holonic interdependence.( She coins this word and explains the concept on p.51 of EarthDance.) These are conceptual breakthroughs that have not yet radiated out into society at large. My friend, Tim Fox, and I have been exploring the implications of this insight into the nature of the Universe—the Universe being the One that comes out of all things, and out of which all things come. And what we think we see here is a basis for all morality and all moral action. We call it the Law of Holonic Reciprocity. Aldo Leopold comes close to stating the essence of this Law when he says: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
    So, let’s apply the Law of Holonic Reciprocity to the human as we relate to all other holons within the holarchy. (Given this view of the world, I don’t see what that could leave out.) What, I would ask, is our responsibility to this larger whole, to the holarchy? First, do no harm. But more than that, I would say that we humans are called upon to make a positive contribution to the well-being of the Whole. I’d say we incur that debt simply by being born. We take our life from the world and we owe the world something for the life we’re given. Tim has an elegant way of formulating this. With R standing for resilience (resilience meaning what science now signifies by the term),ask the question: is any given human action R-Negative or R-Positive? Are we contributing to the well-being of the whole, or are we taking away? The Law of Holonic Reciprocity is the Law of the Universe. It’s intuitive; it makes sense; it has survival value. Now, when are we going to start living by that Law?

  257. Gsry I’m not really evolved enough to know what taking care of the world means in any kind of grand sense. I do have some sense of what original sin might mean. There is something in us that is bound to screw things up. Therefore there should be much less of us and the civilization we have evolved needs to be deconstructed to give us less destructive opportunities.

    As to “Those who gain most by winner-take-all rules, make sure such rules stay in place” doesn’t seem to be a very good fit with the competition I have offered.


    Here it’s winner-take-least. The value it suggests is a kind of Golden Rule – Call it the rule of least imposition.

    mike k

    “David — The competitive mythology”

    It’s not a mythology as far as nature. Without it there is no evolution. Our job is to tame it.

  258. Mike k,you give an articulate summary of Carolyn Baker’s excellent book. I’m impressed with the understanding, and precision, that went into that post.In that book she mentiones the independent dicumentary film, What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire. This is a quick way for those who haven’t spent years reading the authors and thinkers who are interviewed here to become acquainted with the underlying (but mostly ignored) issues of our moment in history. I haven’t read her more recent book, have you?

  259. Steve, from several of your posts I get the distinct impression that you believe that if the human population were to drop (by how much, I don’t know) all would be right with the world. You say, “overpopulation of Earth is nothing less than a proverbial ‘mother’ of all global human-induced challenges.” In other words, all the human-induced challenges we face (along with the rest of the living planet) can be traced to this single cause. I don’t disagree with the main thrust of this observation. Of course we’ve overshot the carrying capacity of our biological support system, and what’s left of it we continue to degrade. But I would say that overpopulation is more symptom than cause, or if cause, then proximate cause, not ultimate cause. In other words, what causes overpopulation? It doesn’t just happen in a vacuum, or of its own accord. What are the conditions that allow us to overpopulate?
    I think I have to agree with those who point to a surplus of food created by agriculture as being a NECESSARY CONDITION for serious overpopulation to occur. It’s a necessary condition but not SUFFICIENT in and of itself. Something else comes into play that helps convert surplus food into surplus human beings, and I say that something is culture—and not just any culture, but our particular culture. It is difficult to have absolutely certain knowledge about pre-history, but what I infer from my study of prehistoric indigenous cultures (and also pre-and post contact historic indigenous groups) is that the overwhelming majority understood themselves to have a compact with the Cosmos, the Great Spirit, the Great Mystery, the Life Force, or whatever we might call it, and this was a compact they felt honor-bound to honor. It was a debt and responsibility they incurred simply by being born, by being alive in a world of abundance, beauty, and wonder. They sometimes failed, (as occasionally so did the abundance) but they made a serious effort to live by the Law of Reciprocity, which says you give back as good as you get, and then you give a little bit more, to show appreciation. At the heart of these indigenous cultures was a recognition that all life is sacred, as is all that makes life possible. In general, and with some much ballyhooed exceptions, their credo was: Take no more than you need, and waste nothing. There was a bond between Nature and the human being that held strong for tens of thousands of years. And then that bond was broken, broken by our ancestors, the people who set in motion what is now recognized as the culture of civilization.
    Instead of trusting to the Earth to provide for them, and feeling gratitude for what was freely offered, they decided to take things into their own hands—to become as gods themselves. That’s how it began, as best I can piece it together, and ten thousand years later you have the Earth in the crisis we find it in today. The way I see it, it was this break with Nature–this fiction that we are somehow separate from Nature, and that Nature is just a pile of resources put here exclusively for human use—that started us down this path (or eight-lane superhighway) we find ourselves on today. That is why, for me, reducing our numbers only deals with half the issue. The other half is that we are in wrong relationship to Nature (of which we are a part, just as it is part of us), and until we get that relationship right, we are going to continue to make a mess of this living world. It’s two problems, not just one, and to solve it we have to see it as two.

  260. Gary, I don’t disagree with what you say but I think there are two rather prosaic ideas that should be factored into the story when thinking about our large population: One: Worry about someone taking care of us in our old age and Two: A wish for immortality.
    Upon reaching adulthood, many start worrying about who will take care of them should they become incapacitated. Especially if child mortality is high then we feel our chances of have a caretaker is higher should we have more children. Also, I imagine that a wish for immortality can influence the number of our children.

  261. Gary et al — I am really enjoying and learning from the conversation that has developed on this blog. It is this kind of attention and concern that is needed to come up with things to help in our desperate plight. I envision a spreading network of small groups of concerned folks working to understand and solve our difficulties. Unless people are willing to come together with friends to work on these things, I don’t see much hope. More about this later. For now I am caught up in a busy day of turkey feasting and distant relatives catching up together. Have a good one yourselves friends!

  262. Dear Gary G,

    I think of you as a kindred spirit, with whom I am in agreement 95% of the time. That matters most. The few things where we do see ‘eye to eye’ are really insignificant. Thank you for sharing so deeply thought out a perspective.



  263. Mike and Steve and Ron,
    Thank you for the encouragement. I’ve been studying these issues for more than twenty years, and only now are some things starting to fall into place. This forum, and your participation, has provided the impetus to discover and articulate what unconscious processes have been working on in their own dark way. Thanks again for taking an interest.

  264. For a discussion group I suggest that some kind of structure might be helpful. For example one person would present an idea and others could then respond within some designated time frame. Participants could take turns presenting ideas. This is only a suggestion. I’m open to whatever.

    Some thoughts on homo sapiens:

    As we’ve discussed here It looks like homo sapiens is set to be devastated. So how big would the devastation be? We don’t know and can only make guesses at it. Perhaps the worst case from the viewpoint of a homo sapiens, would be that all homo sapiens would be wiped out. I think this is a possibility. But what if some can continue to live on a severely damaged planet?

    After the dust settled, a badly broken human society would then continue. Most likely a classical Newtonian concept of the world would continue. However this view of the world is flawed in my opinion and if there is no change from that I think homo sapiens is doomed to repeat its previous debacle. Humanity would be on a Sisyphean cycle.

    There is another possibly I think and that is if the quantum world would begin to dominate human society. Why this could or would happen is not clear at this point. One large difference between a quantum world and a Newtonian world is that in a Newtonian world people consider themselves separate from the world and from each other while in a quantum world, all people are integrally part of the world. When a researcher does an experiment in the quantum world he must include himself as part of the setup. In a Newtonian world, the researcher considers himself outside of the lab setup. In a quantum world all is one, everything is connected. In a Newtonian world we go to doctor and say “Heal me”. In the quantum world we go to the doctor and say “Help me heal myself”.

    In a sense, the quantum world is new for many of us in the Western world, but our staid academia and other research institutes have been coming up with it in their latest physics’ discoveries. And what they have come up with is surprisingly similar to beliefs that have been in Buddhist and Taoist thinking for millenniums. This is gross oversimplification but there is truth here.

    I myself, think that the quantum world is several levels deeper (closer to reality) than our Newtonian world. Can homo sapiens adjust to a quantum world? Although it looks unlikely, it may be possible. But I think it is the only salvation available for Homo Sapiens i.e I think there is life preserver out there. Will it live up to is name?

  265. I don’t want to be a wet blanket but I think this oohing and aahing over Carolyn Baker is a bit overdone. She certainly is a woman who has concentrated her mind on the matter of industrial collapse and has some common sense things to say about it. But she has been elevated to some sort of guru status and seems to accept that status judging from her “come to me and I have all the answers around the coming breakdown” approach.

    I’ve seen over and over how good people with important things to say get flipped into silliness when they become shall we say anointed as carriers of “The Truth.”

    No small example of that with Carolyn is that she appears to be a promoter of 911 Truther nonsense.

    Still I am glad to have made an acquaintance with her thoughts. As with everybody else I will try to take the best and leave the rest.

  266. Ron, I want to address your observations about a secure old age and the will toward immortality as they affect the population issue, but I need to establish a little context first.
    We live in a bubble, a bubble of hyper-individualism, hyper-exploitation of resources, and hyper-waste. It’s an age when someone cannot only own several automobiles, but can supply these cars with their own private elevator. How are we able to get away with living the way we do? Over the 4.6 billion years of Earth’s existence, and over the four billion years of evolutionary work by the Life Force experimenting with life forms and living systems, a great abundance had accrued. This is of course in keeping with the larger Cosmic tendency toward ever greater complexity and ever greater diversity. By the time we humans showed up, this process had been going on for quite a long time. Every ecosystem in every region of every continent had been tending toward its optimum level of abundance, complexity, and diversity. The oceans were full of an array of creatures that stagger the imagination. The forests, the prairies, the mountains and rivers, all of the Earth’s eco-zones, were humming along quite nicely—not in static equilibrium, but in dynamic balance. In the biological world, a strategy for system survival developed that protected these interconnected, interdependent networks of beings from shocks. The name for this strategy is resilience, and resilience is built-in to living communities by means of redundancy, of having back-up systems behind back-up systems. If one group of organisms is wiped out by a volcano, a tsunami, a flood or fire, other organisms are there to perform the same ecosystem functions as the species that disappeared. Over the four billion years of creating ever greater complexity, diversity, and abundance, there accrued on this living planet a great store of biological resilience.
    Supporting the biosphere over those billions of years, the geosphere was also in dynamic evolution. Deep within the Earth, mighty powers stirred. On the Earth’s surface, great masses of land migrated, forming and reforming continents. Shifting plates and upwellings from the deep caused various of the Earth’s elements to find their way toward the surface. As molten elements and their compounds cooled they formed deposits of varying size and character.
    Every day of these same 4.6 billion years, the sun has been shining, sending its life-giving warmth to Earth. After photosynthesis developed, that warmth was turned into the living biomass of the plant kingdom, which in turn fed the animal kingdom. These plants and animals eventually died, as did their successors. The accrued biomass was acted upon by the dynamic processes of crustal upthrust and weathering, and eventually found its way into underground chambers where, under heat and pressure, it transformed into concentrated forms of fossil energy–stored sunlight.
    For all the ages of biological evolution, every living creature lived according to the sunlight received on a daily basis—that is, lived within the solar budget of planet Earth. Every creature, including man. And that held right up until about the time of the Industrial Revolution. That is when we started to get serious about mining what we came to call “natural resources.” Metals came first: iron, copper, nickel, silver, gold. Then came coal. And no, it wasn’t “clean” then and it isn’t clean now. Later came oil. Later still, the so-called “rare earths, ” which are rarely found in easily minable concentrations.
    Trees were being mined well before the Industrial Revolution. Unlike the metals and fossil fuels, which we acknowledge are “non-renewable,” trees are considered to be “renewable.” England was once densely forested, as was most of Europe, but those forests were razed, on any number of pretexts (for one, it took six thousand mature oak trees to build a single sailing ship) and those forests have never been seen again. That is not renewable “harvest,” that’s mining. Sustainable use of a “resource” means that draw-down does not exceed the rate of renewal or replenishment. Otherwise, you’re mining. When we Europeans arrived in America, the sky was filled birds, the forests with teeming wildlife, the rivers with fish, and those rivers all ran clear and free. What we have done ever since our arrival here is mine the accrued resilience of four billion years of biological evolution. Bison thundering across the American plains by the tens of thousands; passenger pigeons darkening American skies by the million—all gone now, made extinct by our profligacy, our (culturally sanctioned) careless wanton greed. Complexity and diversity reduced to remnant shards. Abundance transformed into scarcity. We’ve done that with the oceans, too. We’ve mined them to the point of exhaustion and depletion. We’ve done it with everything we could do it with. That is the bubble we are living in. We have just about exhausted all the living systems of the Earth, and are on the verge of depleting what is under the skin of the Earth. For the moment, we can exceed the solar budget of the Earth—and the plan seems to be to go after everything that can be ripped out of the Earth and stripped from the biosphere, until there is nothing left to take.
    At the end of this nightmare, there might still be some people left—and they will have to live within the solar budget, and under extremely harsh conditions of climate. It’s not going to be the Garden of Eden. We have mined that Garden into the ground. So, Ron, this brings me to the issues you raise about a secure old age and yearnings toward immortality. In an earlier phase of human life, when people were living on the interest of the solar budget, and not on its principal, they lived in scattered bands within their tribal territory. As a matter of survival, they lived as cooperative groups, and they took care of their own. If you were a widow without living children, a young hunter and fisher would take the responsibility of providing you firewood and food. Women of the group, not necessarily of blood relation, would see to matters of your health and comfort. It’s a cooperative, reciprocal social economy. What goes around comes around, and it is at the group level that survival has the most meaning. The practice of having many children for the sake of one’s old age and genetic “immortality” is born in the context of the bubble. In egalitarian tribal society, no one individual would be permitted the luxury of four or five or six children. The tribe has a land base, a finite territory, and must live within the means of what that territory will provide. If one person had six offspring, many others would have to have none. No, it wouldn’t be allowed. And never underestimate the power of peer pressure when you are living in a small group in one place over long time. That is the Old Way of people living, and I think it is going to have to be the New Way, too, after the bubble has burst, when the daily solar budget is all there is.

  267. David M, Your comments about “guruhood” reminds me of a poem I have recently had occasion to reacquaint myself with.
    Let Them Alone
    If God has been good enough to give you a poet
    Then listen to him. But for God’s sake let him alone until he is dead; no
    prizes, no ceremony.
    They kill the man. The poet is one who listens
    To nature and his own heart; and if the noise of the world grows up around
    him, and if he is tough enough,
    he can shake off his enemies but not his friends.
    That is what withered Wordsworth and muffled Tennyson, and would have
    Killed Keats. That is what makes
    Hemingway play the fool and Faulkner forget his art. –Robinson Jeffers

    Carolyn Baker is one of the few thinkers writing today who clearly sees civilization for what it is, and I appreciate that about her. Derrick Jensen is of course another such. I think what most delights me about Carolyn Baker is that on the outside she looks like your typical mid-western farm wife, but instead she is a woman of wide reading and deep thought. The human need for acceptance and group status can also be our Achilles heel, as Robinson Jefferson so aptly (more than) hints.

  268. #279 Ron — Your suggestion about structure for our discussion would be appropriate if we were in a face to face meeting. But on line maybe it would not be so necessary. There are always trade offs, but a freewheeling format such as is naturally arising may suit our needs pretty well. Those of us sharing on this site recently exhibit a wide ranging knowledge and interest, such that any topic that arises provokes thought nurtured by many sources and experiences we have had. My feeling is to let the good times roll and trust that some good things will emerge from this rich and varied mix. Such useful ideas and learning are certainly arising for me from our interactions. For one thing, its nice to know that there are folks out there sharing my interests and coming up with some answers to our pressing dilemmas.

  269. Ron, I am totally with you on the limitations of the Newtonian-Cartesian worldview. The insights into “reality” that quantum physics offers have been around for about a hundred years now, and have not yet been embraced by the larger society. Partly, that’s because they aren’t intuitive; they’re not easy for the non-scientist to get comfortable with. And the scientific Establishment itself seems unready for the paradigm shift (ala Thoman Kuhn) necessary to accommodate the newer thinking. Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics speaks to the affinities between quantum physics (and systems thinking) with the ancient spiritual traditions of Taoism and Buddhism. His more recent book, The Web of Life, deals with the scientific breakthroughs of quantum and systems thinkers which still remain outside the scientific mainstream: profound concepts such as autopoiesis and dissipative structures. I, personally, who have no training (or interest) in the mathematics behind either Newtonian nor quantum physics, nevertheless sense that it is important to more fully understand these opposing, or not exactly compatible, points of view. Accordingly, I now own the Great Courses series DVD set, “Einstein’s Relativity and the Quantum Revolution; Modern Physics for Non-Scientists,” and have watched the first three lectures. By the time I’m finished with this course, I hope to have improved my understanding. But, the way I see things, these two different ways of understanding the world both arise out of the same cultural matrix, and are going to share whatever limitations are built in to that culture, including its language.
    Subject-verb-object. This is how we construct our sentences. There’s the subject, me, then there’s the object—and that object is not only separate from but other than me. Our separation from Nature– and our failure to understand our embeddedness in Nature, and its embeddedness in us– is built into our language, and thus into our thinking, our understanding of the way the world is. Not all cultures and not all languages apprehend the world in this way. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus was able to make the formulation, ”All things come out of the One and the One out of all things,” but he was thinking against the grain of his culture. In Metaphors we Live By, Lakoff and Johnson show how even our spatial metaphors reflect assumptions about hierarchy. Above and beneath, high and low, have connotations with value judgments built in. High is obviously better than low. When we look up to somebody it means something different than when we look down on them. Our language is not neutral, and neither is the way we see the world. Our perceptions are actually pre-digested for us, by our culture and our language. I think it is important for future humans to somehow start afresh.
    I am just now reading a book by Masanobu Fukuoka, called Sowing Seeds in the Desert. He is the author of One Straw Revolution, which reached a large audience. This is his last work, and I resisted it because I didn’t want to know about how we are going to feed even more people. But, so far, that’s not what it’s about. As a young man in his mid-twenties, Fukuoka had a number of things go wrong in his life, including losing his job. In a desperate state of mind he walked and walked all through the night, finally sitting down and leaning against a tree overlooking the ocean just before sunrise. When he awoke to the sound of a seagull, he saw the world in an entirely different way. “He saw nature as a single interconnected reality with no intrinsic characteristics. He saw time as an uninterrupted moment of the present with past and future embedded within it.” With this new vision of the world, he went back to his family farm and orchard, and for more than fifty years sought to work with Nature instead of against it. Or, more accurately, let nature do what she has always done better than any human could. That is what his book, The One Straw Revolution, is all about. I’m hoping that future humans will have similar revelations, and take their rightful place within the Community of Life—not the wrongful place we’re in today. We need to see things whole, with holistic thinking, not in shards and fragments. Now we see the separation between all things. We need to the connection, the relationship, between all things, instead.

  270. I propose is that people come together in small groups to consider the total failure of present day modern society to deliver a world that gives all of its members a good life that yields maximum happiness, growth in spirit, peace, and abundant blessings. Most people do not adequately understand the depth of our failure.

    Secondly, the root cause of our failure is in our minds. We are operating out of ideas and motivations that are fundamentally flawed. Unless these errors are corrected, there will be no better human world. So, acknowledging and discerning the errors in our own thinking and understanding is a necessary prelude to becoming aware of and embracing better ways of understanding ourselves and our world.

    Another way to formulate this healing process is that we need to discern and become free of our conditioning in order to approach our situation from a new mind unhampered by old dysfunctional thinking. I am not talking of trading an old conditioning for a new one, but of reaching a state of creativity beyond conditioning. Two basic techniques for achieving this state of inner freedom are self-examination and meditation designed to cultivate a thought free state of pure consciousness. I am not going to explain or defend these in detail. I will at this point only point out that these methods have proven their value throughout history as essential practices in a great variety of spiritual paths and traditions.

    These small groups can be thought of as voluntary re-education projects. There are a variety of teachers whose written works could provide part of our unlearning/relearning curriculum. Some of these resources are excellent to shatter our complacency and unexamined assumptions about ourselves, our word, and what is or is not possible in the way of new ways of being and living.
    Well that is enough for now. I just wanted to put out a sketch of my basic answer thoghts on our predicament. It only pretends to point to a fruitful path to sanity. It is not an “answer”.

  271. Gary — I am familiar with One Straw and Capra’s books. I wonder if any of you have read things by Ken Wilber? One of the groups I participate in spent three years of biweekly meetings studying and discussing his work. He tries to bring science and spirituality up to date in order to marry them successfully. A big order, of course, but his effort is outstanding. Someone, I forget who, mentioned holonic theory. Wilber bases his work on that to a degree. If you are interested, check out Sex, Ecology, Spirituality on Amazon (you can look inside the book).

  272. David M — I disagree with your disparaging comments about Carolyn Baker. I have read her book Sacred Demise and did not find a single shred of evidence for what you are accusing her of. Her work is characterized by personal humility and an explicit request that people make up there own minds about the matters she discusses.
    She has absolutely not set herself up as a “guru.

  273. #281 Gary — You do an admirable job of outlining our Earth history. Some of the Nat Geo and History channel shows of this awesome sequence of utterly unlikely but paradoxically inevitable unfolding help convince me that the cosmic seed, smaller than an atom, that contained the instructions for flowering into our Universe and all that was to come in it, including is my ultimate Father/Mother, or rather that supreme Wisdom that birthed the cosmic seed was my ultimate progenitor. For me, real science is a revelation of spiritual realities beyond our present knowledge. To pretend that we are close to understanding that Reality behind all this awesome display is simply another instance of human hubris.

  274. read: “including us is…”

    I’ve got to start proofing my stuff…

  275. mike k

    “David M — I disagree with your disparaging comments about Carolyn Baker. I have read her book Sacred Demise and did not find a single shred of evidence for what you are accusing her of. Her work is characterized by personal humility and an explicit request that people make up there own minds about the matters she discusses.
    She has absolutely not set herself up as a “guru.”

    Mike I think you are going a little overboard on my negativity. I felt my comments were more positive with a warning. Certainly Gary who is clearly an admirer in his poem spoke to my point about the perverse effects of popularity.

    As far as being a guru my guess is fans probably more pushed her into that role as so often happens. A red flag for me is that her interactions seem to not allow much room for criticism. She effects a kind of anointed guruship in a subject area that can hardly be called an objective science.

    I notice in your over reaching annoyance with me you weren’t going to touch her 911 comments with a 10 foot pole.

    And I certainly will use her as a provocative source(She has a lot of stuff on the internet) in the future. Admiration for her strong points doesn’t require worship.

  276. David M — Nothing I wrote in my comment expressed “over reaching annoyance”. I simply stated my disagreement with your comments. I have no feeling of annoyance with you. I agree with almost all of what you have shared on this blog. But in this case I simply disagreed. It is not necessary to feel annoyed with someone simply because you disagree with them.

    As far as Carolyn’s stating that she does not feel the US government was totally forthcoming about 911, I do not trust anything our lying secretive government puts forth. My position is to distrust them until proved different. Our government is not too different from a vast Mafia operation. Anyone not aware of this should look into it. I could recommend some good sources to anyone interested in exposing the lies we are constantly fed. Many unthinking folks think that any accusation against our government is no more than a wacko “conspiracy theory”. Those in high positions love for us to think that. People should read Chris Hedges or Noam Chomsky or maybe Glenn Greenwald to start to get a feel for how unreliable our government really is. Does anyone still believe we attacked Iraq because they threatened us with weapons of mass destruction? Who has the most weapons of mass destruction on the planet?

    David, I am not angry with you. Relax and realize that differences of opinion are inevitable in life, and really no big deal.

  277. Annoyed not angry, but whatever, we’ll leave it at disagreement. As far as Chomsky, Hedges and Greenwald, none of them as far as I know subscribe to any inside job 911 conspiracy.

    As far as the government my own feeling is we get what we vote for so the government is at least roughly a mirror of the public. And that to a great degree involves telling us what we want to hear or guiding us from a position of our prejudice or indifference. Saddam Hussein made a great scapegoat so the public got on board.

    Actually I think the Bush administration convinced themselves that there were WMDs, even without hard evidence. After all, he did have them once so he must have resupplied.

    I don’t think the government is infinitely devious. I don’t think they are that smart. I think they are principally a cultural expression.

  278. Gary, I enjoyed your write-up in response to my suggestion that old-age care and immortality were involved in over-population. I can agree with almost everything you say but my conclusion is still unchanged. I think my point stands because I would suggest that tribal life has diminished to almost insignificance at this time. It is our present world that is producing the lethal population explosion. Even if the primitive tribes had a moderating effect on population in their day, that present effect is negligible due to their minuscule numbers. The stabilizing and connective support of a tribe has largely been demolished. We individuals feel the need to begin our own tribe to provide the security that was lost generations ago. This results in an exploding population.

  279. David: To know something about 9/11, all you need to do is to carefully view any one of the large number of videos of one or more of the buildings falling. There is only one more required step and it is using your intelligence. I recommend you ignore these other guys (Chomsky, Hedges, and Greenwald). They may wonderful in some ways but perhaps not all.

  280. Just to be clear I’m not saying the 9/11 Commission didn’t engage in some coverup and that the events surrounding what happened shouldn’t be looked into. The Bush administration’s desire to not disclose their endless screw ups is quite clear to me.

    But I don’t think there is any evidence of an inside job and I’ve read and looked at the purported evidence including comparing demolition of buildings with the WTC building collapses and in my mind they don’t stand up as comparable.

    I could give you plenty of debunking sites if you like but in my experience on various forums folks don’t budge from their positions and I don’t want to divert the forum into a conspiracy argument sideshow.

    I also believe Oswald and Oswald alone shot President Kennedy based on the evidence, so you can see I’m not very big on grand conspiracies that don’t trace back to any clear perpetrators.

  281. Oh my goodness:
    David M: “I don’t think there is any evidence of an inside job.”
    My, my, my!
    I don’t know how to respond to such a statement. Actually I have come across similar beliefs before and any and all my attempts to enlighten those situations seemed to fail miserably. So all I will offer now is that the future of homo sapiens is indeed problematical IMHO!

  282. Ron I suggest you cut the superior posturing. I see no evidence and as far as I know unless you have better information every member of congress agrees with me. I guess we are all problematic. However I am quite willing to agree to disagree and move on.


  283. I did not mention Chomsky, Hedges, and Greenwald (sounds like a law firm!) with regard to their opinions re: 9-11, but to cite them as good sources to disabuse one of the idea that our government is trustworthy and honest. (You can go back to my post and confirm this if you are crazy enough to do so). My own lengthy re-education has convinced me that the US government is one vast conspiracy to control through lies and multiple avenues of propaganda an unfortunately gullible and uninformed public. The members of this vast criminal operation think of themselves, and deeply wish you to think of them as the crème de la crème. Actually they are proof of the dictum that the scum rises to the top. Anyone who defends these criminals and goes to their stooges in the mass media for their information has my pity. I rack my brains for ideas of how to wake the masses up to how they are being screwed by these scum. In order to find the truth one must patiently deconstruct the cloud of lies, ignorance, and confusion in one’s own mind first. Sometimes I think my whole life has been about finding grains of truth under bushels of lies.

  284. And BTW David, I don’t think their is a chance in hell that the CIA flew those planes into the Towers. I happened to be watching the morning news when the first photos came on, and I knew immediately that something profoundly catastrophic was unfolding. The eagerness of the US government to use this tragedy to abet their schemes to control the world supply of oil through illegal and immoral wars confirmed my worst forebodings.

  285. David M: I have said my say and there it stands.
    I now want to add my total agreement with mike k in posts 299 and 300.

  286. Gary Gripp: In regard to the Newtonian-Cartesian worldview I agree with you on the point of the quantum idea not being very intuitive. And as you also implied, even scientists don’t take to it so readily either. It requires a sea change in outlook of the world and many of us find it difficult if not nearly impossible to shift our gears as required to get into in. I’m sure the course you mentioned will help your understanding but I will be the first to say that it takes time for old heads and sometimes younger heads to adjust to such a different outlook. And yes I agree our thinking is conditioned my our language which by and large reflects a Newtonian world. Out Newtonian outlook cuts rather deep.

    I would hope the book you mention by Masanobu Fukuoka is a kind of parable for the future of mankind. It seems it does incorporate some the thinking of the quantum paradigm. In doing that I would look at it as a very possible and positive premonition of the future. Lets hope it is.

  287. mike k

    “I did not mention Chomsky, Hedges, and Greenwald (sounds like a law firm!) with regard to their opinions re: 9-11,”

    You mentioned them in the context of a discussion of a 911 BA conspiracy so I responded I believe appropriately.

    “I don’t think their is a chance in hell that the CIA flew those planes into the Towers.”

    No, Al Qaeda did and not with any special prior arrangement with the US government based on the evidence.

    That’s my point and I’ll drop it there.

    As for whatever the government is, the public elected them and so can’t shirk responsibility for their choice. The evil government being brilliant and the public merely dumb doesn’t compute for me. Their both pretty dumb except in each person’s specialized area of expertise. Bush being rolled by Chalabi head of the INC is just one example. The public always being fooled copout doesn’t really work for me.

  288. Ron, Gary — Perhaps there is a level of understanding that is as far beyond quantum physics as that physics is beyond Newtonian thinking. Ken Wilber has written a book titled Quantum Questions, which consists largely of excerpts from the early inventors/discoverers of the quantum realm. The interesting thing is that Planck, Schrodinger, Bohr, etc. were all mystics. Schrodinger’s little book What is Life? gives an idea of how these guys were thinking about ultimate questions. The other intriguing thing is that none of them thought that their quantum ideas had any relevance to their experiences of a deeper reality. I won’t try to explain this any further; look into the book if you wish.

    The TV show Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman as commentator has dealt with current cutting edge cosmological theories such as string theory, infinite universes etc. Watching this deepened my realization that these folks are in way over their heads, and that the attempt to hang onto physical explanations for all phenomena is a lost cause. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in materialist philosophy. One must understand that subtle materialism is still materialism. Our prejudice in favor of what we can discern with our senses (even when extended into very subtle realms by means of instruments) and what can be reduced to logical or mathematical formulas, may be blinding us to realms beyond these simplicities. The occasional pronouncements of the star personalities of physics like Stephen Hawking that we will soon through these means “understand everything for once and all” are merely the over confident imaginings of scientific hubris.

  289. David — Apparently you believe in the legitimacy of the massive fraud in the US called “free elections”. I guess we are parting company on that one too.

  290. “By multiplying till we reach our maximum possible numbers, even as we take out much of the planet, we are fulfilling our destiny.” –Charles Mann, “Status of the Species”
    One particular primate is obliterating his fellow species at the rate of two hundred a day– not two hundred creatures, but two hundred distinct species, gone extinct every day, thanks to one “successful” primate species. One particular individual claims this as “our destiny,” and a chorus of fellow primates cheer him on. Isn’t it wonderful how successful we are?
    Americans have just undergone a bruising election cycle in which two competing worldviews went head to head. Each of these worldviews is represented by a political party. One is the party of wealth and privilege, the other the party of the common man. One elevates competition high above cooperation; the other elevates cooperation slightly above competition. As a society, we have been told, and we believe, that it is a Darwinian dog-eat-dog world, bloody in tooth and claw. This meme is compatible with our zero-sum (there are winners and there are losers) economic system. Whether it is vampire capitalism, crony capitalism, monopoly capitalism, or freebooting capitalism, it is all okay, because that is the way the world is. We have to be competitive in the global marketplace. We hear this every day. There are winners and there are losers, and nobody ever said the world was necessarily fair. This is the accepted rationale, but I think it’s wrong. Both morally wrong and factually wrong.
    Wildlife managers in Yellowstone National Park have learned some lessons from wolves. When wolves were removed from the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, some ecosystem decay began to appear. With no predators to worry about, elk began grazing on streamside willows, and they just hung out in the river bottoms chewing on willows until there were no willows left. With no willows to work with the beavers disappeared. With no beavers to build dams and create biologically rich wetlands, many other creatures disappeared. With no streamside willows to create cooling summer shade, trout and other aquatic creatures were stressed, and their numbers greatly reduced. The beaver is a keystone species, and so is the wolf. Removing just one keystone caused a trophic cascade, and was strictly in keeping with the Law of Unintended Consequences. Gee, we had no idea that protecting the rancher’s cattle would have such a far-reaching effect. After wolves were reintroduced—years afterward—the beaver returned because the willows returned because they weren‘t grazed to death by the elk, because the wolves kept the elk from lounging in the river bottoms. There are some cause and effect relationships involved in this story, but not necessarily simple linear ones. Nature often works in non-linear ways, and that is one reason why our reductionist linear thinking often doesn’t work very well in Nature.
    So, we are permanently removing 200 species a day from the living world. Do we think we can just go on doing that without any consequences? Do we really believe it’s a zero-sum game where we are the winners and they are the losers—end of story? That may be a convenient belief: that we can succeed while the rest of the world fails, but I’m afraid that is not how it works in the real world, in Nature. The way it works is: they go down, we go down. Why? Because we are interconnected and interdependent. We are all holons in the same holarchy. Yes, there is competition in the world, but in order for the world to thrive that competition must function to serve a greater cooperation. From the point of view of the individual elk who is taken down by a pack of wolves, it’s a harsh competitive world. From the point of view of the elk herd, the prey species, they are made stronger by losing their weakest individuals. From the point of view of the ecosystem: complexity, diversity, and abundance are served when all the players are in place and achieve a dynamic balance. That is how the world evolved, and that is how it thrives. It is just wrong-headed to declare that throwing the world out of balance is in any way a success. It’s not; it’s our greatest failure.

  291. Excellent post Gary. I was one of the few posters who questioned Mann’s ideas. He seems to delight in saying that the way things are going is the way things go. Shallow science needs to meet deep ecology which needs to meet deep spiritual possibility. We are not helpless in the face of natural processes. We have the gift of greater intelligence to guide us out of our mess, if we will only use it. And appreciation and compassion for all living beings is an aspect of higher intelligence. The way many have framed the issue is that spirituality is at war with rational intelligence. A leftover from the unfortunate food fight between Galileo and others with the Catholic hierarchy. There is not in truth any war between real science and real spirituality. In fact they are intrinsic to the truth that embraces and transcends them both.

  292. mike k, Thanks for the link to Carolyn Baker’s website. I just read Collapsing into Gaia there, by Dan Allen. It is an impressively well-written piece, with cogent illustrations, laying out with clarity where we are at. I also watched part of the video with her and Andrew Harvey, and I agree with you (and disagree with David M) that she does not come off as full of herself, or a guru, or anything like that. She is a teacher. She knows things most of the rest of us don’t know, and she’s doing her job.
    I also agree with you that there is more to heaven and earth than is dreamt of in our materialist philosophy, Horatio. Neither branch of physics will ever get us to the place of understanding the non-material (and dare I say spiritual?) nature of the Universe. But here is one proposition I think we might be able to infer: if human beings have intelligence, is it possible that only we have it? Or is it much more likely that we share intelligence with everything else—that the Universe itself must have intelligence. Otherwise, how could we have come by ours? All things come out of the One and the One out of all things.
    If you are up for the worst climate news possible, go to the link below. The U.N. has just come out with a report that we can expect a four degree temperature rise by the end of the century. That wipes out most or all living systems. According to Guy McPherson, most of the models being used are not including positive feedback loops, and how the uncovering of peat bogs as ice melts in the North will release death-dealing amounts of methane, and how it is all going to be much worse much sooner than almost anyone has yet predicted. Cheering stuff, indeed. (Well, I’ve got my seventy years in, which is longer than I expected to live anyway, so I’m okay with all this on a personal level. But since I’m convinced that the group level is much more important than the individual level, and since I also believe in inter-generational justice, I mourn for the future, but still hold out a small splinter of hope. Small groups, living with the Earth’s planetary budget, but unfortunately on a planet unfriendly to life, might have a shot at survival, with uncommon luck. Makes you want to go for a long drive to Walmart to buy some more plastic crap, does it not, because maybe this batch (unlike the last batch) will bring you true happiness?) Well, as the other MIKE K used to comment: We live in interesting times.
    (Orion wouldn’t accept my comment with Guy McPherson’s web address, so look up his site if you are interested.)

  293. Gary — Based on my own inner experience, I am in agreement with the wisdom of ancient Indian Sages: I am That, you are That, all of this is That, and there is nothing other than That. To paraphrase saint Paul: We live and move and have our being in (and as) Him. (A little sexism there Paul, but you got the main idea right.) Thus all things are limited manifestations of the Supreme Spirit, and hence everything without exception not only has consciousness, but is at base consciousness. Interestingly, I have a paper by John Hagelin that proposes that the long sought Unified Field giving rise to all phenomenon is Consciousness. Dr. Hagelin is a physicist who has worked at CERN, and made contributions to string theory.

    As to global warming, check this link out: These very credible climate scientists predict even more dire results much sooner that previous studies indicated. Their announcement has been a bombshell in the climate studies field.

  294. Gary and mike k:
    I am in agreement with Gary on his description of ecology but I would disagree on that evaluation of the US election. While they still use traditional names for the parties and use different sounding words, the actual polices of the two parties seem basically the same to me.

    Yes indeed on “consciousness”. If you look into the quantum paradigm, it is universal that human consciousness is a central determining ingredient. Check out this quote:

    “In studies of consciousness, reduction sparks controversy today. Some argue that once the electrochemical neural correlates of consciousness are understood, there will be nothing left to explain. Others insist that the “inner light” of our conscious experience will elude the reductionist grasp, that consciousness is primary, and that new “psychophysical principles” will be needed. Quantum mechanics is claimed as evidence supporting this non-reductionist view.”

    Quantum Enigma by Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner (Two more or less traditional UCLA physics professors) 2011

    Myself, I am a fan to a somewhat further out David Bohm (1917 – 1992). A series of YouTube videos are available on the internet in which David Bohm and Jiddu Krishnamurti discuss all manner of things. On YouTube, input either of these names in the search space.

    I want to expound more on David Bohm etc. later. I’m headed to Tokyo to a museum now.

  295. Mike k, You mention Chris Hedges (along with Noam Chomsky and Glenn Greenwald). This piece, The Elites Will Make Gazans of us All, is especially clear-sighted and powerful. This is the fourth estate at its articulate best. Chomsky is a good researcher and thinker, but not such a great writer, in my opinion. Greenwald is another one of those who peels back the veil and exposes the rot in our political economy. Without voices such as these, it would all be the predigested pablum spun out by the corporate owned and orchestrated media circus, which is specifically designed to keep an overworked and under-informed population entertained, distracted, and daily brainwashed. I don’t have a TV, but I have seen Faux News, where they invent the world wholesale every day. They’re the worst, but even NPR is in lockstep with the corporate agenda. Chris Hedges is a threat to the interests of the elites he writes about, as are all the voices of the independent media. Those elites and their bought and paid for government hacks are going to find a way to jam the Internet so that people like you and me don’t have access to a counter-narrative. The very best thing for this planet’s health would be the immediate collapse of the global industrial economy. It might be good for some other reasons, too, before all the razorwire fences have been built and reinforced around us. It can’t happen here? Just wait!

  296. Ron — When I was a student in the philosophy department at the University of Hawaii, I lived in a small pad behind the Quaker meeting house near campus. I was excited to discover that the caretaker there had met Krishnamurti and was a fan of his as I was (K would have criticized us for our adulation of course!) I soon began meditating at the zendo nearby and the then student Robert Aitken turned out to have taught at the Happy Valley School, and knew K rather well (to the degree that was possible). At that time I was practicing Aikido and studying Japanese language in preparation for going to Japan to enter Zen training there. That never came off…

    It is perhaps inevitable that our search for a deeper truth should take us through the mysterious valley of quantum physics. Been there done that, and I still try to keep abreast of the latest twists and turns in that unfolding pathway. However I have come to realize that however advanced and incredibly complex the huge particle accelerator at CERN may be, I have onboard my own person the most complex by far mechanism in existence that we know of — namely the human nervous system. Thus it is not that surprising that ancient sages and mystics were able to penetrate deep into the underlying immanent and transcendent realities we are a limited expression of. So learning about the techniques of awakening and utilizing these inner capacities has been the main focus of my Quest. It is my understanding that any sincere inner search has crucial relevance for the world around us, and is a key ingredient in any real solutions we may come up with to our human dilemmas.

  297. Gary — The alternative press is terribly important to help awaken people to the realities of our world. The small group process that I am engaged in has as one of its goals getting folks to access this precious resource instead of the MSM. In order to save our world folks need to change their own minds. They need some structure and process to accomplish this. Regular engagement in study with others is a minimum requirement to effect real inner change. Our conditioning in false ideas is too deep to change with occasional efforts. The time is too late for that. We need a crash course with depth to birth a new mind and intention. It is my belief that unless we do this we are going to reap the bitter karma of our deluded thinking, and our human experiment may end as a colossal failure. This quest to re-educate ourselves and others should be framed and experienced as an exciting and rewarding adventure. It is bound to be quite other than boring if vigorously pursued. The truth is intrinsically fascinating and compelling, once we begin to awake from our toxic dreaming.

  298. mike k: Wow! It seems that we have had some “similarities” in our former paths. My partner here in Japan has read many books by what she calls her “Masters”. Right now she is very much into Krishnamurti and Sri Aurobindo. Maybe ten years ago she visited California and stayed in Krishnamurti’s house for several days. I follow her reading somewhat but basically I’m more into science and direct social stuff. I’ve been a big fan of Rupert Sheldrake for a long time. You probably know of him. I have known quite a few Aikido students here. There is an Aikido school about an hour’s drive from my house at Iwama. You probably know of it. More then 10 years ago a lot of Aikido students used to come here and teach English. But now that doesn’t happen much. English teaching has dried up although I still have a few classes (I’m not looking for more.) I gave up my car almost two years ago (not long before the big earthquake) and go everywhere by bicycle or public transportation.

    Although I studied physics and math back in my naive college days, it got rather rusty and in the last few years I’ve attempted to get myself up to speed again in these topics. I’ve about concluded that Quantum Mechanics is one of very few “things” out there that might provide an avenue of salvation for us homo sapiens. However, it is not intuitive at all for most of us. Also, it seems to clash with standard human “think”. Although the foundation of QM is fairly solid, many of the details are still being worked out, and considering the monstrous inertia of man to new thinking, especially the powers that “be”, it is difficult for me to see any hope on the horizon for us or perhaps even most other life forms.

  299. Ron, I doubt there is much disagreement between us on the issue of distinctions between the two parties. Clinton’s great contributions to the world were NAFTA, GATT, and welfare “reform.” Quite the Democratic issues, those. I remember when right-wing nutcase John Birchers were all in a dither about one-world government. Now, thanks to all those “free trade” agreements, one-world government is what we effectively have in the World Trade Organization. They can tell us that we have to pollute our environment, if not polluting it interferes in any way with international trade. Cool, huh? Not exactly my idea of sovereignty, but Bill made sure that the global elite got exactly what they wanted, and bargained away our right to choose. After the disappointments of Clinton, I told myself I’d never fall for charisma again, but I did.
    When our present president first came into office, I got suckered by the word “transformative.” This one, unlike all the others, was going to be a true leader and bring us the change that was long overdue. And who did he choose as economic advisors? Summers and Geithner, straight out of the Wall Street bankster crowd. And who gets the bailout billions, no strings attached? Why, their buddies, of course. Wall Street owns Washington, so it figures that that’s how it would go. Or, as Frank Zappa once said, “Our national politics is the entertainment division of the military-industrial-congressional complex.” We did once have a leader who was ready to take on the banks and also dissolve the CIA. You know what happened to him. I think Obama takes the lesson. Don’t fool with the status quo. And he hasn’t.
    But what I meant was the country is divided between the ideology of cooperation and the ideology of competition. About half of us believe that people ought to take care of our own; that everyone wins when everyone wins. The competitive ideologues believe in freedom. If you are getting sucked under by quicksand, you have the freedom to rise above your circumstances, by pulling on your own bootstraps, or, choke and die, you loser. Too bad you weren’t one of the winners, like me. This bunch believes in exceptionalism: species exceptionalism; national exceptionalism;. and personal exceptionalism. And you know an interesting feature of these elephantine people, they are, almost to a man, authoritarian personalities, who salute hierarchy. The donkey people, not so much. Their impulse, being cooperators, is toward an egalitarian consensus, or at least a policy of live-and- let- live. One of the questions I’ve never been able to resolve for myself is whether these two personality types are somehow genetically determined (at some ratio, maybe not 50-50), or mostly culturally induced. And if you wanted a scientific answer, I don’t know how you’d go about getting it, because, contrary to Charles Mann’s assertion, we don’t live in a petri dish.

  300. Mike k, your work with a small local group sounds promising. Where I live, and have lived for more than thirty years, I’m not sure I could find enough of the right sorts of people to even attempt such an enterprise. I have been fortunate enough to be half of a group of two, who have been reading the same books, and discussing them in detail, for most of twenty years. Tim is nearly thirty years younger than me, and his case is interesting in terms of what I believe you would call his awakening. He was an Air Force brat, and when he was around ten, eleven, and twelve, he moved with his family to Australia. What changed him, awoke him, was not the Australian culture, but returning to his home country and experiencing culture shock in reverse. He’d been outside it long enough to begin to see through it. I like to say, you can’t see the circle from inside the circle. My own case was a little different. When I was eight, I moved with my family from crowded southern California to a remote part of northern California that still had a bit of the frontier about it. We lived on a lake that was on the Pacific Flyway, and at that time, in mid-twentieth century, six million migratory waterfowl flew through. They’d come in by the tens of thousands, blocking out our view of Mt. Shasta, landing and feeding and taking off, then making way for the next wave to come in in their own lopsided V-formations, ducks and swans and geese, squawking and honking, then splashing down. I was right in the middle of all this for three years running, living a Huck Finn life, out there on the lake in my row boat, or exploring the woods and the lava beds. As seasons came and went, I began to realize that these migrations were part of a larger pattern and cycle, something much bigger than either the geese or me. I knew then that Nature was bigger than anything human or anything made by humans. And of course that experience ruined me for city life. Nature is beautiful, cities are ugly. Nature expands the human soul, cities shrink it. So, that experience pretty much made me a misfit in my own society, and was my own kind of awakening.
    My experience was in some ways transcendent; certainly it was positive. The young people coming up, from now on, are going to have to deal with their own kind of culture shock, as things fall apart. If they come at it with the right attitude, it can be a positive, transformative experience that brings them into the fullness of being alive. It will be a challenge—an authentic challenge, not one dreamed up by some electronic game guru—and rising to the challenge will cause them to grow, and perhaps attain their full humanity. Or they could just get knocked into the dirt, swept away by a tidal wave, burnt and withered by the sun. I’m guessing both those scenarios will play out. But I agree with you, those who are mentally and spiritually prepared, are going to have a better chance of making a life worth living.

  301. Gary, you are correct, we pretty much agree right down the line. I also got duped back 2008 to a degree. Actually, I was wary and filled with doubt but there was really not much of a choice and so I took a chance and rest is history! And we remained under the thumb of Summers and Geithner!. This told us where we were and how the cow ate the cabbage. These two guys remaining is about as strong a statement of our situation as can be made! But it seems many don’t understand! And BTW I remain a great fan of Frank Zappa – a true genius. We need more of him. There is little doubt in my mind that Obama knows what is expected of him and if he doesn’t deliver, well “too bad”. There is no point in pursuing this avenue further because, well, I see only a negative future. I have concluded that the problem with the US is, hmmm, I don’t know a nice way to say this but brains and thinking have been taken away the citizens. They just parrot the crap that has been put in them. In the last year or two I’ve had a few conversations with people who I expected to exhibit some intelligence and independence. Wrong! I was wrong about them! They had nothing of themselves to say. Hierarchy and authoritarianism are everything. Lip service to competition has been strong for a long time but actual competition is alien in today’s world. The US or what we thought was the US back in our earlier years is no longer or perhaps perhaps we didn’t see the forest for the trees.

  302. Gary — Your experience being alone in Nature parallels my own. Something indefinable happens that might as well be called mystical. Maybe the mysterious aspect of that is due to our alienation from the natural world that makes coming home inwardly to it so magical. You already have a group of two. Finding one more would be a beginning. One of the ploys I used was to have business cards printed with an invitation to kindred types to contact me, and place them in likely books that appeal to such souls in local bookstores.

  303. Ron — Your post brought a headline into my mind: ZAPPA ZAPS ZOMBIES! Both Gurdjieff and some Sufi teachers used shocks to help awaken their students. This is different from the nefarious use of such means outlined in Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine. Actually many valid spiritual paths recognize the value of some means to disrupt our usual sleepy state of conditioned compliance in order to create an opening or teachable moment for one seeking to glimpse something truly new and transformative. Sometimes the old needs to be given a forcible shove to make way for the new. All of this needs to be handled on a completely voluntary basis and watched over carefully by the initiating teacher. Premature or awkwardly delivered shocks would of course give only undesirable results. Interventions in therapy for drug addicted persons is an example of this. The reality show Nightmare Kitchens (on BBC channel) gives a vivid picture of Chef Gordon Ramsey delivering such shocks to failing but complacently in denial restaurant owners and chefs, often to good effect. How to apply this method to the legion of Zombies who make up modern society is an intriguing question…

  304. Footnote to my last post: In 1900 the Pacific Flyway supported 12 million migratory waterfowl. In 1950 it supported 6 million. In 2012 it supports about a million. Now that’s progress for you–not to mention our own “species success.” In many places we have filled in wetlands, so we can grow alfalfa for our cattle, so we can all eat beef. For a perspective on this from someone who did just that for years, see William Kittredge, Owning it All.

  305. Gary — Your enumeration of the declines in our wild brothers and sisters, and indeed our grandparents is sadly reminiscent of Derrick Jensen’s accountings. If this does not strike a deep chord of sadness and regret in our hearts then we are past all caring, and will be doomed by our indifference.

  306. mike k: thanks for the link to the Chris Hedges report. It is excellent, but I believe the immediate urgency is not emphasized enough. If we had an “adult” type of culture, we would read that report and get excited and do something. However we read the report and think “oh in 2050 or 2100 things are going to be bad” and then go about our business with concern only raised slightly – maybe.

    However, speaking of zombies, it appears to me like the whole US nation is full of zombies and there is little that can rescue them. I have become a pessimist with few expectations although I like to read about the coming demise.

    Perhaps, I am filled with schadenfruede in having lived in the last “good” era while the younger people will have hell to put up with. I distrusted the world from the git go and felt unusual closeness to the “wild” my whole life, When I was about ten years old I became very very sad when reading stories (children’s) about the American Indian and I did not really know why I felt so sad. There were no Indians in my town. I did grow up in what might be called a “modern” agricultural community but I was a “town child” (town had about 500 citizens) that somewhat isolated me from the agriculture. My childhood coincided with the last of an old type agricultural era of the community. When I was in high school the richness of oil money that had earlier come into the community began to be widely felt. The town still appeared to be an agricultural town although this was changing. Every summer when I was in elementary school my mother would arrange for me to spend a week or so with various country cousins. I had a great time in these weeks and probably gained a feeling for a less “modern” lifestyle.

    From the git go my brain seemed to be organized somewhat differently than most everybody else’s and so I constructed my own world. After I left my small community, my experiences in college etc (I was one of earliest in my community to go college) reinforced my separate world. In my years, I have tried various life styles but 21 or so years ago, I came here which is about as far from my hometown/ basic culture as I could get and began teaching English. It has been a good time for me.

    Oh, sorry, I forgot, I was going to ask you what kind of group did you form?

  307. Ron and mike, I agree with your assessment, Ron, that the Chris Hedges article does not stress the immediate urgency of the situation. As you say, it put the threats off in the distant future. It doesn’t talk about tipping points and the irreversibility of climate chaos once we get significant methane release and positive feedback loops. Dan Allen and Guy McPherson both do better jobs of telling how bad it really is. If global industrial civilization were to collapse tomorrow, it would probably still be too late to retain a world anything like the one we live in today. That is what the latest best science is telling us, including the work of NASA’s Jim Henson. I am very much a Chris Hedges fan, but I think he underplayed this one.

  308. I have been enjoying my intermittent reading of the posts to this group. I find the intelligence and compassion reflected in the words that appear on Orion’s comments always refreshing and inspiring.

    I too feel a deep sadness anmticipating the difficulties we face. I know many friends and neighbors who share these concerns for life on the planet. They just cannot bring themselves to face the future with the same negative prospects that I do. I believe that the true, deep, undeniable hopelessness of our present is something they are incapable of facing. They fervently hold to the Hope (again that word) that, being the intelligent, compassionate primates we are (Ha!), there must be some point where the magnitude of the problem reaches significant enough proportions that we will stop what we are doing, re-access and reform. Even those who do not share such an unrealistic belief about humanity’s ability to self-correct, still hold that our intelligence and our faith in the same technology that created this mess will also enable us to technologize our way out again. I suppose I do not have to point out to most readers/commentators of Orion the shaky reality these two assumptions are based on.

    Unless modern civilization is very soon brought to a crashing halt, we will certainly bring about the demise of the only home of life in the known Universe. I think we may have already unleashed Armageddon, unstoppable even if today we cease all our trespasses.

    I see only two realistic approaches for the few conscious humans left on the planet. Some need to develop small self-sustainable social units capable of riding out these last few decades before Mother folds us under her mantle of extinction as She did with Tyrannosaurus Rex&friends;. Others must lift the banner of Revolution against Civilization itself. None dare advocate violence; it is illegal after all. Hedges and Jenson come as close as anyone to calling for blood, yet neither are willing to renounce non-violence. As a lifelong believer in non-violence I am beginning to conclude that peaceful revolutions are no longer possible.

    Hang on now because I am going to lose a lot of you with what I am about to say. The following may even be unprotected speech! I believe our civilization and nearly all its influential citizens who rule, promote and advance its goals have become psychopathic. We now have a culture that can be largely identified using Robert Hare’s 20 markers of psychopathy. Not all our leaders are psychopaths, but most have to play a convincing impersonation in order to reap the rewards and the benefits of the hierarchies they serve. Expecting a psychopath to heed the welfare of the larger society, or even the future of his own children, is like asking an addict to give up heroin. Actually giving up heroin is a lot easier. Psychopaths can only be stopped by some physical force or violence, like incarceration or assassination. There is never a chance of a talking cure or reform.

    That is why I think we have finally reached the point of advocating and employing violent revolution to bring Civilization to its knees. We need to think of this new revolution against Civilization and its agents (in Jenson’s words) as possessing all the moral equivalence of killing Nazis or zombies and alien invaders in Sci-Fi movies.

    I have neither the temperament, courage or ability to become a violent revolutionary. My chosen role is with the sustainability folks. I will not however speak ill of those who are trying, for whatever reason, to destroy this nation and its infrastructure, be they hackers launching attacks on the power grid, MasterCard and the Pentagon or al Qaeda trying to waste our imperial storm-troopers abroad. As much as my heart may go out to the worst affected (the poor) by natural disasters, I fervently pray to what ever power the gods still possess to give us even more of the same. The sooner our whole earth-devouring juggernaut comes off its tracks the better it will be for us all. The future few remaining humans and all other life forms will be thankful if it happens as soon as possible. Even so I still have strong doubts that life on earth will survive.

    Is it any wonder then few of my friends and neighbors have any idea of what I am talking about, even though they may have some sympathy and understanding of the problem? I have given up even talking to them about such matters.

  309. Bob Boldt — Your thoughts and feelings about our predicament are completely understandable and justified. In regard to Derrick Jensen’s thoughts about helping our nightmare civilization collapse, reading Endgame and Deep Green Resistance should leave little doubt as to his endorsement of violent means to overturn the present march to extinction. Your remark about protected speech is interesting with regard to the tightrope Jensen walks in his public advocacy of revolution. Although one could reasonably quote the words of the Declaration of Independence to justify such speech, and the Bill of Rights to legalize it, under the rule of the madmen presently in charge of the US government this would not prevent them from imprisoning or torturing anyone they perceived as a real threat to their power.

    It matters little whether one can fit our rulers tightly to the psychological profile of psychopathy. Their behavior indicts them as being dangerously out of touch with reality, and capable of the most heinous acts with no remorse whatever. Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s response to a reporter who asked her whether 500,000 children in Iraq dying due to the US blockade was justified was “Yes, it was worth it”. She might have added that it was worth it for the oil we were after.

    That your friends and neighbors do not have a clue what you are talking about is evidence that you are awaking to the true reality of our situation. They are still asleep in the cultural trance that has been woven to make it seem that our human world is normal and sane as it is. At some point you took the red pill that leads to confronting the real nightmare that lies beneath the illusory dreams of the many. Once you have understood what our real situation is, there is no going back to the magic theater where everything is really OK. There is now for you only the way forward to attempt to understand and deal with the Real.

    However, it is premature to declare hopelessness for the human experiment in consciousness. The very rising consciousness that has gotten us into this mess may if properly employed serve to extricate us and deliver our kind to a better future. But what we must create/discover will be far beyond the limitations and confusions of our present conceptions. We must open to dimensions and possibilities that transcend what has gone before. Truly, the game is not over until the fat lady sings. And this Opera has a long way to go before that.

  310. @ mike k

    We have sacrificed consciousness for technology and this has lead (in Barry Lopez’s words) to reductionism in science, fundamentalism in religion and fascism in politics.

    I too am working on the wisdom path. I believe it will be the ultimate basis for developing all the little, sustainable communities I spoke of.

    There is a certain freedom to no longer fearing and no longer hoping. We hope for outcomes over which we have no agency. Derrick Jenson says he does not hope for the survival of the salmon—he will do whatever it takes to guarantee their survival. (Presumably that will include blowing up dams.)

    False hope is like the Gate of Ivory in classical mythology—the portal through which fevered, delusional, false dreams pass. True hope (the kind of which you speak, Mike) is like those dreams that pass through the Gate of Horn. These are the dreams of prophesy in which the voice of ultimate Reality speaks to mankind. Today you might call them Lucid Dreams. Attend without fear and beyond hope to the voice of Nature (within and without). If there is a way it will come to us from Nature.

  311. Bob — Your words are like water on parched earth. They give me hope — the real kind you speak of. When I die, I want to feel that I served my Soul and a beautiful Reality beyond myself. The rest is only circumstances. The gift of our being is the opportunity to grow in realizing those things which can make our lives useful for the happiness of all Beings. If we do that all things will be well, and all manner of things will be well…

    Thanks for sharing. I always have known that there are many others out there whose visions transcend the shallow madness of our times.

  312. Bob — Having had some experience of small alternative communities, I believe the essential foundation for them is small groups devoted to sharing in the ongoing process of furthering our spiritual growth (beyond all sects and ideologies). Without a context to regularly maintain and deepen our spiritual development, the communitarian spirit falters and goes awry. The qualities of truthfulness, sharing, forgiveness, love, happiness, and all the attributes of evolved persons need a source of regular watering lest they wither through complacency and lack of attention. The old ego patiently waits for opportunities to reassert itself. Learning to cooperate with others necessitates learning in the context of a small group process of sharing the Work.

  313. Interesting bio on Lynn Margulis surprisingly in that generally AGW denialist rag the Telegraph. I wasn’t aware that she was a co-developer of the Gaia hypothesis. Apparently she spent a lot of her life swimming upstream against conventional biological science thinking, particularly with regard to the engine driving evolutionary change, think symbiotic bacteria.


  314. David M: Thanks very much for the Lynn Margulis link. Short but good bio. What a great person! I must find out more.

  315. Mike, when you recognize that the diminishing numbers of migratory waterfowl is a loss of our own relatives, our own grandparents, you are in synch with all the indigenous people in the world who speak of All My Relations, and who likewise understand their relationship to the Community of Life. But you are out of sync with your own culture. Like me, you are a misfit here among those who see the human being as isolated in our exceptionalism, in a world of Others, or The Other. It is convenient for a people who wantonly enslave, exploit, and slaughter our fellow Earthlings to see them as The Other. The domestication of plants and animals, the dominion we take over the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, is expedited, consecrated, and rationalized if every other being on this planet is subordinate and alien, rather than another one of Us. The Great Chain of Being, so popular among medieval churchmen remains as part of our cultural background, as does the Book of Genesis, which exhorts us to be fruitful and multiply and take dominion over all the beasts of the Earth, and to build up fortunes for ourselves out of Earth’s abundance—all with divine sanction, of course.
    What you, and our indigenous brethren, are expressing is a radically different sense of self than that held by and practiced by mainstream “civilized” peoples. Your identity, instead of being exclusive, is inclusive. You know you are not the orphaned and isolated individual that our culture has spun into myth: the myth of the “self-made man;” the myth that we humans are not risen beasts at all, but “fallen angels;” the myth of hyper-individualism that makes the individual (not the human group, and certainly not the collective of all those other inferior creatures) the only unit of measure that really matters. We are flawed sinners from the day we are born, and yet we alone on this lonely planet share in godhood and have a soul. We alone were born to rule the Earth and take its treasures unto ourselves. What appears to be a living world is in fact an insentient store of “resources” put on Earth solely for the benefit of man—and, more specifically, God’s own chosen people, the one percent. You, evidently, have demythologized your own perceptions, and seen your place in the world afresh. You’ve seen that if the Universe is made of stardust, then the Earth must be made of stardust, too; and everything in and on the Earth, are all the very same stardust manifested in infinitely creative diverse forms. And indeed how could we not all be, at bottom, the same? From where but the Universe itself could any one of us derive the elements from which we are made? You have seen, with Heraclitus, that “all things come out of the One and the One out of all things.” Once you have rid yourself of Earth-devouring myths, it’s hard not to notice that that wedge of geese in the October sky is part of yourself, your Larger Self, the Self that is connected to all that is—and not only connected to, but dependent upon the Whole, and all that goes to make it up.
    This larger take on one’s identity blurs the boundaries of what self is. Self is connection, not separation. The boundaries go even blurrier when we consider the ratio of human cells within the human body to the cells of bacteria. It’s ninety to ten: Ten percent human, ninety percent bacteria. Are ”they’ inhabiting “us,” or is it really an Us-Them thing at all? Obviously, our little ten percent cannot exist apart from this other ninety percent that allows us to live, so actually there cannot be said to be an “us” without a “them.” When indigenous people speak of honoring All Our Relations, they understand the interpenetrating, interdependent connection of all to All. And so, it seems, do you.

  316. Great Gary! Thoughts of Realism! Wonderful:

    “Once you have rid yourself of Earth-devouring myths, it’s hard not to notice that that wedge of geese in the October sky is part of yourself, your Larger Self, the Self that is connected to all that is—and not only connected to, but dependent upon the Whole, and all that goes to make it up.”

    “This larger take on one’s identity blurs the boundaries of what self is. Self is connection, not separation. The boundaries go even blurrier when we consider the ratio of human cells within the human body to the cells of bacteria. It’s ninety to ten: Ten percent human, ninety percent bacteria.”

    These ideas are what I consider significant in “quantum” culture.

  317. GG

    “Self is connection, not separation.”

    It’s both. Without discrete existence the idea of connection is meaningless. It’s kind of a yin/yang thing. Each implies the other.

  318. David — A (Zen) poem I wrote some years ago:

    No seperation

    No connection

    Only This

    Not even This

  319. Gary — Your insight is beautifully expressed. I wonder if you have read Martin Prechtel’s books about his time being initiated as a shaman in an ancient tribe in Guatemala? The people there put tremendous value on beautiful language celebrating their profound union with Mother Nature. Their everyday speech was more like poetry or music, or perhaps a prayer of praise and gratitude. If only we could learn to express ourselves like that!

    As you have written, time spent alone deep in wild Nature is perhaps essential to gain this primary inner perspective. I sometimes dream of a change in our idea of culture where every young person was encouraged to go on a vision quest deep in Nature. An indigenous twist on the Boy (and Girl) Scouts. That might plant seeds of a different worldview in some young minds. A similar idea is found in Huxley’s novel Island about a possible spiritual culture.

  320. David M:
    I don’t think the yin and yang analogy works. Every “thing” is made of the same “material stuff” and its all connected and constructed in what is perhaps a grid: you, me, the planets, space etc. Yin and Yang are two different qualities that although they are interdependent, they are different.

  321. Seperation and connection, the one and the many — these are only ideas of the dividing human mind. In Reality there is just this Vast Suchness. To even say that is inadequate…

  322. The Great Way is not difficult; only cease making distinctions…

  323. Those who begin to see more clearly the mess we are in have the responsibility to share their awakening with others. This would naturally give rise to small groups sharing their experiences and insights about where we are and what we might do about it.

  324. RH

    “Every “thing” is made of the same “material stuff” and its all connected and constructed in what is perhaps a grid:”

    Definitely the same stuff but organized into discrete units. If you get sick that doesn’t mean I get sick.

    Maybe reality as dialectics is better than yin/yang. In any case separate discrete existence is part of the picture. If something is unavoidable, which clearly it existentially is, how can it not be part of reality?

    I think Krishnamurti with his poorly qualified war with the ego only contributes to the perception problem. It’s kind of like egos are a bunch of Mexican jumping beans banging into each other, causing conflict. Answer to the problem? Obliterate the ego. Then poof, all conflict is gone. lol

  325. “Concepts create idols; only wonder understands anything.” — Saint Gregory of Nyssa. Reason is useful in certain dimensions of our experience, but to force it on other areas is to create illusions and unnecessary paradoxes. To cling to the ideas of ordinary perceptions and expectations in the Quantum World is be confused and unable to understand. There is a deeper World of realities where one needs to let go of even quantum understandings.

  326. Too many good minds have become sidetracked in the fascinating mazes of quantum and advanced mathematical ideas. Remember Buddha and the tale of the man shot with a poisoned arrow. Let’s put our main energy into averting the final demise of humankind.

  327. There were ten philosophical questions that Buddha advised people who came to him that he would not discuss. He wanted to focus only on human suffering; the causes of it, and the way beyond it.

  328. mike k

    “Reason is useful in certain dimensions of our experience, but to force it on other areas is to create illusions and unnecessary paradoxes.”

    I think that is true in a certain sense although I would want to explore that further. From one perspective it’s the old comparing apples and oranges problem.

    I do think in earlier days more contemplative folks were able to understand through observation and connecting the dots our broader connection to things which often had useful applications. For instance priests of cultures along the Nile were able to predict Nile floodings in relation to their ancient seasonal calenders which was a boon to farmers who credited them with higher powers. Going from there imagine the awe and power, elite groups with written language monopolies were able to generate.

    However since the advent of science and its methods I think a lot of this ancient wisdom seems anachronistic. Our relationship to the outer world and our own mental processes have been thoroughly modeled and what we don’t understand in depth we can still often measure and employ, like magnetism and feelings in relation to medical conditions.

    I don’t sense I’m lacking in understanding how to model a successful future for mankind. And I think a lot of the posts here show some serious insight. The problem is our present investment in doing things in a self-destructive way. You have to jump the hurdle of too many narrow both material and ideological interest groups. Apparently going through the bottle neck left us with tendencies that resist our best thinking.

    One can only hope that when a critical mass of people are forced to face the stark vision of a world with no future they will wake up. But then you run into the religion-after life problem.


  329. David — What I am going to discuss now would seem to be far removed from simply pulling out a poisoned arrow, but there is a relevance however abstract. (In reality the eightfold path and other measures recommended by Buddha turn out to be no walk in the park.)

    That reason and science with its supposed mathematical certainty were the only true guides to understand what ever might come our way began to be overturned around the beginning of the twentieth century. Physics, logic, and mathematics underwent a revolution that can be described as a paradigm shit (oops, a little typo there). Its hard to remember now that Einstein’s proposals in relativity theory were strongly opposed by conventional scientists, if they could understand them, as only a handful did. More was soon to follow with quantum theory, Russel’s Principia Mathmatica investigating the foundations of mathematical logic, the uncertainty principle (which turned out to pose serious questions in almost every field where precision was sought.) In math, Kurt Godel’s ideas set a limit to the consistency and inclusiveness of all but the simplest formulations. In short there has been an avalanche of undisputed reversals in our naïve belief in logic, mathematics, or physics to ever give definitive and exact explanations of our world.

    Big surprise! Not. Just a timely reminder that our knowledge of the vast mystery of our being is at this point no better than a bright five year old, if that. This should be a bracing reminder that our human exceptionalism and hubris are not the true standard of cosmic truth.

    The relevance of all this to our present dilemmas is that most people are stuck in a naïve and simplistic faith in materialism and science to give us all the answers we will ever need going forward. This mindset is not a good guide to a sustainable future.

  330. Mike, frankly we will never know everything so why make a hang up out of it? We know enough to move in a positive direction. It’s the denialist and negatively addicted suicide squad that is killing us.

    Even your Buddha with his emphasis on the issues around suffering seemed to get the idea of useful focus.

  331. We have a problem. It was well illustrated by Plato who used the watching of shadows on the cave wall as an analogy of our knowledge. As long as humans remember we “don’t know” we can mush right along and perhaps survive. A big problem occurs when some either think they “know” or represent to others that they “know” and some believe it. In some way the belief gets out there that something is “known” and many buy into it for whatever reason. If we don’t know the bridge will support our weight, we are very cautious about crossing the bridge. When we “know” something is true, our since of caution about it is reduced or lost. It seems what we have today is a bunch who of have played the monopoly game and won and believe they “know” something or can represent to others that they “know” something. More simply we might say “we have the blind leading the blind”. And many look ahead, including me, and believe they sense a cliff up ahead.

  332. Ron — There is an arab saying: Those who know that they know, know not. Those who know that they know not, know. One teacher I studied with called that not knowing divine ignorance. Humility and innocence are gateways to wisdom. Be still and know. Meditation is a road to that emptiness. I don’t want to sound preachy, but these are just simple facts, no matter how people may have forgotten them.

  333. Ron, in post 324 you say: “From the git go my brain seemed to be organized somewhat differently than most everybody else’s” and that this “reinforced your separate world.” I can very much relate to that sense of differentness and isolation in my own life, but it’s not so much my own personal journey I want to explore here, but rather to search for pattern and meaning in our shared experience. That urge in itself–to seek pattern and meaning–is one of the very things that has made me feel isolated from most of my fellows—who don’t appear to much feel that urge. They’ll just go with the consensus view, thank you. At a personal level, I have sought to understand what makes me different by using various sorting systems. In terms of astrology, I am a triple Aquarius, which helps explain my idealism and penchant to look at things in long-range abstraction. In fact, if it weren’t for three planets in Taurus, to keep me grounded, I’d be up there high in the sky with Daedalus, or fallen to Earth like Icarus, for having approached too close to the sun. In terms of the Meyers-Briggs-Keirsey personality inventory, I am INFJ—introverted-intuitive-feeling- judging, which puts me in yet another minority of less than one percent of the population. They call this personality type, one of sixteen types, the Councilor, and note that such individuals are less interested in the world as it appears to be in the present than the world as it has been, could be, and should be. That’s me, but what is the meaning and purpose behind it all?
    Astrology, a discipline that goes back much further than what we now call science, divides humanity into twelve distinct personality types. Without ever getting deeply into all the arcane intricacies of this discipline, I have paid attention over the years to simple sun sign astrology, especially as it relates to compatibility and to the leading characteristics of each type. From what I’ve observed (and I’m not talking about horoscopes here) there is validity to this system. The basic premise of astrology is that individual temperament and personality are shaped by the alignment of the planets and stars at the moment an individual enters the world. As these alignments are ever-changing, so too is each human (and presumably every other creature, too) absolutely unique. That, too, squares with my own observations. We’re all the same, but all different. And this is in keeping with the larger tendency of the Universe toward ever greater diversity. Diversity R Us. But again, what purpose, if any, does all this diversity serve?
    I look at this in somewhat Darwinian terms: that is, what gives any given population—human or otherwise—its best chances at survival? What, in evolutionary terms, is most adaptive? And where do mistfits like us fit into the scheme of things?
    All the other creatures are guided through life mostly by instinct. The Life Force thrives (and perhaps delights) in creativity and experiment. We humans are an experiment in the innovation of culture– a way of hedging pure instinct. In theory, culture provides us with a new adaptive mechanism more flexible than genetically determined (or influenced) instinct. For as long as there has been human culture, it seems to have worked in adaptive ways. After our great dispersal out of Africa, cultural diversity flourished, and cultural diversity would seem to work on much the same principle as biological diversity. In the wake of stochastic events—floods, fire, famine, tsunamis, or giant volcanic eruptions, such as that of Mt. Toba some 70,000 years ago—cultural diversity supplies a range of responses, and some, with luck, will prove effective enough to assure survival of well-adapted groups. With our growing global economic monoculture, we are of course losing the benefits of this proven adaptive strategy. The same holds true for our industrial agribusiness model. It is not well adapted to anything unexpected coming along. If, for example, several thousand different strains of something like rice or potatoes were being grown, some percentage would likely be adaptive to whatever might come along: drought, heat, cold, endless rain, and any number of diseases and pests. With little diversity, the chance of failure is high.
    I think these same principles apply to diversity of personality types among humans. Within any given group it is good to have a percentage of individuals whose: “brain seems to be organized somewhat differently than most everybody else’s.” My friend, Tim, likes to use the example of the crew on a steam-powered sailing ship. There’s the captain, the first mate, and the navigator doing their thing. There are some swabbing the decks, and there are several more feeding the fire in the boiler room. There are a number of other odd jobs aboard ship– some done by people particularly well-suited to their work. Then there is that guy up in the crow’s nest. He’s the one with the best vantage to see any dangers ahead, and his job is to make those dangers known. That is pretty much how Tim and I see our function on our own storm-tossed vessel. Look behind; look ahead; look all around. Whether it’s a pirate ship, a reef, or just a pod of dolphins, it’s our job to shout out what we see. Those guys down in the boiler room, they think we’re just up there taking the breeze, while they are doing the real work. But once in awhile we’ll remind them that full speed ahead, with no one on the lookout, can ground you on a reef just that quick. So maybe there is a place in all this for each one of us, even those with differently organized brains.
    On a personal level, being a minority personality can be a little lonely. Finding people like yourself, who truly understand and appreciate you to the fullest—well, that’s never happened for me. I assume that some people do actually find their soulmate in life. For me, that’s just been a dream. Likewise, the amount of myself I can reveal to neighbors and casual acquaintances is barely a tenth of what might be shown. Maybe this is just part of the human condition, but I think it is also a function of being outside the norm. That’s the downside. It might be a little lonely at times up here in the crow’s nest, but being outside, and alive to the elements, feeling the sun on your cheek and every little breeze, these are lovely. And being up high where you can see more of the world—the birds, the whales, the glowing, gaudy sunsets—these are all compensation for not being below-decks among an accepting crowd. So, I guess what we’re left with is doing our job as best we can and making the most of the perks. Ron, does any of this reflect your own experience?

  334. I don’t think it is necessary to “know” anything in any final sense. On the other hand turning everything into mumbo jumbo and calling that wisdom is not a road I want to go down either. I’m more inclined toward the William of Occam view that at any given time the simplest view consistent with the available evidence is the best choice.

    I find mathematics very powerful because it mirrors the regularities we find in the universe. The heavens are so mathematically regular in their positioning that on any given day you can know where you are on the earth at a particular time by finding the angle to the horizon of the sun, moon, planets and stars and then consulting a set of mathematically exact projections of where they stand directly vertical to the earth at a given day and time.

    I think things like the “uncertainty principle” have more to do with interfering observing equipment than they do with real uncertainties.

  335. Gary, I have never studied astrology very much. I know I am a Scorpio and I’ve had some try to tell me more of my scorpio details but I soon forgot what that is all about. In fact part of my being different probably comes from having a poor memory but there is more. Of course, as we get older our memories tend to degrade but I’ve never had a very good memory from the beginning.

    But I am also not at all good at following other’s paths. I was born into a small German Catholic community. Everybody went to the same school and was thoroughly indoctrinated in the Catholic religion from first grade on. We had to go to church every morning before class and every day we had a class in religion. The teachers attempted to stuff all kinds of religious doctrine in our head every day. But they were almost complete failures in my case. In those days, I felt intimidated because all the students seemed to readily accept the doctrines taught. But I was always thinking “But, but, but how can that be?” or some such. Actually I tried asking questions a few times but the answers I got seemed so pitiful and they also made problems so I gave that up. This led to hugh guilt feelings and I was a kind of walking guilt monster until I got to college where I finally broke loose. In college I read Bertrand Russell and loved it.

    In high school I liked science but I often had wrong answers on the tests. When I would talk it over with the teacher and she would ask me: “How did you arrive at your answer?” After I explained, she would often say: “You are correct in your thinking but the test makers did not expect students to think that deep. You have to learn to not think so deeply and then you can make better grades.” I tried to lower my thinking power but I never succeeded very well. My science teacher was my favorite teacher in high school.

    From college days, one of my hobbies has been chess. I really like chess. Many good chess players have fantastic memories. They can reconstruct a complete game that Nimzovitch played with Bogoljubow on June 22 of 1927. From memory – no problem. Although I am not a chess master, just a fairly good player but when I play my mind is not far from being a tabula rasa to begin with. The thing that helps me is pattern recognition and problem solving ability. Of course, I remember some basic traps and moves but not games.

    In working, after college I started off working as a regular worker in technical writing mostly in the field of communications i.e. microwave, fiber optics, radar etc. But I had problems working for a “boss”. I had my own ideas of how to do things. The bosses probably thought I was attempting to challenge their exalted position and so I quit working as a regular employee and became a temporary worker or a “job shopper” as they called them in those days. I worked for periods and vacationed in Mexico etc. I did this off and on. I was a volunteer editor of a non-profit organic food and alternate lifestyle magazine around 1970 when I designed and built my own house. In 1991 I left for Japan.

    So what do you think? Does this tell you anything about how I might be different?

  336. Gary, Ron — Vive la difference mes amis! I too was an outsider from kindergarten days. What set me apart was my intense curiosity, which led me to delve into everything. And I was not satisfied with superficial answers. I sensed there was a deeper story beneath every appearance, and I wanted in on it. Initially I haunted the library and book stores and became a great reader, spending hours every day in my books. My older brother was a fan of the first Science fiction magazines with titles like Amazing, Fantastic, and Astounding. I ate that stuff up, as I did all kinds of scientific literature. By fourth grade I was trying to decipher Bertrand Russell’s exposition of Einstein’s theory. It was at this time I gained the nickname Einstein from my fourth grade schoolmates. It was always uttered with a derisive spin. I was really isolated from others, and took refuge in my books and fantasies.

    I am a double Pisces, and exhibit most of the characteristics of that clan in spades. On the other hand I am quirky enough to resist easy classification. I am still an inveterate egghead, and spend time every day reading, meditating, and attending groups dedicated to self transformation. My basic search is still why are we here, and how should we fulfill our purpose. I have made considerable progress with this koan, and am forging ahead into the exciting darkness of the unknown…

  337. David M: The uncertainty principle is a central tenet of quantum mechanics. It states that both the position and momentum of an object cannot be known with absolute precision. The implication of this idea is hugh in that it shows the world to be indeterminate and not classical or Newtonian.

  338. David — If I understand your last post, you are pretty much on the same page with Einstein when he announced that he did not think God played dice with the universe. Of course the overwhelming majority of scientists and cosmologists now believe that Einstein’s rejection of quantum theory and the uncertainty principle was mistaken. No matter, I am not saying you or Einstein were wrong in any definitive sense. But to prove your contention will require a lot of work at this point. John Dewey wrote a book way back when titled The Quest for Certainty. This has been one of humankind’s concerns for a long time. However, the further our knowledge quest takes us the more it becomes as Alice said curiouser and curiouser.

  339. Ockham’s razor can make a real mess is injudiciously used on something that is intrinsically complex and subtle. Our preference for simplistic understandings should not be allowed to lead us astray in all matters.

  340. Mike: You mention books by Martin Prechtel. No, I haven’t read him, but I think I should. I was introduced to some of his thinking a year or two ago when I read Derrick Jensen’s Dreams, where he interviews the Mayan shaman. For me, that interview was the most significant part of the book, because Prechtel brings up an issue never considered in our society, that of spiritual debt. Leading up to their conversation, Jensen says that we are “ignoring the spiritual debt that we create just by living” and our careless obliviousness “will come back to bite us, hard.” I believe that. I could even say I know that to be true. But what Prechtel gives us is a peek into a worldview different from our own, and a people whose lives and actions are animated by their knowledge of this spiritual debt. Prechtel says:“A knife, for instance, is a very minimal, almost primitive tool to people in modern industrial society. But for the Mayan people, the spiritual debt that must be paid for the creation of such a tool is great. To start with, the person who is going to make the knife has to build a fire hot enough to produce coals. To pay for that he’s got to give a sacrificial gift to give to the fuel, to the fire.”
    Jensen asks, “Like what?”
    “Ideally, the gift should be something made by hand, which is the one thing humans have that spirits don’t.”
    He continues:“Once the fire is hot enough, the knife maker must smelt the iron ore out of the rock. The part that’s left over, which gets thrown away in Western culture, is the most holy part in shamanic rituals. What’s left over represents the debt, the hollowness that’s been carved out of the universe by human ingenuity, and so must be refilled with human ingenuity. A ritual gift equal to the amount that was removed from the other world has to be put back to make up for the wound caused to the divine. Human ingenuity is a wonderful thing but only so long as it’s used to feed the deities that give us the ability to perform such extravagant feats in the first place.
    “So just to get the iron, the shaman has to pay for the ore, the fire, the wind and so on—not in dollars and cents but in ritual activity equal to what’s been given.”
    “All these ritual gifts make the knife enormously ‘expensive,’ and make the process quite involved and time-consuming. The need for ritual makes some things too spiritually expensive to bother with. That’s why the Mayans didn’t invent space shuttles or shopping malls or backhoes. They live the way they do not because it’s a romantic way to live—it’s not; it’s enormously hard—but because it works.”
    Because it works—now that counts for something in my books. I think a lot of us are beginning to recognize that our way of living seemed to work for awhile, and now is failing to work—and has no prospect whatever of working into the distant, or even the near to middle, future. Can it be that the people of our culture have mistaken the nature of the Universe so badly that we have failed utterly in our spiritual obligations? I think that is what Prechtel believes.
    Coming from quite a different mindset than our own, he says: “The universe is in a state of starvation and emotional grief because it has not been given what it needs in the form of ritual food and actual physical gifts. We think we’re getting away with something by stealing from the other side, but it all leads to violence. The Greek oracle at Delphi saw this a long time ago and said, ‘Woe to humans, the invention of steel.’”
    We think we’ve had a free ride for quite awhile now, but are probably wrong about that.”When the knife is finished, it is called the ‘tooth of earth.’ It will cut wood, meat, and plants. But if the necessary sacrifices have been ignored in the name of rationalism, literalism, and human superiority, it will cut humans instead.”
    I believe Prechtel’s words give us much to ponder on.

  341. Gary — Don’t know if you went to Prechtel’s website:

    I was glad to learn he has done a new book, and am ordering it now. His work is a precious legacy of the possibilities of a way of life totally other than our failing “civilization”. Part of what he recounts is his experience of the tragic encounter of this ancient way of life with the forces of our modern disaster, events that almost cost him his life. Start with What the Talking Jaguar Said and go through the series. What a gift he has given us, if we can only appreciate it.

  342. Our problems run so deep and penetrate the entire worldview, experience, and behavior of modern humans, so that there is no shortcut crash course to learning to be a true human being. But small groups studying and working intensely together give us the best chance of developing and modeling progress in that direction. There is a responsibility for those who have a little light to share it as best they can. We can only try and create as we go better ways to replace the false beliefs and deficient education most are victims of with something truer and with a more compassionate heart for all living beings. The old ways have proven inadequate and are indeed leading us towards extinction. We must dare to strike out on new paths or fail to realize our possible destiny. If you are part of a group of two, try to find a third. Finding each other is one of the first challenges to be tested by and learn from. If you are alone in your awakenings, then seek another to share with. Isolated awakening is largely sterile to affect the larger world.

  343. Gurdjieff spoke of a man’s need to “pay for the cost of his arising.” He called it being partkdolg duty. It is something we owe to the incredible chain of agencies that worked and often suffered that we might exist. To take one’s life for granted shows the astonishing lack of caring that characterizes most of us. G. said that one of the first signs of awakening from the general sleep of humankind is the awakening of Real Conscience, which is a more profound consciousness than the state that usually goes by that name in the conditioned human.

  344. RH

    “The uncertainty principle is a central tenet of quantum mechanics. It states that both the position and momentum of an object cannot be known with absolute precision.”

    That would seem to place the uncertainty problem in the measurement process not the object.

    Mike k

    “Ockham’s razor can make a real mess [if it] is injudiciously used on something that is intrinsically complex and subtle.”

    I’m not sure why, assuming correct use, as long as you included the relevant facts and were open to change as new facts came in. The universe and even nature at their core seem to align themselves with rather simple principles and formulas.

  345. David M:
    There is a great difference between Occam’s Razor and the Uncertainty Principle.

    Occam’s Razor is a guide to making decisions. It is heuristic in that it is a general guide for implementing or perhaps exploring something. Words that express similar ideas are “rule of thumb”, “educated guess” and “common sense”.

    The Uncertainty Principle is a description of the world. It is a scientific statement. It is not a suggestion or a recommendation. It can be considered an iron clad statement something like “Pythagoras’ theorem” or something like that. It shows that if you increase the resolution of a measurement of one property; you necessarily reduce how accurately you can measure a complementary property i.e. the more accurately you measure position, the less accurately you can measure speed.

    It is part of quantum field theory for which:

    “there is not a single experimental result that counters its predictions. The results of calculations match actual measurements to a precision of ten decimal places, an almost unimaginable agreement between theory and experiment.”

    “as a rough analogy, think about photographing that impish fly. If your shutter speed is high, you’ll get a sharp image that records the fly’s location at the moment you snapped the picture. But because the photo is crisp, the fly appears motionless; the image gives no information about the fly’s speed. If you set your shutter speed low, the resulting blurry image will convey something of the fly’s motion, but because of that blurriness it also provides an imprecise measurement of the fly’s location. You can’t take a photo that gives sharp information about position and speed simultaneously.”

    Greene, Brian (2011-01-14). The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos Knopf.

  346. Fundamentalism is not confined to religious belief systems. Believers in the supremacy of science to be the final word on all things have in common with fundamentalists in other areas a deep need to be absolutely certain, to eliminate any doubt or phenomenon beyond there chosen system to totally explain, if not now, then at some future date. Fundamentalists all seek some system that is never wrong or inadequate to some new context. The deep root of their need for this is their fear of the uncertain and unpredictable nature of our universe. Ambiguity and uncertainty and mystery are anathema to them.

    Those unfamiliar with the findings of modern science yearn for and think that science is still stuck in the illusory certainties of the Newtonian era. Truth is we are not in Kansas anymore… The fact that scientists seeks for simpler solutions does not mean that the universe always conforms to their wishes. The immense complexities of quantum mechanics and string theory for example will not yield a lot of information to one who approaches them with only Ockham’s rough rule of art as a tool. To me the razor only says don’t use complex answers where simpler ones will do just as well or better. It does not say that all problems have simple answers.

  347. mike:
    I agree that fundamentalism is not dependent on religious belief systems. But someone who is basically a fundamentalist is not a very good scientist to my way of thinking. To believe in the supremacy of science, not even sure what that means, is itself, contrary to science. I think that the central qualities for success in science are openness and inclusiveness in addition to innovation. Any kind of restriction or narrowness of thinking can result in bad science. Apparent ambiguity, uncertainly and mystery are what a true scientist loves because it gives something to decode and try to understand.

    Now, it is true that Newtonian ideas are still to be found in science. I suppose you could attribute this to fundamentalism but I think it is better described as the inelasticity of human thinking. Maybe inelasticity and fundamentalism are same thing? But in a great percentage of today’s science, the Newtonian concept of things can still result in effective results. But even with these dinosaurian (Newtonian) researchers I suspect they rarely implement Occam’s razor type of thinking because in today’s complex research, I doubt it is very efficient or effective in the long run although the relevant researchers would have to decide.

    I think the persistence of Newtonian ideas is largely a result of man’s great desire to maintain traditional thought. Einstein himself did not like quantum thinking. He did everything he could do to disprove it but failed. Do think Einstein disliked the idea of complexity? He understood the concept completely. He and Niels Bohr had many a knock down drag argument about it and Einstein issued his famous line “God doesn’t play dice with the universe” or something like that. Einstein headed up the famous EPR paper to prove he was right but it had the opposite result and proved Einstein was wrong. And up to the present, it makes Niels Bohr the clear winner of their famous arguments.

  348. Ron, I read your response on the uncertainty principle and, putting aside your opening statements on the matter, it seems to confirm my point. It’s a proven universal observation on the limitation of measurement, not necessarily how the universe works. I thought your photography analogy was spot on.

    Yes Occam’s razor is a species of commonsense. However the fact that over and over nature and the universe at their core seem to be reduceable to simple principles and formulas suggests that it is a level of commonsense you can just about count on.

  349. David M:
    Yes, it is a limit of observation alright but the reason it is a limit of observation is because it is the way the universe works. Theoretically at least, in a Newtonian universe there is no limit on observation. Everything can be precisely measured, placed and forecast. The quantum universe is fuzzy (probabilistic) by its very nature. Everything is dependent on probability. At our macro level we are not generally aware of the probabilistic qualities of nature. However if one looks at the molecular level or smaller of material the fuzziness or probabilistic nature of nature begins to show.

  350. To use an example, a radioactive material has a precise half life but one cannot predict the moment of breakdown of any particular atom.

    I’m quite willing to treat half-life as the bottom line. You can keep pushing the limits however far you want but at a certain point one might ask what is the practical feedback?

    One thing science can’t answer is whether there is a certain point when it becomes irrelevant or even darker, when it’s effects are essentially negative.

  351. It is fascinating to me how our relatively recent faith in “science” is in many ways leading to a recapitulation of the theological arguments intellectuals engaged in long ago. As if the resolution of these matters would finally give us the rest and certainty we long for. In exploring what has been done in the philosophy of science, one discovers that the same old profound and unanswered questions arise. And in the end even the question of how to define this supposed system of knowing we casually call science remains mooted in differing claims. One wearies of these unending arguments, and against all modern claims recalls Augustine’s dictum — “We will never find rest until we rest in God.” (Or the grave!)

    But to rest in the conviction that science alone will give us all the answers we need is a mistake that we are paying dearly for. To presume that when most of us refer to science, we mean the totally open search for truth is not true. The battle between the Church and the beliefs, methods, and intentions of the newly developing science lives on today. Sam Harris, Pinker and many others want to finally slay the dragon of religious thinking once and for all. While on the other side many religionists would like to chuck science into the deepest circle of their beloved Hell. The steel cage fight of the ages lives on, and in the immortal words of the father in Ken Kesey’s novel Sometimes a Great Notion, neither side will give an inch. For a profound look into this struggle of ideas I recommend Ken Wilber’s Sex, Ecology, Spirituality.

    Although the inconclusive battle between science and religion is one key to a new higher level of thinking and living that might deliver us beyond our present quagmire, there are other significant fish that need to be fried. Therefore one should not become bogged down in wrestling with these important questions, if seeking a broader view of our situation that might yield a viable and sustainable way of life for us. So, I am going to redirect my attention to pulling that damned poisoned arrow out. That thing is killing me, and us!

  352. I want here to explore the proposition that certain things that the people of our culture have identified as “resources” put here for human use, are no such thing. What we call “renewable resources” are gifts of Nature, and their use is permitted to humans, as long as they are in fact renewed. The forests of the British Isles and of Europe have been cut down for human use, but not renewed. When a renewable resource is used in this way, it is mining the resource for one-time use, and, I would say, is in violation of our unwritten but real contract with Nature, who spent more than four billion years creating the world we humans were born into. It is allowed to live off the interest of Earth’s solar budget and to partake of Nature’s emergent abundance. It is not permitted to live off the principal; that constitutes mining, as is theft.
    Taking another creature’s life is allowed only under specified conditions, which include asking permission and giving thanks through prescribed ritual activity. And, as with all ritual, it is most meaningful when sincerely felt. Respect and reverence for all life forms is appropriate and should arise out of the recognition that all life is sacred. Accordingly, when a life is taken for human sustenance, nothing should be wasted. Waste shows disrespect. These simple principles have been practiced by humans for tens of thousands of years, and, for the most part, those humans did not degrade or diminish their world—which they recognized was not theirs alone. Living in this way honored the contract and bond between Nature and the human, and might have continued indefinitely on just the same terms. It was a way of life we would now call “sustainable.” Living within the planetary solar budget was inherently durable.
    In addition to renewable resources the people of our culture have identified another part of the living planet to be used by humans, which they call “non-renewable resources.” These include fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas; metals such as iron, copper, nickel, silver, and gold; various other elements, including the rare earths, and any number of miscellaneous compounds. All of these are integral to the Earth, are under the Earth’s skin, and can be accessed only by ripping into the Earth itself. Inevitably, it is a violent process, whether accomplished directly by humans using sharp prying tools, or giant machines that gouge out the Earth, tons at a time. Few, if any, of these non-renewables come to the surface in pure form. They come with a lot of the rest of the Earth, referred to as “overburden,” which is treated as waste. In the case of mountaintop removal, everything that is not coal is bulldozed toward lower ground, including into creeks and rivers. Much of what is brought up to the surface of the Earth, along with the sought-after treasure, is toxic to life. As long as it was buried, its life- and health-threatening properties were no problem. But, once above-ground, poisonous and/or greenhouse gasses are released into the biosphere to work their ongoing harm. Metals, such as gold, require highly poisonous chemicals, like mercury and cyanide, in the mining and refining process. Where do these chemicals end up? In the biosphere, of course, and in the bodies of animals and humans, even decades and centuries after the mining operation is shut down. To this day, the Rocky Mountains retain the toxic legacy of its mining history, with no relief in sight. The hydraulic fracturing process introduces a dangerous brew of chemicals (including benzene) into underground aquifers, even as this risky process releases methane (a highly potent greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere. The Gulf Oil Spill is a reminder of how environmentally devastating deepwater oil extraction can be, while the Alberta tar sands continue to expand the sacrifice zone of that dirty, nasty project. In the world of mining, a few people get filthy rich, the consumer gets a certain amount “stuff’ of some kind, and everybody else gets the toxic legacy, while the tissue of the Earth itself is ravaged and scarred.
    All of this, by itself, should tell us we are doing something wrong. As a practical matter, simply in terms of costs and benefits, this equation does not add up. The epidemic of cancer and other diseases coincides with a witch’s brew of chemicals we are all exposed to through our chemical agriculture and our deepening reliance on pharmaceuticals just to live “normally.” Meanwhile, industrial processes release a plethora of dangerous chemicals into our air and water, nasty things like PCBs and dioxins. All but a very few of these compounds come from under the skin of the Earth, and what seems obvious to me is that they should be left there–based simply on cost-benefit calculations which look beyond quarterly profits for the few to the long-term welfare of the whole. Then, too, it may be that the geology of sub-surface Earth constitutes its own kinds of ecosystems, whose functions we have not begun to understand. Just for an instance, the iron that is in the Earth may function in important ways in terms of Earth’s electro-magnetic field, affecting the stability of Earth’s orbit. The point is, we do not understand the implications of everything we are doing. A cost-benefit analysis, even leaving out such mysteries as these, suggests the costs far outweigh the benefits—and this is based strictly on practical, materialistic considerations, leaving out any possible spiritual components to the equation.
    But what if the Earth is sacred? What if all Life is sacred? What if the Mayan spiritual perspective, as represented by Martin Prechtel, is a more profound understanding of our Universe, our world, and our place in it, than our own? What if, as he suggests, taking “resources” out of the hide of the Earth creates a “hollowness that’s been carved out of the universe” that can only be made right by ritual sacrifice, to reciprocate for what has been taken? What if it’s true that: “The universe is in a state of starvation and emotional grief because it has not been given what it needs in the form of ritual food and actual physical gifts. We think we’re getting away with something by stealing from the other side, but it all leads to violence.” What if he and the Mayans are right, and we are wrong?
    What if all that is under the Earth’s skin belongs to the Earth, and not to us at all—and that taking what we mine from the Earth is indeed theft? That it is culturally sanctioned theft does not make it anything other than theft, it just means we have given ourselves permission to be thieves, and encourage the plunder of the Earth. We have been at this plunder for a few thousand years now, but only in the last few hundred have we gone about the job systematically. And where has that left us now in 2012? All of the ‘easier’ resources to get at have already been mined, and what is left is of lower quality and harder to get at. All these “resources” are on the down side of depletion. The availability of oil is well past its peak. All the non-renewable resources we’ve come to depend upon are in decline, and it looks as though we are willing to fight with other humans for what remains. (See Michael T Klare: The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources.) This is violence begetting violence, in a self-amplifying positive feedback loop. “We think we are getting away with something by stealing from the other side, but it all leads to violence. The Greek oracle at Delphi saw this a long time ago and said, ‘Woe to humans, the invention of steel.’” As I see it, all the violence and disorder of our own time is the price we are paying for breaking our contract and bond with Nature. If we had stuck to that contract, and lived only on the interest of Nature’s abundance, and not helped ourselves to the principle, the Universe, the Earth, and the human enterprise, would all be in much better shape than any of us now are.
    My hope is that future human survivors will know and honor the only viable way for humans to live here, and restore the bond with Nature that has been broken.

  353. Gary — Everything you have written is true, and very eloquently expressed. Thank you for sharing your clear thinking and insight.

    There is a small elite who constitute much less than one percent of our total numbers, who bear overwhelming responsibility for the destruction of our world and the murder and impoverishment of literally billions of their fellow citizens. They do this without a shred of shame or guilt or acknowledgement of their crimes. They have spent their lives worshiping power and wealth at the expense of all other human values. They think of themselves as the leaders of humankind and glory in their “success”. There is no chance that they will turn back from their madness unless some external force or circumstances brings their empire of greed to a stop.

    I have read most of what Derrick Jensen has written including Endgame, Deep Green Resistance, and recently Dreams. I respect his viewpoint on the need for our so called civilization to collapse as soon as possible. On the other hand I am not convinced that the sabotage and subversion he suggests to help it fall faster will actually do much to effect that. And even if it did I am unconvinced that this would necessarily lead to a better world in the wake of that holocaust. I choose to cast my lot with those who are working to create and spread a vision and a practice that would in any case be necessary for such a viable society to come into being pre or post collapse as that may be. There is little reason for me to believe that collapse itself would somehow be adequate to put humankind on a more sane path, in spite of fictional efforts that embody such hopes. Unless we learn to face and resolve our inner flaws and misunderstandings, it is likely that post collapse we would simply begin building towards the same debacle again. There is just no way to avoid the work needed for us to become the spiritual beings that are required for living in harmony and sanity on our planet. It is not possible to delay this essential task any longer. We face our final initiation. Either we prove ourselves worthy to go forward our we will perish as a species.

  354. our should read or in the final sentence. Damn! When will I learn to proof my work? And I once worked as a proof reader…

  355. Gary Gripp: You are extremely good at detailed descriptions of our rather sorry situation. However, I often tend to think in simple cartoons. Back around 1970 or so there was a moderately popular cartoon that was a simple line drawn image and it showed a valley in the center. You could see the remains of a train bridge on both sides of the valley. Towards the center of the picture between the remains of the fallen bridge at the center of the valley was a smoking and broken train along with the crashed bridge. On the top right looking over the valley and scene of destruction stood two cartoonish characters. Below this scene was a caption of just two words: “Aw Shit”.
    At a young age I sometimes went to the movies and one of my very favorite characters was Wily Coyote. As I remember it, one of Wily Coyote’s favorite pastime’s was chasing “Pretty Boid”. Actually Wily Coyote was not all that wily. He would chase Pretty Boid but Pretty Boid could fly and he couldn’t so he would run off the edge of a mountain chasing Pretty Boid and until the reality of the situation came to him that he was doing the impossible of running on thin air, he would look down and then crash to the ground.
    It seems to me that these two cartoons capture some of the feeling of our present situation. The smoking and jumbled train at the bottom of the valley could represent our present civilization. Inside the smoking wreck of a train are us homo sapiens. Some of those in the train still think everything is normal and some admit the train is broken but it will help them get richer. What they don’t understand is that they are also in the crashed train! The apparent unknowing naiveté of Wily Coyote who never learns and who only thinks of how delicious Pretty Boid is captures some of the feeling of what is going on in the train. In the cartoon Wily Coyote seems to have eternal life. And after crashing he some resurrects himself and performs another installment. This is man’s fantasy of his hubris. I don’t think its going to work forever. And the two characters overlooking the scene of the bridge crash and train wreck: Thats us. We understand that homo sapiens big brain has made a big mess of things with no apparent exit for anybody including us.

  356. Ron — I admit that the future looks pretty dark, and our chances of survival are very thin, but there are some things that give me hope, however faint. One — We really are ignorant of the future. We don’t know what may arise to save at least some of our chestnuts from the encroaching flames. Two — Doing the right thing, that is working for our recovery of some sanity, has intrinsic value whether we can feel guaranteed of success or not. Three — As Sartre said man needs a project in order to create meaning in a world that often seems absurd. It is up to us to make life meaningful, if we don’t make that creative effort then we do guarantee a bad result. There may be a way beyond the fatalistic thinking of materialist determinism…..So let’s dare to take the Quantum Jump!

  357. Mike: Thanks for endorsing my minority report on “natural resources.” I am in agreement with you on Jensen. He’s right about almost everything but not about “bringing down civilization.” I’m afraid that it has to fall of its own weight and wrongness. But what he does offer is a coherent counter-narrative, and in that way, a model for others of us who want to do something positive in the face of pathological cultural malfunction. Whatever any of can do to help others see through our cultural Matrix are planting the right sorts of seeds for the future. At least I hope that’s the case.

  358. We should draw a distinction between the collapse or death of civilization as we know it, and the possible extinction of the human species. If those two outcomes should happen to coincide, it would not be because we humans perished due to a lack of the conveniences and supports of civilized living, but it would rather be due to the incredibly toxic effects that have accompanied said conveniences and supposed supports. Humankind has a very long record of survival on Earth prior to the advent of advanced technologies and modern forms of social organization.

  359. Oops! I did the same thing you did, mike. I blew the last sentence. Well, next to last. I think I meant “any of us,” and left out the us.

  360. mike k
    I agree with you however I have this very strong predilection to know the “truth”. I am now reading Derrick Jensen’s “Resistance Against Empire”. OMG! Talk about scary reality! He describes a worse reality than in my imagination! And that is saying something. But I agree with you: We must keep a stiff upper lip and do what we can to “ensure the recovery of some sanity” and maybe strike a magic note that will cause at least some transformative healing.

  361. Gary — I agree about the value of sowing seeds. And I also think Jensen is excellent for awakening the sleepers, but not such a good guide for those who are awake. In my own search for truth it has been my experience that one must carefully garner what is useful from a wide range of teachers and reject whatever they may have wrong. There is really no substitute for creatively choosing your own package of truths to form a worldview. Nobody can offer a prepackaged set that fits all seekers. I have always stood somewhat apart from the teachers and groups I have been part of, weighing, questioning, evaluating.

  362. Ron: We do it in different ways, but I believe we are both solving for pattern. Your imagistic approach is quite effective.

  363. Mike: You have mentioned Ken Wilber more than once, and referred to several of his books. I have read Integral Spirituality, and one other whose title eludes me. I was most interested in the fact that he spoke of holons and holarchy– concepts I find to have great penetrating power. But his understanding of holarchy is different from mine. He turns it into a hierarchy, which I think is a projection of his own conceptual framework, which seems to require hierarchy. For example, I live near Horse Creek, which is a tributary of the McKenzie River, which is a tributary of the Willamette River, which is a tributary of the Columbia River which flows into the Pacific Ocean. By his way of thinking, the ocean is top dog, the Columbia next, and so forth, according to size. But I say that my Horse Creek is not subordinate to the Columbia. It is its own holonic level of the Columbia, and the Columbia is not the Columbia without Horse Creek. And in fact the Columbia is not the Columbia without every drop of water that trickles or flows anywhere within the entire Columbia watershed. All things come out of the One and the One out of all things.
    The word holonomy is almost, but not quite, the antonym for autonomy. Something that is autonomous stands alone, by itself. Other than the Republican self-made-man, I really can’t think of anything that stands by itself, with no connection to anything else. For me, the concept of autonomy has very limited applicability to the real world. Rather, the way I see it, everything is holonymous: interconnected and interdependent. The way I understand Wilber, he would make the Columbia a discrete entity, which, furthermore, was higher up the hierarchy of water bodies (in his hierarchical Great Chain of Being) than the Willamette, the McKenzie, or my own Horse Creek. I just don’t buy that view of the world. Call it my anti-authoritarian bias, if you like, but I believe the entire Universe is far more egalitarian (or rather, holonomous) than it is otherwise.
    It looks to me like Wilber was trained in the social sciences, and took their schematic way of looking at things, and labeling things, to heart. Mike, you who have read more Wilber than I have, please correct me if I’m wrong. And while you’re at it, also tell me what it is you find so appealing about his work. I am open to learning, and second thoughts.

  364. Gary — The words we use really need a lot of analysis and deconstruction if we are to arrive at a place of mutual understanding. I can fully understand your repugnance with the word hierarchy as it has so often been used to justify all kinds of power over and better than this or that projects. The Catholic Church and the Pharaohs of old Egypt come quickly to mind, along with a host of marginalizing and dominating individuals, organizations, and philosophies. I can assure you that Wilber is not endorsing any of that nonsense when he speaks of holism or hierarchy. His view of these terms and also the so called great chain of being is profoundly sophisticated.
    I will not try to duplicate his lengthy elucidation of holonics here but refer to what some consider his master work: Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality. He begins this tome with a lengthy exposition of the relevance of holonics to understanding the cosmos. In the course of this he addresses the sticky question of the meaning of hierarchy. Given the things you have shared, I feel you will be very interested to read this book. Let me be clear; although I took part in a group that studied Wilber’s output for three years, two hours every other week, I am not a “Wilberite.”
    Nevertheless I have learned a lot from him. He is a genius, and more than anyone is responsible for birthing the field of integral studies.

    Let me say this: There is a field of Divine Radiance that is Universal and that gives rise to all that we experience. We live and move and have our being in and as That. I am That, You are That, and there is nothing other than That. The nature of that field is Being, Consciousness and Bliss (or Perfect Love). I do not think Wilber would disagree with what I have said. Wilber is a deep meditation practitioner and student of Zen and Tibetan Buddhism among other disciplines. Part of his purpose is to gain understanding and acceptance of the inner sciences usually referred to as mysticism by the western proponents of science, philosophy, psychology, and a host of other disciplines. In short I think you will find his ideas fascinating whether you agree with all of them or not.

  365. Ron — Reading Jensen can not only cause one’s upper lip to stiffen but cause spastic rigidity all over one’s whole set of bodies. Hopefully we can learn to relax in the face of all that deeply concerns us, as it should. Since we all are going to die in any case, why not ease up and enjoy the rest of the trip, including learning about the great collapse of our poorly constructed civilization. Some detachment and a measure of rueful acceptance of the inevitable can actually strengthen one to navigate the rapids ahead. Maybe we can learn to transform terror into heady excitement and depression into a wise calmness? After all, the fear of experiencing fear is what keeps many from looking the dragons in the eye.

  366. Something to think about:
    The answer is never the answer. What’s really interesting is the mystery. If you seek the mystery instead of the answer, you’ll always be seeking. I’ve never seen anybody really find the answer, but they think they have. So they stop thinking. But the job is to seek mystery, evoke mystery, plant a garden in which strange plants grow and mysteries bloom. The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer.
    Ken Kesey, “The Art of Fiction CXXXVI”, The Paris Review, 1994.

  367. Competition within Cooperation
    From a certain vantage point, the predator-prey relationship appears to support the idea that we live in a world of violent Darwinian competition, bloody in tooth and claw. From the point of view of the elk that is being taken down by a pack of wolves, it is just such a world. As he is being run down by the pack, the elk’s heart is beating fast and he is shot through with adrenalin, which gives him extra strength and stamina. As they close in and attack, there is a moment of panic and an instant of pain, and then, for the elk, it’s over. From the wolves’ point of view, as they chase and surround this calf they have isolated from the herd, the wolves are in competition to determine if the elk will lose its life and provide them with sustenance, or go free this day and the wolves go hungry. From the viewpoint of the mother who has lost her calf, there is the sadness of loss—and this is something humans can identify with. But when we focus on the individual, and then extrapolate large generalizations from this single point of view, and say that all of life is like this, we fall into the cognitive error of reductionism. That is because the viewpoint of the individual is not the only perspective there is. At the holonic level of the herd, their group is made stronger by the loss of its weakest member. That is true in the immediate present, but its gene pool has also been selected for more adaptive attributes. That is Darwinian, too, with its own evolutionary and adaptive implications. So, really, the predator-prey relationship is a symbiotic one in which both predator and prey species gain by their interaction. It looks like a simple case of competition, but it is not. It is competition within a larger frame of cooperation.
    There are still other points of view, corresponding to other holonic levels. From the point of view of the ecosystem, its requirements for complexity, diversity, and abundance, are all satisfied when the predator-prey relationship is in dynamic balance: not too many wolves, not too many elk. As the Yellowstone wildlife managers discovered, removing the wolves not only allowed the elk population to burgeon, not having wolves also affected their behavior. They browsed the river bottom willows down to nubs, thus removing the keystone species of the beaver, and that loss was soon followed by trophic cascade. Complexity, diversity, and abundance all suffered when one top predator was removed from the ecosystem. Balance is everything at the ecosystem level, and here again competition exists within a larger frame of cooperation. Symbiosis among species is cooperation. Interdependence of species is cooperation, even where that cooperation manifests as competition. And then there is something else about a fully functional ecosystem. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. With wholeness comes a non-linear synergy. Materialist reductionist thinking cannot quite account for synergy, but synergy exhibits itself just the same.
    From the point of view of the biome, or the regional ecosystem, or that of an entire continent, the pattern is the same. At the planetary level of Gaia itself, competition exists within a larger context of cooperation. Logically, it must be the same at the holonic level of the solar system, and at that of the galaxy as well. Why? Because unfettered competition is violent. The taking of life is violent. Whatever degrades ecosystems, including the geologic ecosystems under the skin of the Earth, damages the whole. Some violence can be tolerated, and in fact serves the well-being of each and every holonic level within the holarchy. But too much violence tears systems apart, and negatively affects the well-being of whatever holonic level that out-of-control violence exists. And whatever affects one holonic level affects all. That is how holarchy works. Ultimately, nothing is really separate from anything else, good times or bad.
    We who live in the condition called civilization, and who are daily informed by its culture, have come to take violence for granted. Violence has always been part of our history, and as our numbers have grown so too has the level of violence. We take this as normal. Mistaking our culture for humanity at large, we attribute our culture-directed responses and behaviors to something we call “human nature.” If we, and others like us, are our only point of reference, of course we have no reason to believe otherwise. But there are reasons to believe that violence within human societies is not a constant, but a variable, depending upon cultural conditioning, cultural norms, and taboos. Culture molds and directs Nature. That is what culture is all about. It creates incentives to behave in certain ways and not behave in others. If the behavior of the individual does not fall within the group’s accepted norm, peer pressure will be exerted to enforce compliance. If that doesn’t work, there will be other penalties to pay. It is true that individual humans are not always predictable, or easily reined in. We are not as simple as B.F Skinner and his operant conditioning assumed; we are not the equivalent of rats in a Skinner box. But we are social beings, and how our peer group regards us is predictably relevant to almost all of us. So I am not saying that culture absolutely DETERMINES attitudes, values, and behaviors—but it does strongly influence what we think, what we believe to be important and right, and also what we do. What I am suggesting is this: our culture condones and incentivizes violence, and one of our great rationalizations for being a violent people is that all of Nature is violent, ala Charles Darwin. It’s all competition, bloody in tooth and claw. Except that it really isn’t. This is a very selective frame to put on the world, which emphasizes competition and ignores the context of cooperation within which that competition takes place. It is not science at all; it is ideology.
    That said, factors other than culture also figure in, such as population size. When the planet was fairly sparsely populated, and there was plenty of everything to go around, there wasn’t much incentive for inter-tribal conflict. When people lived in small groups, peer pressure pretty much held sway, and incentivized cooperation within the band or tribe. The goal of small group interactions is harmony. Given that Humans can be rather contrary creatures, pure harmony seems unlikely on any scale. But always the group functions best when everyone is getting along—that is, cooperating. Indeed, at every holonic level cooperation tends toward greater well-being and stability than runaway competition. Beyond a certain permissible point, competition becomes a pathogen destructive of stability and well-being at all holonic levels. Rat studies have shown that overcrowding can trigger all sorts of dysfunctional and aggressive behaviors, and maybe we’re no different. When a mass global society like ours, informed and directed by a hyper-competitive and violence-encouraging culture, is loosed upon the world, you get the kind of destruction and break-down we are witnessing today.
    My point is, we are not seeing human nature at its inevitable worst. We are not seeing competition running its natural course. We are witness to one super-sized pathological culture, informed by a sick ideology, dismantling a four billion years’-long, creative, emergent, life-loving, evolutionary work of art. In the process we are destroying our own life-support system in a project of omnicide. Just be clear: it wasn’t the way of the world; it wasn’t a flawed human nature that brought it all down. It was one narcissistic immature pathological culture that refused to grow up and become fully human.

  368. It bothers me when folks use “human nature” to explain, condemn, or excuse actions performed by humans who have the full range of higher brain functions to choose and direct their behaviors in a wide variety of ways. It is the lamest of excuses to say, : he couldn’t help it: its just human nature. When Aristotle didn’t have a clue why something happened, for instance a rock falling from a tower, he would just say that is the nature of the rock to fall. Why not just be honest and just say you don’t know? Human ego pretending to know what is in the dark about. Enough with this human nature BS!

    Within certain limits we humans are in a position to make choices on the basis of our complex neurological structure that are impossible for animals lacking those capacities. We can also base our decisions on the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of humankind, if we will. Are those decisions always superior to the instincts and mentations and group wisdom of our animal friends?
    No of course not. With these greater capacities come greater abilities to pursue wrong courses of action. However I disagree that the way forward for humanity is to go back to preagricultural ways of living. As some existentialists say, we are condemned to solve the problem of properly controlling and directing our intelligence in benign and healthy ways. The way back may not be barred by an Angel with a flaming sword, but it might as well be, because it just flat won’t work. Even if we could go back, inevitably some of us would simply initiate the whole problematic process of becoming “civilized” again, bringing us once more to the critical juncture we are at today. It is the inevitable destiny of emerging intelligence in the universe to have to deal with the problems that intelligence generates. And we may not get a second chance to solve this one.

  369. The Garden

    Could this be it
    The fabled garden?
    The one I thought
    Was elsewhere
    In time or space?

    Perhaps I’ve slept
    Or been distracted
    Or simply didn’t notice.

    Was I asleep then
    All those years…
    Or am I dreaming now,
    Of this beauty
    This benediction

    Has everything always
    Been as it should be:
    Perfect and full of light,
    Waiting always and only
    For the clear awakened eye
    Of the inner heart?

    How is it that I have slept so long,
    Wasting the precious seconds
    Of my life in a fog
    Of meaningless concerns
    And tedious trivialities?

    May God preserve me
    From the nightmare
    Of an unconscious life
    Exiled from the light


  370. Mike: Yesterday I ordered two copies of The Unlikely Peace at Chuchumaquic: the Parallel Lives of People as Plants: Keeping the Seeds Alive, by Martin Prechtel. I know you recommended starting at the beginning, but, being a contrarian, I’m starting with the one published just this year. It got stellar reviews, and its themes seem to tie in my winter’s course of research. The second copy is going to my friend, Tim, and hopefully we’ll read this about the same time, and discuss it at length, as we usually do. Thanks, mike, for bringing this author to my attention.

  371. Gary — Prechtel is a gem. He has something precious to share with us. I have to admit to shedding tears over some passages in his books. Its not that he is saying that this Mayan village was perfect, or that It provides an exact model we should copy. But he makes us aware that there are other rich and beautiful ways to be with each other on this wonderful planet than the ugly course we are pursing. BTW ask Tim if he would like to share with us. I bet he has good ideas if he is a friend of yours.

  372. All:
    One of the things I usually do before I buy a book is I go to Amazon and read reviews that readers have written about that book. Secrets of the Talking Jaguar has 37 reviews as I write this. Now some people may misunderstand and think that I am a sort of slave to these reviews. Believe me I am nothing if I am not a reader “between-the-lines” and perhaps even between those lines. Anyway, I have found these reviews to be a useful input.
    Exchanging ideas here has turned me on to books by Martin Prechtel, Derrick Jensen and Ken Wilber. I have done my standard analysis on these books and am now reading a book by Jensen. This book by Jensen is a bit depressing and it managed to lower my opinion of homo sapiens which was already at a rather low level. But he has real information in it and he is an undiluted realist which is what I like and will check out more of his books.
    And I decided to get several of Prechtel’s books. Back before I came to Japan, I visited and spent some time in Mexico (maybe six months total) and became entranced by the culture of the Mexican Indians and Mexicans in general. (I still greatly respect the people of Mexico although what is happening there now is a catastrophe.) I find myself attracted to Prechtel because I connect him with Mexican culture (the Maya) and I want to believe that man somehow went “wrong” somewhere back in the fog of early anthropology and the secret to helping us is still lurking there. And perhaps some like Prechtel have found information and deep secrets relating to what happened and may even have “repair” information. Prechtel seems interesting to me for the same reason that quantum mechanics (QM) does. They may both be repositories of deep knowledge on our existence and salvation.
    I was not attracted that much to Wilber, who may impart knowledge in his writings, but he is a contradiction in that with one hand he implies that he is talking with depth but at the same time he seems obfuscate things. And he invents a new vocabulary that I don’t see any need for and find it confusing.
    We all have only a finite number of hours on this planet (that we can be sure of) and we try to use those hours as efficiently as possible.

  373. We are living in the time of not only the collapsing of the American Empire, but also the end of industrial civilization. Get used to it. Not only is collapse happening, but it will run its course — nothing is going to stop it. This is the lawful result of all that has gone before. Those things which are deeply flawed and unsustainable need to collapse. Whether something better will arise from the ashes is unpredictable. The odds at this point are heavily against it. The only meaningful question now is how will we navigate these turbulent waters? Can we live in these times in such a way that some embers of truth, love, and beauty survive to make a better world possible in whatever future world survives our time?

  374. If those embers should finally be extinguished, then our human experiment on Earth will be finished.

  375. Most agree here that these are rough times and that there are rougher times ahead. Some assert that the decline of civilization and the demise all life on the planet are at hand. Others hold out for some action or event that may avoid these dire consequence of humanity’s profligacy.

    I believe now more than ever we need to live for the present. Living an intentional, moral life of action in the real world is probably all that is left to people of conscience. Even though I do not believe in personal immortality, the soul, etc. I still believe in the inherent worth of dying well. That is why violent death, either by intention or accident, is such a terrible violation of the human spirit—and all the more reason to live life well. Given that any moment may be our last it is important to live a life of love and service. Has there ever been any other reason to live?

    This answer was eloquently expressed recently in a movie I saw based on a true story. It is a moving, remarkable film.

    “Of Gods and Men.” tells a true story of French Trappist monks living in an Algerian village in the 1990s who decide to stay in country despite being caught between Islamic extremism and government repression. They stay in order to serve the poor Muslim peasants they have committed themselves to. Their motivation was always and only service never proselytizing or conversion.

    This powerful film won the second place Grand Prize at Cannes, graced dozens of critics’ “10-best” lists and at the end of the year of its release scored 11 nominations for the Césars (the French equivalent of the Oscars).

    The story embodies the perfect “imitation of Christ.” The chants, the words and the thoughts of the Monks as they all decide to stay with their mission in spite of the prospect of nearly certain death are some of the most moving ecumenical words of love, forgiveness and acceptance I have ever heard. The photography at times seems lifted from paintings by the old masters.

    I could not resist copying this concluding statement from the English subtitles. It is from a letter written by the Abbot and left to be found by his survivors after his death:

    “Should it ever befall me to be a victim of the terrorism swallowing up all the foreigners here, I would like my community, my church, my family to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. That the unique master of all life was no stranger to the brutal departure and that my death is the same as so many other violent ones consigned to the apathy of oblivion. I’ve lived enough to know I am complicit in the evil that, alas prevails over the word and the evil that will smite me blindly. I could never feel gladdened that these people I love be accused randomly of my murder. I know the contempt felt for the people here indiscriminately. This country and Islam for me are something different. They’re a body and a soul. My death, of course will quickly vindicate those who call me naïve or idealistic and, God willing, will immerse my gaze in the Father’s and contemplate with him his children of Islam as he sees them. This “thank you” which encompasses my entire life includes you, of course,
    friends of yesterday and today and you, too, friend of the last minute who knew not what you were doing. Yes, to you as well which you envisaged. May we meet again happy thieves in Paradise if it pleases God, the Father of us both.


    To which I add: Love; Serve; Remember.

  376. Ron, mike, and whoever might be interested:
    From the time of my first memories of my own thoughts, at the age of four, I have sensed that something was wrong with the man-made world I was living in. From the age of twenty, as a freshman in college, I have made it my conscious project to put together what I then thought of as a picture puzzle or mosaic that constituted a big-picture of the world and how it works. The picture goes together one piece at a time, but sometimes a particular piece in place will make you see enough more, in a flash of insight, to know where other pieces go. It is a huge big-picture. In some places the pieces all fit together and you can see that part quite clearly, but many other places are blank or only partially filled in. This has been a life-long process for me, interrupted in my thirties and into my forties by addictions to pot and alcohol, in a doomed project of self-medication and pain relief. I was looking for answers, but in all the wrong places. In the twenty five years since, I have continued the intellectual vision quest begun in my twenties, and now I believe I am looking in some of the right places: books. Of all the books I’ve read (and I am a voracious reader, if not a particularly fast one) seven stand out as milestones in my thinking and understanding, and I want to share those with you here.
    When Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael came out in 1995 I was more than ready for the perspective on Mother Culture this book provides. The Story of B, which came out the following year, was also a revelation.
    Now I was mentally prepared for My Name is Chellis and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization (1994). She had more to recover from than civilization. She had been sexually abused by her own father, but that trauma pushed her outside the circle of culture and allowed her to see it for what it was. This was another breakthrough book for me.
    Next came one of the most impressive books I’ve ever read: An Unnatural Order: Uncovering the Roots of our Domination of Nature and Each Other, by Jim Mason (1993). Like Quinn and Glendenning, he traced the dysfunction of civilization all the way back to the domestication of plants and animals. Quinn sees the surpluses of stored food arising from farming as the first in a chain of falling dominoes: private property, a class system based on wealth; the consequent rise of a military class; overpopulation; war; environmental decay and destruction—the list goes on. Mason believes the source of all our present woes derives from the change in our relationship to our fellow animals. The hunter had a respectful relationship with his prey species. The pastoralist developed a callous, abusive, enslaving relationship with the animals he tended, butchered, and ate, and this change broke our bond with the Community of Life and with Nature itself. I feel it is time for me to reread this book and see how it plays into my thinking today.
    There were plenty of other books along the way, and very good ones, too, that would make my list of the top twenty or thirty, but I am restricting myself to seven. Of these, the next to come along was EarthDance: Living Systems in Evolution, by Elisabet Sahtouris (2000). Now, I find your everyday science interesting insofar as it gives insight into the nature of our world, especially when it is written for the general reader and not in the language of the specialist. What I find to be rare is a scientist who is also a big-picture thinker who can communicate in ordinary clear English. Sahtouris is such a thinker and writer, who has assimilated the concepts of holons and holarchy and has coined the very useful term, holonomy. An evolutionary biologist, her big-picture starts with the earliest single-cell organisms, and she spends more than a hundred pages demonstrating their relevance to us. She connects dots from beginning to middle to now in a way I’ve not seen anywhere else, and certainly not in the scientific literature.
    Reading Quinn, Mason, and Glendenning had left me knowing that Western culture was sick and dysfunctional, and I even recall writing in a letter to a former English professor of mine that I no longer worship at the altar of civilization. I was that far along in the awakening process, but it wasn’t until I read Derrick Jensen’s Endgame: the Problem of Civilization, that I fully came to the realization that civilization—any civilization—is just plain wrong. Likewise, I’ve always recognized that cities were an abomination upon the landscape, but it was Jensen who made me see that every city is a mini-empire that has to draw its sustenance from somewhere (and someone) else, and could not possibly be self-sustaining. We have built a towering monstrosity on the bones of bison and broken wings of passenger pigeons and dodos, and it is not a good place to live.
    The front cover of The Ascent of Humanity: Civilization and the Human Sense of Self, is a reproduction of a painting by Brugel the Elder depicting the tower of Babel. This is a fitting symbol for what civilization has made of the living world. This book by Charles Eisenstein has the sub-sub title: The Age of Separation, the Age of Reunion, and the Convergence of Crises that is birthing the transition. Some of this language may be a bit of wishful thinking, since there may or may not be an Age of Reunion ahead of us. But Eisenstein, a profound big-picture thinker, makes a very strong case that we are now living in the Age of Separation. In this rather lengthy narrative he makes this one word (and also the word, control) tell a very great deal about us and our story. He also does an excellent job of deconstructing the myth of the Scientific Program of Complete Knowledge and the Technological Program of Complete Control. This book is a long-view reading of history and pre-history that tells us in a carefully analyzed and clearly stated way, how we got to where we are today. I regard this as the most important book of the last twenty years, since the appearance of Jim Mason’s An Unnatural Order.
    Last on my list is a self-published book by Richard Adrian Reese with the title What is Sustainable (2011). What I find most valuable about this book is its total lack of self-delusion. What the author means by sustainable is not what most people mean in their wishful-thinking way. Oh, we can do photovoltaics and windmills, drive a hybrid or electric, reduce our carbon footprint, and go on living just as we are living now. Sorry, folks: that thinking comes from inside the bubble. When the bubble bursts we are going to be stuck with the reality of the Earth’s daily solar budget. How are we going to feed ourselves? Well, that is not an easy one to answer, particularly on a planet as degraded and depleted as what we’ve made this one. Historically, farming, horticulture, or gardening have only been sustainable in a very few places, ever. Mostly that was in river bottoms where fresh fertility was washed down from the mountains to renew what had been depleted in the season of growing. Now those river bottoms are mostly under water behind dams of concrete and blind arrogance. What he means by sustainable is how people can live in perpetuity without degrading or destroying their life support system. I believe his way of thinking about what is sustainable is more realistic than any others I’ve seen. It does mean there is going to be an interruption to business as usual. But, if we are adaptable enough, some few of us may be able to go on living here. I only wish we could leave those (possible) survivors a little bit more to work with.
    So, that’s my list. All these books are subversive to the status quo. All of them question the very premises of civilization. If you don’t want to learn something you can’t unlearn, you’ll be better off with what’s on the bestseller lists, or gets honors and prizes—and don’t question very much at all.

  377. I am not a regular reader of Orion and this will be my first-ever post to your forum. I just completed a rather quick scan of the voluminous posts to the Mann article and have a few observations to add. First, I was surprised at the “rabbit chasing” this article elicited. Pro and anti-agriculture, slavery equivalence to employment, peak oil, peak phosphorus, the usual romantic views about hunter-gather societies (especially American Indians), confusion and woo-woo about quantum mechanics, arguments for “spiritual” answers, and I am sure I missed several others. After thinking about it, however, I realize that this is a reflection of how intractable the situation really is. Each commenter in his or her own way is struggling to provide some kind of positive statement with at least a kernel of hope. That’s good. It also reflects how diverse we are – those of us who care about this issue.
    I consider the problem at its core to be one of our species having overrun the carrying capacity. This is not a new idea. I go back and look at some of my old books by authors as diverse as Garrett Hardin and Edward Abbey and realize that a few people recognized this problem decades ago. Others probably can push the dates back much farther. There are simply too many of us each, on average using too many “goods and services”, all of which come one way or another from this finite planet. There’s no “life force” or “ancient wisdom” that’s going to save us from the crunch time that is coming – somehow we must collectively find a global solution. It really is unprecedented in the experience of life on this planet. It is what Hardin called the “tragedy of the commons” or “commonizing the costs and privatizing the profits (benefits)” that makes finding a solution so difficult.
    How will this play out? Your guesses are as good as mine since it is really foolish to try to predict the future when human actions are involved. My worst fear actually is that the technophiles will turn out to be right and that it will be possible to harness all of the earth’s resources and the sun’s energy for human benefit. In such a scenario our descendants would find themselves in a world devoid of any multicellular organisms not beneficial to humans. However, I have strong doubts about that. Whatever happens is not likely to be pretty or pleasant for those alive at the time.
    I wish I had some good ideas. A little optimism is warranted by Mann’s suggestion that recent advances in morality might continue toward a solution to our impending overshoot. But right now, the U.S. government can’t even tackle something as simple as our budget.
    In the end, the earth will survive and hopefully more of the biodiversity than I fear. There have been bigger crises in the past – just not while we were around. At least we live in interesting times.

  378. I’d like to revise the last paragraph of my last post to read as follows:
    So, that’s my list. All these books are subversive to the status quo. All of them question the very premises of civilization. Reading and absorbing the truths of these particular books is the equivalent of Neo’s taking the red pill instead of the blue, in Matrix. You won’t be able to unknow what you have learned. If you prefer comforting illusion, there are any number of books on the best seller lists that will keep you in the blue zone of unknowing. Or better yet, for that, there is always television.

  379. If the largest project I know of, the 3 Gorges Dam in China with all the fanfare associated with its building turns into a liability and even a disaster, both of which are possibilities, I wonder if the whole issue of modern civilization will come into question, since this is its most advanced expression.

  380. Thanks Gary for the information on books. I am also not a fast reader but I will look into the books you mentioned.

    Presently we talk about what we should or should not be doing to alleviate perceived earth problems. Over the years there have been many who peered into the future, offered advice and warned of coming problems i.e.

    “Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”
    — Thoreau

    But it seems that in spite of all the warnings and advice coming from a large number of good and intelligent people, homo sapiens has unerringly stayed on the destructive path led by or maybe forced on to it by sociopathic pathfinders.

    And I as a result, along with quite a few others, I see very little or no hope for humans on this earth. Looking into the future there is only “grasping at straws” to be seen. The straw that we often talk about is the present earth. There are still those who say they believe the earth can be saved. Well, I say good luck to them but there are two factions that I think won’t allow it. One is the sociopaths who own nearly everything and have plans to own it all and the second are legions of workers who are oblivious to everything except their stomach. And yet there is a third group that goes around shouting “The End of the World is Near” but nobody significant is listening.

    I have written several continuations of this post and don’t like them much so I will just post this and watch the video about the Chinese Three Gorges Dam by David M. I believe it will probably be another of man’s colossal mistakes.

  381. Phil F — Welcome aboard our crazy quilt discussion. It does venture sometimes far and wide, but perhaps we are swinging around some as yet unidentified strange attractor. Are you aware that “May you live in interesting times” was an ancient Chinese curse?

  382. Thank you, Mike K. Now that you mention it, I guess I do recall that was a curse. Appropriate.

  383. Ron — Your dark forebodings are well founded. Are you aware of the Dark Mountain Project? Some interesting stuff on their site. And yet the fat lady has not sung her song yet. We have no certainty of the future. If there is even a sliver of possibility of a better human world, then we are justified in seeking to abet its birth, however far in the future it might come about. As far as the three gorges dam goes, maybe some of Derrick Jensen’s doughty dam demolishers will take it on?? Just kidding Derrick…

    Perhaps this poem reflects your mood of Gotterdammerung:

  384. Ron, you mentioned taking an interest in the work of Rupert Sheldrake. Mike, you mentioned studying Ken Wilber’s work, but not being a Wilberite. Elsewhere you mention that you eclectically take concepts and ideas from here and there, but don’t buy any one thinker’s program wholesale (not your exact words). When I combine this with some of the judgments implied by a recent poster, it stirs up a lot of stuff stored in my unconscious mind. Before I became an English major and university English teacher, I was a psychology major for three years. I found a lot of problems with that discipline, including physics envy, but I did pick up one concept that has stuck with me: tolerance for ambiguity. It strikes me that you two have a high tolerance for ambiguity. I have never before connected that quality with the non-authoritarian personality, but now I’m thinking there is a connection. The authoritarian personality sees the world in simple black and white and is pretty much blind to all the shades of gray– that is, shows little tolerance for ambiguity. And while I’m in the area of psychology I will mention Gestalt psychology. Ron, the cartoon version you gave of the present and near-future plight of humans, using the cartoon of the train wreck and Wiley Coyote going over a cliff, and not falling until he realized that couldn’t actually fly, suggests to me that you might rely more heavily on gestalts and gut feelings than most of those around you. This is just something that occurred to me, which may or may not have any relevance to your sense that your brain was organized differently from those around you. And, mike, your ability to select from here and there and arrive at your own personal worldview requires more than a tolerance for ambiguity; it requires a deep self-confidence in your own perceptions and ability to organize raw data, to connect the dots. These are qualities I respect.
    A recent poster strongly implied that he knew exactly what woo-woo was; that those who respect the indigenous worldview and value system are deluded; that those who seek answers in the spiritual realm are silly; and that quantum physics is somehow a bad joke. Now, I don’t want to attack anyone personally, and I’ll say right here that I could have misread the tones and implications of that particular post. So what I am going to do here is talk more generally about orthodoxy, fundamentalism, and falling under the spell of Mother Culture.
    I’m sure we would all like a high degree of certainty about ourselves and our world. This might even come close to being a human need: to seek coherence. And yet it is also true, as the old saw proclaims: The more you know the less you know. Astrophysicists tell us that what we see around us—the visible Universe—constitutes about three percent of what is actually out there. What remains we have given the names dark matter and dark energy–not that we know what the hell they are, but at least we now have the comfort of labels. This makes me believe that there is more mystery in the Universe, and in Life, than we humans will ever be able to penetrate. I’m okay with that. I have a pretty high tolerance for ambiguity myself, though that tolerance definitely has limits. I still seek coherence; it’s just that I don’t necessarily find that coherence in other people’s systems. And the more rigid those systems, the more I resist them.
    We hear about fundamentalist Islamists, and pass judgment on them for their narrow rigidity, and also because their beliefs are different from our own. In this country and culture we cling to a number of fundamentalisms of our own. We have our Christian fundamentalists; we have our market fundamentalists (let’s let the market decide everything!); and we have our scientific fundamentalists. All adhere to a rigid orthodoxy, and believe they are owners of the One True Truth. The scientific fundamentalist would tell you that Rupert Sheldrake’s notions about morphic resonance and morphogenetic fields are pure nonsense and also non-science. They would tell you that astrology is pure bunk and muddle, and certainly not a discipline worthy of respect. That is orthodoxy for you. It has a lock on the Truth and must deny all other truths, and call them falsehoods. And often it’s not just left at that. Ah, yes, the witch trials, the inquisition, the imprisonment of and excommunication of Galileo. It’s true, orthodoxy wants no competitive points of view. That is exactly why we have done our best to exterminate indigenous people everywhere. Competitive worldviews must be eradicated, with only the One True Truth left standing. That is the authoritarian personality, and the authoritarian culture of civilization, vying for absolute domination. It is a deep pathology, and it is propelling us into oblivion. I don’t know how to stop it, but I know I must resist it, and not let it colonize my own humanity.
    This is what we are up against. I don’t blame you for being pessimistic, Ron. And mike, I admire the sliver of hope you hold out for our kind. I am an optimist by nature; I am happy, and I love my life. And I don’t know what to think about the whole human enterprise. We have made such a mess of things here. Studying other cultures leads me to believe that we are not inherently flawed even if we do have some dangerous propensities. Other cultures have moderated and directed those potentials and energies into ways that worked for the whole. That is what gives me any hope at all. Seeing the intractability of our pathological dominant and dominating culture leaves me feeling flummoxed. Unless by some miracle the present dynamic is reversed, there really is no hope at all.

  385. Gary — The authoritarian stance seeks to impose unquestioning belief, obedience, and control over others. I agree with Krishnamurti when he says “there is no authority”. Many who have always believed that authority exists meet such a statement with incredulity. What it means is that “authority” only exists in the minds of those who choose to believe in it. If you no longer believe that it has any real truth or reality, then it ceases to exit for you, regardless of how many others continue to think it is real. I am always suspicious of those who claim authority, and question their ideas with special intensity. Especially when investigating spiritual or scientific claims it is important to exercise a healthy skepticism and question everything. Often the garnering of a few grains of truth requires sifting through bushels of chaff.

    Now the problem with developing a skeptical attitude is that one can drift into a contrarian attitude that rejects everything whatever, without a real basis for doing so. Such a dismissive mindset can end by rejecting things of real value. A man came to a Sufi Guide and asked, “ how can I recognize the Truth?” The Sufi removed his ring which had a rather large stone in it and said, take this to the merchants in the bazaar and see what they will give you for it. The man did so, and came back reporting they would give him only one dinar at most. The Sufi said, now take it to the real jewelers in their quarter. When he returned he said, they told me that none of them had enough money to purchase it, that it was almost beyond price. Pearl of great price, eh? Cast not these pearls before swine, nor give what is holy to dogs. And yet there are so many counterfeit coins in the realms of various teachings, we can forgive someone for thinking the whole lot of spirituality is just pure bunk, and woo woo nonsense. I used to be of their number, being full of presumed scientific certainty about many things that I had no real knowledge of. We are so prone to judge things we have not examined thoroughly and without prejudice. Quantum or spiritual knowledge will not reveal their profound truth and reality to the casual observer. Forgive us for our opinions expressed in our ignorance.

  386. Gary and Mike K: I am the poster who used the term “woo-woo” and given your latest comments should probably clarify. First and foremost, I most certainly did not mean to disparage the science of quantum mechanics. I wish I had the math skills to work with it, but even though I don’t, I respect it as one of the great breakthroughs in our quest for understanding the universe. What does really irk me and that I classify as woo-woo of the first order is when the new age types superficially adopt quantum terminology in a lame attempt to gain some respectability. When you run into people like that, ask them to set up and solve a simple Schrodinger equation before you even consider taking them seriously.
    Second, there seems to be a little confusion here about the nature of science. Science is most definitely not authoritarian in nature. Just the opposite in fact. Everything in science is always and forever subject to examination and, upon sufficient evidence, revision. That’s how we learn about the universe. Woo-woo is the polar opposite of that – “I feel the life force moving through me and if you can’t then your Karma is just not tuned to it. Don’t ask for evidence”. I am being a bit sarcastic there but you get the point. There’s a reason Rupert Sheldrake is not published in scientific journals and it has nothing to do with a conspiracy against him: there’s just not one whit of evidence to support what he writes.

  387. Phil F — Thanks for the clarification. Too many of us get emotional and go off in a huff when someone challenges our views. You did not do so, and I respect that. I used to do that, and it has taken a while for me to change it. I can still get provoked and fly of the handle occasionally, but a lot less now. Some lessons take a while to learn, and I am grateful to have stuck around long enough to learn a few of them, with a lot more to go…

    I wouldn’t know a Shrodinger equation from a five legged cat. But thankfully the popularizers and interpreters of advanced physics have become far more adept than they were when I tried to grok Bertrand Russell’s ABC of Relativity as a curious fourth grader. Even those in the field are grateful to not to have to wade through an ocean of abstract math to get an idea of what their colleagues are up to. Often the conclusions are a lot more understandable than the proofs.

    “Second, there seems to be a little confusion here about the nature of science. Science is most definitely not authoritarian in nature. Just the opposite in fact.” Firstly, “scientists” come in all shapes and sizes and philosophic viewpoints. Some are very definitely fundamentalists, or materialists, or believers that the present methods of science as they understand them are the ultimate tools for understanding anything whatever and always will be so, and so on. In the area of the philosophy of science it becomes clear that the definition and deeper understanding of what science is is far from a simple or settled matter. Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens (together called “the Four Horsemen of New Atheism” certainly have radical beliefs of the ultimate supremacy of materialist science to answer all questions that can ever be raised. Their fervor certainly is a match for the most zealous Christian religionists.

    Not trying to nit pick, but this touches on two pillars of American cultural ideology: the supremacy of science to determine all questions of truth, and the supreme value of money above any other considerations. Both these beliefs have played major roles in creating the dead end predicament of our world.

  388. Just one more thing. While physicists are seeking the Higgs Boson, the unified field, equations to unify gravity with the three other basic forces, etc. — our world is burning. Reminds of medieval theologians discussing how many angels could dance on the head of a pin while their world was descending into chaos and barbarism. When these scientists finally announce that they have their ultimate equation that explains everything, what are we to do, just blow up the world and call it quits because we couldn’t figure out how to do as simple a thing as living together in peace and harmony? Why isn’t that in their damned equation??

  389. And while we are at it, maybe the scientific money crunchers could put a dollar value on saving all life on Earth? After all we have to know if its worth it?

  390. Mike K: I appreciate your kind words about restraint. I have to say that I have been impressed with the civility on this forum. I was reluctant to even post anything partly because I have witnessed how uncivil most online discussions become. Juvenile actually. This one is refreshingly different.
    I don’t want to be one of those people who always act as if they have to have the last word, but I do want to add something about science and scientists. Mike, you are absolutely correct in pointing out that scientists are just people – people with all of the flaws and shortcomings found in the rest of us. However, it is important to distinguish between scientists as individuals and the process of science. Individual scientists make mistakes and sometimes they try to cheat. But the process of science is self-correcting – at least in a free and open society. Two examples: Several years ago one or a group of scientists claimed to have achieved “cold fusion”, or nuclear fusion at something close to room temperatures. It turns out their work was fraudulent. Other scientists, in the way science works, tried and failed to replicate their experiment and soon the scientific community concluded that the original paper was wrong. More recently, a group of physicists thought they had found evidence of faster-than-light travel of subatomic particles. They published their results with an appeal to others to help find the flaws in their experiments. Within months, other physicists found those flaws and we had to score another round for relativity. It is this process and everything connected to it that makes science uniquely capable of unlocking the secrets of the universe.
    Your last couple of posts point out the limits and boundaries of science. Science has discovered the mechanisms and the extent of global warming and has documented the declines in biodiversity, but science is not the right place to look to find solutions to those problems. We diverse, flawed and confused citizens, scientists included, have to somehow come to solutions through moral reasoning. That’s what makes this such an enormously overwhelming problem. I only wish some physicist could derive an equation to fix this, but it ain’t gonna happen. There are no shortcuts. There are 7 billion+ humans that somehow have to fix this through how we organize and live our lives.
    I recently read E.O.Wilson’s book, “The Social Conquest of Earth”. I don’t have the book here so will have to paraphrase, but I think he hit the nail on the head when he said something to the effect that our problem is that we have a star wars technology and a stone age human nature. If we get through this without decimating the rest of the life on the planet, we must somehow rise above that.

  391. Phil F
    “not a shred of evidence” Yes, I’l admit that I am not authoritarian. And I know about what happened with Galileo and what Darwin avoided by not publishing under after he died so it behoves one to be careful. I want to say that although I don’t hold up Sheldrake as being without blemish, I think that there is lots evidence of truth in Sheldrake.
    If you study science beyond the standard “truths” presented in standard classes, you will find that science has been and still is shot through with human emotions and irrationality. Not being a “shred of evidence” supporting Sheldrake is rather strong I think and especially if you look at the evidence even somewhat objectively. Sheldrake has his detractors and disbelievers but I see him as a legitimate scientist. I think one of the problems of Sheldrake’s “truths” is that they are often probabilistic. Many people, it seems especially authoritarian people, do no like anything probabilistic. Nevertheless research in recent years indicates that the closer you get to reality, such as quantum mechanics, the more probabilistic the world becomes.
    Science is a very human activity and one of Sheldrake’s problems is that he apparently in some way crossed John Maddox of Nature Magazine. Maddox took a dislike to Sheldrake ostensibly because of Sheldrake’s ideas so he attacked. There was smoke and fire but Sheldrake survived and still has a career, has written a number of books and is a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, where he was Director of Studies in cell biology, and was also a Research fellow of the Royal Society.
    If you look at the history of science, there are a number of stories like this. Research in science is a very human activity and like all human activities it is shot through with different opinions and infighting. Usually the infighting is papered over and is seen by only close knowledgeable people. But its often there unseen. This does not negate science. I have several of Sheldrake’s books. I don’t completely agree with him but I think some of his ideas are good and will be widely influential. Like most thinking in science, Sheldrake’s ideas are based on what went before. One problem of Sheldrake’s thinking is that it is outside of “standard” beliefs. To some degree his work is perhaps based on Lamark’s work. I think Lamark had legitimate arguments but got overshadowed by Darwin. But they were different in a way and perhaps did not really contradict each other so much. It seems to me that in this world there is still the possibility that one has the choice of new discovery and get attacked for it or to meekly and mechanically repeat the ambient truths. It seems that Homo Sapiens does not like those who come up with certain views of biology or perhaps other sciences.

  392. Here is a physicist commenting on the superficially simple three body problem. The unsolvableness of the 3-body problem, rather than being an embarrassing hole in physics; an obvious but unsolved problem, is actually the norm. In physics, the number of not-baby-simple, exactly solvable problems can be counted on the fingers of one hand (that’s missing some fingers), and that includes the 2-body problem.
    It turns out that the brag of physicists like Stephen Hawking that we shall soon have the complete understanding of the Universe is just a bit of scientific hubris. As Sufis have said: the secret protects itself. The same Hawking has said that then we shall know the mind of god.When it comes to the philosophy of science, objectivity is only part of the game; ego supplies a good portion of folk’s evaluations and prognostications. Many scientists would long to put a final nail in the coffin of the Christian God that gave them so much trouble during the Renaissance…

  393. Yes, indeed! Here is a rather commonly repeated story I heard/read a long time ago: Two children are playing on the beach. The gist of it was that they were engrossed with their ball playing thinking it was the whole world while they did not ever notice the massive reality out on the horizon. I think that pretty much sums up homo sapiens situation (unaware) as of now. (Sorry I can’t remember the exact story. Maybe its in the bible?)

  394. Ron — Your story makes complete sense to me as you told it. What is on the horizon is a vast mystery that is unknown to our child in the Universe stage of development. While we wander on the surface of our world things can look pretty simple, understandable, predictable. It is only when our knowledge increases that we become aware that deep down things are not so straight forward, and we begin to sense profound mysteries at the heart of creation. With increasing understanding paradoxically comes increasing ignorance. Humility and a sense of our inability to fit everything into our present worldview should be our response to this situation, rather than false pride and the illusion that we will soon know all and be masters of the Universe. There are indeed things in heaven and Earth beyond our present beginner’s philosophy. Our exaggerated conception of our ability to understand and handle even the little knowledge and power now in our hands is a major cause of our present predicament. The sorcerer’s apprentice is now paying for his rash self-confidence. Our careless brushing aside of the deeper wisdom discovered by explorers of the inner worlds revealed through meditation and other spiritual methods is symptomatic of our cocksure egotism. The Sam Hariss’s of today are almost caricatures of the foolish child who has wandered into the laboratory of Creation unawares and is primed to upset the delicate balances and arrangements found there. The scientist’s automatic contempt for anything that fails to conform to their limited methods and understandings belies their professions of openness.

  395. Ron — Clearly Sheldrake is a scientific heretic, and must be excommunicated from the hallowed halls of Orthodox Science. An interesting parallel to the machinations of the Church science has worked so hard to replace, so as to become the new source of legitimacy and authority in our world.

  396. Hear! Hear! Down with the heretic(s)! From now on with the mention of science without proper respect, all must bow their head and genuflect. Lighting incense is optional but recommended.

  397. And may all who rebel at the laws of rational materialism be condemned to a region of hell where they must read Euclid’s Elements and Newton’s Principia forever, and bow deeply after each proposition!

  398. Apologies to you Phil. Ron and I got a little carried away with our apostasy… All in fun…

  399. In 1964 I took a university course in evolution where I was taught that evolution occurs slowly over long time and that evolutionary changes occur through random chance mutations. Random chance—really? Some thirty years later I read the Beak of the Finch, which tells a fascinating story about evolution in the Galapagos Islands among Darwin’s finches. At the time of the writing of the book, a pair of Princeton evolutionary biologists, a husband and wife team, had been documenting the changes in beak conformation they had been observing for twenty years. It seems climate and other factors had caused changes in the flora on the various islands. On one island, for instance, the lush plants that once produced large seeds for the finches to feed on gave way to drought tolerant cactuses. What the scientists found in this natural experimental laboratory was that the beak of the finches changed from short and stout for seed-cracking to long and narrow, an adaptation that allowed them to feed on the nectar of cactus flowers. These birds were tagged and numbered and observed carefully over the span of two decades. And their conclusion? Evolution can happen much faster than current science said was possible.
    Around this same time, Harvard paleontologist, Stephen Jay Gould, coined the term “punctuated equilibrium” to indicate that evolutionary change could be slow to non-existent for a time, followed by a period of rapid changes.
    Some ten years later, the cell-based research of Ph.D. biologist Bruce Lipton would reveal results that contradicted conventional scientific wisdom. What he found was, the functional physiology of the cell was nothing like he had been taught. The cell nucleus was considered as the equivalent of the cell’s “brain.” No, he says, it is more like the cell’s gonads; it is where genetic information is stored. The cell’s “brain,” its nervous system and organ of cognition, is the cell wall. The cell wall or membrane functions as the interface between the outside world and the inner workings of the cell. It gathers information about the external environment which is then absorbed by the cell’s interior, and changes in DNA occur as adaptations to the world outside. THIS is the mechanism of evolutionary change and adaptation, and this makes sense. Nature doesn’t depend on time and chance alone. (For a fuller explanation for how this works, see The Biology of Belief and Spontaneous Evolution.)
    From what I can determine, some fifty years later, evolution is still being taught as the result of random mutations over long time. And certain prominent evolutionary biologists, such as Richard Dawkins, proclaim this same view as if it were gospel.
    What is this thing about “random chance?” According to Dawkins, that is the kind of world we live in. Life on Earth is nothing but random chance, according to this doctrine. And of course he sees us as living in a hostile Universe—one that has no intelligence of its own, no spiritual dimension, no purpose, meaning, or direction. According to him, these are the harsh facts of life, and anyone who believes otherwise is deluding themselves. Okay, well, Richard Dawkins is a scientist. Is this then the scientific view of the Universe, Life, and our world? It is one view, but I say it is much more ideology than science.
    Back when the Church and Institutional Science split the world in two, between the material and spiritual, ideologies were formed on both sides. The Cartesian-Newtonian worldview was materialistic, mechanistic, deterministic, and reductionistic, and that worldview informs much of science today. I say it is not nearly adequate to deal with the realities of Life in this world. If I had my way, no student of science would be able to graduate without first passing a course in the history of science. That course should include the perspective of the history of ideas and also take an in-depth look at the sociology, the anthropology, and the philosophy of science as well. It would be even smarter, and better serve science, and all of humanity, if it included an introduction into Traditional Ecological Knowledge and opened the practitioners of science to a much more integrated approach to learning and to solving problems. As background reading for this course, I would recommend Sacred Ecology, by Fikret Berkes and Native Science by Gregory Cajete.
    Scientists today are much too narrow in the scope of their thinking, much too specialized to get the big-picture. I take as a prime example, my own son. Trained as a physician in one of the best medical schools in this country, he did not receive five minutes worth of attention to the relationship between nutrition and health. Science is its own subculture. What it looks at, and how it looks at it, is determined by groupthink and the intellectual fashion of the moment. That it is objective is the most absurd notion in the world. Small s science, at the level of method, may be somewhat objective. But small s science works in the context of big S Science, and big S Science is run by ideology.

  400. Gary — Your understanding of our situation is excellent. Let me quote from your last post, “And of course he sees us as living in a hostile Universe—one that has no intelligence of its own, no spiritual dimension, no purpose, meaning, or direction. According to him, these are the harsh facts of life,”

    The last group on Earth that we should give leadership over our lives is scientists. I know that I am generalizing and perhaps stereotyping; there are scientists who are exceptions to the general run. However most scientists are paid by the same selfish, soulless corporations that are destroying our world. They are paid not to think ethically. They are paid to think that their inventions and discoveries will never be used for harmful purposes, and that if they should be so used, that they bear no responsibility for that. So much for the myth that all scientists are benign and objective servants of Truth. I wanted to believe that in my youth and wished to be of there exalted number some day. Seeing behind the cultural façade involved years of gradual disillusionment with our culture’s pretensions, and coming to know its real ugly face.

    Far from being our savior and hope, science has been a major cause of the nightmare we are involved in. Most people have been so bamboozled by the smoke screen exalting scientists that they would be shocked and disbelieving of my words. But I do not speak out of some shallow misunderstanding or uninformed prejudice, it took me a lot of years of study and experience to come by the ideas I am expressing here, and I have come to know that there are people of real stature who have also come to the conclusions I have. For instance two time Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling has said that, ‘the war on cancer is largely a fraud’. Having done considerable research in that area I agree with his judgment. It is surprising the things you unearth if you persistently look beneath the surface. A life devoid of enquiry is hardly worth living as Plato opined long ago.

  401. Ron — I found Morris Berman’s comments interesting here. They are mostly about Japan, and I would like to know what you think of them? One thought became clear to me; there is not a sliver of difference between science and technology. And technology far from being value neutral, has profound consequences in shaping society and people’s values. Science can in no way disclaim responsibility for these effects.

  402. Gary and mike k
    This morning I got up, ate and read your posts and thought of things I wanted to say but had to to go to class with no posting time available. It is beautiful weather here today. Class was in a neighboring community about four miles (6.7 km) away (a leisurely 35 minute ride on my bicycle) in a community center (kominkan). Each community has big and small community centers around which much of local life here revolves. My bicycle is battery assisted. But I still have to pedal although the battery helps me go up hills and cross busy roads quickly etc. When I go down a hill, the battery automatically charges although I charge it at night in my house. This morning’s class was in the Ami (community) Kominkan which is a rather large 3 story building. About half of my ride there is through quiet residential areas and half through rice fields. Its really a pleasant and quiet ride. I’ve had people say: Aren’t you worried about riding a bicycle? I say: No, my experience is that Japanese drivers are extremely careful of bicyclists. I’ve had them stop and wave me on when they had the right of way. I’ve had this class probably over 15 years and it now consists of 10 women and one man most in their 50’s and 60’s. Maybe half the members have been in the class from the very beginning. The most recent, about 3 years.

    I wanted to say to Gary that he makes a number of excellent points in his post. The way that Sheldrake deals with finches’ evolution in the Galapagos really causes those of Richard Dawkins type to scrape the bottom of the barrel to support their contentions. . The Cartesian-Newtonian worldview is losing out to much more open ideas and thinking. A book I read recently by Doug Bennett (Chemical Engineer) “Life and Spirit in the Quantum Field” indicates support for Sheldrake but prefers to call Sheldrake’s “morphic field”, a “quantum field”. Thats no problem for me. Perhaps some of this could be criticized as leaning toward “new age” or pseudo science. Hey, I’m a firm believer that “Truth is where you find it”. I think Dawkins and that bunch have restraints on their thinking and its time to open it all completely.

    mike k, in regard to Morris Berman’s opinions, they are interesting. I’ll give my two cents worth in regard to them a little later in the next post.

  403. OK, well Mr. Berman published some of his opinions that resulted from his visit to Japan. First I want to relate a story that I read/heard when I first came to Japan and began studying the culture and the language. The story goes that after a month or maybe up six months in Japan, the visitor feels they have become experts on the country. But after a year or maybe two here, they begin to realize that they know very little about the culture etc. Well I’ve been here for 21 going on 22 years now and I am pretty sure I know next to nothing about the place. Having said that I will continue to expound on it.

    I don’t know how to compare US and Japan but I’ll say that if you go on a train, which is a very common form of transportation here, most of those on the train have cell phones. And thats what most do on trains these days. They set there silently and write e-mails or read, not sure what, but they are busy with their cell phones. I gave up having a cell phone several years ago. I don’t use a phone very much and often I couldn’t find the damn thing when I wanted it. I now take my kindle on the train but it is rare to see anything but a cell phone.
    And people don’t talk much. That is true. Now and then you find a talkative bunch but its rare. However there is a peeve that I have about Japanese trains and that is the PA system. It announces stuff loudly and often at every station: name of station, which side the doors will open, the next station and other miscellaneous crap. I am always happy when we get past a station and can get some peace and quiet.
    And on TV they show people eating all the time. Food shows that interview the chef or farmer or cook are popular. People sample the food and always say its really delicious but its considered bad manners to walk and eat in public.
    In politics there are PA vans that drive around playing announcement promoting someone running for office. When I hear one these coming my way, I cover my ears because they are really loud and I am sensitive to sound.
    Japan is a world of contrasts, whereby its impolite to do something such as make loud sounds but its considered standard to make certain loud sounds if they are of the accepted catagory.
    There is little doubt that it is the land of interrelatedness and group consciousness. I don’t watch TV much but you can see it on TV. TV ads look like they are put on only by retired synchronized swimmers.
    Group action is done is such subtle ways that its difficult to really see its extant.

    At the end of his blog Mr. Berman forecasts that Japan will become a post-capitalist or post-industrial society. Well I would disagree and say that Japan never became a capitalist or industrial society. Not really. It has mimicked the US in certain ways mostly I think because of US pressure. However at its heart it is still has very much a pre-industrial in nature. I’ll go ahead and post this but there may be other things I could say.

  404. Ron, I’m glad to hear I’m not the only serious slow reader around. For years, when I read I sounded out each word in my head, and that slowed me down. Because I enjoy reading what a lot of people would consider challenging or difficult books, I try to make sure that I have grasped whatever concept is being advanced and also consider possible implications, as I go along. This is not consistent with speed-reading, and I don’t particularly envy those who can read two or three books to my one, because they couldn’t possibly do that and also pay meticulous attention all along the way. Maybe there is some big-gulp Gestalt approach that actually works. If so, I’m probably too old and set in my ways to make use of it.
    What is true of me, and what I believe is also true of mike k and you is, we are all highly curious generalists and lifelong learners, who are motivated and disciplined readers. And somewhere along the way we developed the ability to do our own thinking. We have each accrued decades of such reading and thinking, along with life experiences, which adds up to not necessarily pure wisdom, but complex, examined, informed opinions. I’m glad that the three of us have been able to meet in this forum of exchange. We haven’t heard very many other voices here lately, but I do hope that some younger people are paying attention to our dialog, and adding our perspective to their own. That is how intergenerational exchange should be working (and of course with us learning from them, as well), but inter-generational exchanges are rare outside of structured environments, like university classrooms, which tend toward the authoritarian and aren’t truly open in nature.
    I think about how education works at the family and tribal level: mostly by doing things together. Mike, this is consistent with your small group model of learning. This is what has the long history in our hominid past, and is probably hard-wired into us, either by genetics, the collective unconscious or racial memory (ala Jung), or morphogenetic fields (ala Sheldrake). Mass-education, as it is practiced today, doesn’t work much better than mass-society or mass-anything-else. We’re not designed for this kind of life. But, nevertheless, here we are, trying to make the best of it.

  405. Mike: I am very much enjoying these exchanges. They’re stimulating, and I’m being pointed in unfamiliar directions and learning new things. Thanks for that link you provided about the two- and three-body computation, and how we can approach (in certain areas) 99% accuracy and certainty, but that there is always that stubborn 1% that seems to throw everything into chaos, doubt , and uncertainty. I’m uncertain: Is that the essence of the Uncertainty Principle? I am so in agreement with you about the One Great Mystery and the many great mysteries. We’re like dogs trying to do calculus. We’re like Mickey Mouse and his runaway mops and brooms, pretending at wizardry. We’re like humans playing at being gods. This is what I so like about Charles Eisenstein’s book, The Ascent of Humanity. He puts all this pretention into clear historical (myth-free) perspective. He understands the importance of story and myth to human culture and society, and he names two that have great power over us today: the myth of Complete Scientific Understanding and its sister myth of Complete Technological Control. Myths of this power attract many True Believers. It is, as you have seen and said, nothing short of a religion, but with science as its god instead of some distant gentleman up in the clouds. Historical perspective is so important to understanding many things. Eisenstein has that perspective and so does Thomas Berry when he states: “The current extinction [at the rate of 200 species a day] is being caused by human action within a cultural tradition shaped in a biblical-Christian and classical-humanist matrix. The tragic flaw in both traditions seems to be an anthropocentrism that has turned into a profound cultural pathology.” We’ve built a world that is all about us, and we’ve done it at the expense of the Community of Life and a living planet—as if it were separate from us, and we from it. That is a tragic flaw indeed.
    Another thinker with a penetrating historical perspective is Morris Berman, and thanks for introducing me to his blog. I read The Twilight of American Culture more than a decade ago. I never did read Dark Ages America, but recently acquired Why America Failed, which was going to be next on my reading list. Now it has to wait its turn behind Pandora’s Seed, After Eden, and Gaia’s Body, which all deal in some way with how things got to be this way. To understand what futures are available to our species (if any) I feel it is imperative to understand our past, and especially critical turning points in the past. I also have concerns about four entities or factors that begin as servants to mankind, but end up as our masters. These are: power; technology; the economy; and culture. Marshall McLuhan said, “We shape our tools, then they shape us.” It feels like a bit of a fool’s errand, but I’m trying to get a grasp on the metaphysical status of these four forces in human life. They do seem to take on a life of their own, and have an agenda of their own—an agenda than can run roughshod over our humanity. Where do they fit in the (mythical) Great Chain of Being? And more importantly, is there any way we can tame or moderate their power in our lives? I sometime think that that’s what shamanism was basically all about—intervening between the human and these other-than-human forces that seek to dominate our lives. I really don’t know what to make of it all. My best instinct and insight is that the only adequate way for humans to live under the conditions of life where there are such forces in the world, is one of circumspect spiritual discipline, on the one hand, and a heart full of love for Life and this world, on the other. Obviously, this in no way reflects the way we’re living today.

  406. I agree with you Gary. Basically we three are bumping along, trying to make some kind of sense of the hand that nature or the world or whatever-one-might call it has dealt us. I am relatively new here but I feel I have known you both for a long time. And yes, I agree, I don’t feel there is a topic that can escape our view. And I am always happy to offer my opinion on whatever subject. Nice day again today! Last of three classes this week involves a 6 km bicycle ride which I will start now.

  407. Gary, Ron — It is clear to me that the three of us have been on a lifelong knowledge quest. In a post later today I will seek to persuade you to look into the work of a fellow quester par excellence — Ken Wilber. If we have read and learned from thousands of books in our search for true understanding, Wilber has studied tens of thousands. More on this later. For now I go forth to the long term treatment center about three miles from my forest abode here in the Kentucky foothills of the Appalachians. I am one of them, having attended my first AA meeting Christmas night 1960. I share stuff I learned about meditation, journaling, and numerous techniques for working with the inner world of our minds and hearts. The AA program is essentially a generic spiritual path suitable for a wide variety of people. It is not about some Christian sect’s beliefs, as many misunderstand it to be. Ah well, I’m not going to try to elucidate the values of AA. One of our principles is to eschew proselytizing. More anon…

  408. mike k

    “there is not a sliver of difference between science and technology. And technology far from being value neutral, has profound consequences in shaping society and people’s values. Science can in no way disclaim responsibility for these effects.”

    I’d say probably there is a difference in emphasis between science and technology but they are definitely umbilically linked. I tried to make something like that point on a discussion forum and definitely a lot of posters weren’t happy. The idea of science as pure and unsullied is deeply embedded in a lot of folks thinking. Technology is almost always the bad guy, and/or a host of bad actors. Science in their thinking merely expands our intellectual horizons.

    But of course that opens up a Pandora’s Box. Are there then forbidden areas of inquiry?


  409. David — Thanks for your comments. Your question at the end of your post is interesting: “But of course that opens up a Pandora’s Box. Are there then forbidden areas of inquiry?” I would opine, unfortunately yes. Even the precious freedom of speech and enquiry needs to have limits in an age so corrupted in its ethics. To give a young child dynamite, or the directions for making it, or even the suggestion that it would be interesting for him/her to research the possibility for discovering such a thing would be a reprehensible and unethical act. The scientists who worked at producing the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos who repented their actions in retrospect, had reason to be ashamed. It is now indisputably known that there was no military reason for destroying the populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is what the immoral politicians of our world do with scientific information. Those scientists who released the Atomic Genie from its safe bottle in nature, have done a disservice to humankind that may yet destroy us all.

  410. In thinking it over, I am not comfortable trying to sell something, no matter how much I believe in the product. I will just briefly say that Ken Wilber is a seminal figure in the modern search for a worldview that will bind the best knowledge of the past and present in every significant field east and west into a meaningful whole that can give birth to further lines of enquiry into the question, “what is this reality all about?” A group I attended spent three years of biweekly two hour meetings responding to his amazing output. We ended up reading about ten of his books in the process, in addition to accessing a lot of material on his website. Does that make me a “Wilberite”? You should know me well enough by now to realize that is not the case. I am happily nobody’s “ite”. However I heartily recommend taking a look at his magnum opus Sex Ecology Spirituality. He takes Arthur Koestler’s holonics into whole new dimensions of significance. He has some quite profound insights into many of the topics you guys are interested in. I leave it that at…

  411. As I see it science and technology are two labels whose meanings are of not much importance. A jar of pickles is still a jar of pickles regardless of what label someone puts on it. Talking about the flavor of the contents may be worth while.

    I think that freedom of speech and inquiry never or rarely hurts people. At the moment I cannot think of any inquiry that has hurt anybody. However, implementation can hurt people. I think that the scientists who constructed the atomic bombs must have been in some degree responsible for the implementation of those bombs and so they must, at a minimum, have some of the blood on their hands as a result of their naiveté or worse. However, I think the vast amount of the responsibility for the atomic bombs must be put at the feet of the politicians who decided to use the bombs in the first place and provided the vast amount of money (resources) and facilities required for their construction and use.

  412. Ron and mike: I recently received an email from a writer friend in which he states the following: “In the world of writing, the collective unconscious is often easy to see. Ideas flow through clusters of minds like breezes moving through trees. Someone once said that our minds are like radios. We receive thoughts and feelings from external forces in a mysterious way. Brilliant thinking doesn’t originate between our ears. Hundreds of people are thinking the same things I’m thinking about right now. It gets spooky.”
    How would Rupert Sheldrake explain this phenomenon? Nobel Prize winners share their honors with others in distant lands who had similar ideas at the same time they did. Science may not be able to explain this, and some scientists might even try to discredit the phenomenon, but the evidence for it is hard to ignore. And what about such non-linear phenomena as synchronicity, serendipity, and synergy? If it’s all just billiard balls, mathematical certainty, and random chance, how do you explain these three Ss, which seem to have rules of their own? Pure rationality tells us that the relationship between cause and effect is straight-forward and linear. In isolated cases this may even be true, but Nature works more often in complex systems of interactions where isolating the cause from the effect is impossible, unless you impose your own assumptions and system of order upon the raw event. Our everyday weather is an excellent example. You have your jet stream, your high and low pressure areas, your rain clouds, a cold front, ocean currents, decadal oscillation, phases of the moon, and bunch of other factors all mixed in. So how come it’s raining and cold right now? What’s the cause of this effect? One such “cause” that we are only now just beginning to appreciate is the presence or absence of forests and other photosynthetic plants as attractors to weather. Lo and behold, deforest an area and turn it into a desert. Does this make chainsaws the cause of deserts? Maybe it’s not quite that simple; though, without chainsaws, and the will to wield them in the way we do, there would be fewer deserts.
    This is why systems theory, and other holistic approaches to knowledge, constitute a much more interesting approach (and also a more helpful one) than science of the mechanistic-materialistic-reductionistic-rationalistic kind. Over the years, the people of our culture have divided the world into academic disciplines and territories of specialization. In a university setting, part of the whole academic scramble is to carve out your own specialized territory, publish peer reviewed articles in prestigious journals written so that only an insider elite will have any idea what you’re talking about. This may work in a world where prestige and tenure are your main goals, but knowing more and more about less and less does not lead to big-picture understanding, because the world itself is not divided up in this way. To understand the whole you have to study the whole in a holistic way.
    I have been a fisherman from the age of eight, right up until today, and I’ve always been a “superstitious” one. I’m sure I have developed some skills at catching fish over the years, but I don’t think of myself as a good fisherman. I think of myself as a lucky fisherman. I started out believing that my success depended upon being in good relationship with the Cosmos. I didn’t know then what exactly the Cosmos was, and I still don’t know. Is there a Master Spirit for fish that must be placated? I don’t know. But there is something “out there,” or somewhere, that determines whether or not I catch fish. I just came back from a trip down to the Klamath River in extreme northern California. That river has suffered insults and degradations from mining, logging, and a huge upriver irrigation project. But somehow this year, despite it all, and recent years of population crashes, there were lots of fish in the river. Trouble is they weren’t biting. The only people catching fish were snagging them. Yet, somehow, I managed to catch both steelhead and salmon, and I did it without cheating. Why, because I’m such a great fisherman? No, because I was lucky. The fish gods were smiling on me. There is something to this, and I don’t pretend to understand it. But I know from more than six decades of fishing experience that it is not just “random chance”—no matter what non-fishing “scientists” might believe. That’s not the kind of world we live in. I’d like to better understand just what makes the world the way it is, but I’m not holding my breath for science to tell me all about it.
    Morphic resonance and morphogenetic fields might in some way play a part in the collective unconscious and racial memory, and they may also play a part in other forms of memory. This hasn’t happened to me personally, but I’ve heard that scenes of past wartime carnage have a very bad vibe about them. You can feel the mayhem and bloodletting. Are there memory fields in the vicinity that are so strong they intrude upon present consciousness? The idea that the Universe has its own way of recording and storing experience would not surprise me at all. If I have intelligence and memory, am I to suppose that the Universe does not? That mine just bootstrapped out of my own exceptionalism? And just as unlikely as it is that everything that exists is just the product of random chance over long time, it is just as unlikely that evolution works in that random way, too. Memory, as a record of what has gone before, surely would be used by an intelligent evolutionary force to avoid repeating old mistakes, just as memory of past successes would be used as building blocks for successful evolutionary innovation.
    Falling within my own personal experience are two other puzzles not explained by current science. I know a lake in the coast range of northern Washington that has very bad vibes. It does not feel good to be there. I don’t know why; it’s a beautiful piece of real estate. Then there is the other side of the coin: the power place, the topography of the sacred. I know a place in the Three Sisters Wilderness that is a natural site for a vision quest—a very powerful place. Does that power include morphogenetic fields or some spiritual dimension in the near vicinity? Science tends not to ask such question– because they don’t fall within the purview of materialist thinking. This is one reason I believe we’re due for a paradigm shift, ala Thomas Kuhn. We need a holistic science that matches our holistic, non-linear world. We’re not there yet.

  413. Gary and mike k:
    Gary has brought up a number of interesting topics. Most of these topics are what mainstream science prefers to avoid. But I think the answer or explanation to your observations fall under the rather broad umbrella of Sheldrake and the quantum world. Our classical science world basically described a world that doesn’t exist but it sort of coincides with human experience, at least the part we thought we think we understand. Its true that a lot of present day “knowledge” provides us with ways of “successfully” doing many things: air conditioning our houses, generating electricity with petroleum, making cell phones etc. But I think many of man’s present “successes” are actual “failures” (Global Warming) if you look at the world at a deeper level. Just looking at the human situation objectively, which isn’t easy, but it produces vast questions in our consciousness. Although the quantum world is difficult to understand since it is in many ways non-intuitive, also people prefer not to understand it because it might change their outlook on life. But as I see it, it may be a window that allows us to see our situation just a little more clearly.

    There are simply tons and tons of “non standard” information out there coming from the likes of Swedenborg, Wm Blake – English Poet (I am a fan but he is not easy), Mozart etc. etc. At three and four years old Mozart showed his music ability. Actually almost any creative person will tell you that they act more like a radio or TV set than anything else. They just put down what comes into their head. And yet we popularly have this hugh “classical” or “mechanical” idea that artists etc. work out of their brain only. The idea of people thinking the same thoughts, knowing when people are looking at them, Dogs knowing when their owners are coming home have all been investigated by Sheldrake and have shown to have some scientific (probability) truth. I also, have in my own informal way looked at such phenomena. Synchronicity was investigated by Jung but it happened to me so many times in my own life that I hardly have to read about it to know its true. Such topics as this are widely documented but our formal science does not care to admit of its existence: Our science likes things that fit an explanation that it can construct. It prefers to ignore the fact that dogs can know when there owners are coming home because these occurrences don’t really fit with standard theory: One: it is not an easy problem, Two: there is little or no money in it and Three: it doesn’t seem to fit with our classical world that we have meticulously constructed.

    Basically I believe we live in a world that is at its base: MYSTERY. Humans have roughed out certain parts and are so proud that we (they) have “elevated” our lifestyle above other sentient creatures. I myself have sort of followed humanities’ lead. However I now pretty much disavow a very large amount of standard classic human knowledge. For me this world is one heck of a lot more interesting and unknown, than is widely accepted. I think Sheldrake is widely ignored and even ridiculed because he has expanded into some of these unknown areas that humans prefer to overlook because he disturbs their claim of being knowledgable.

  414. Friends — One of the surprising discoveries of modern science is that the origin of the seemingly gross and tangible, perceptible world is in realms of incredible smallness and subtlety. At some point of increasing subtlety, designated the quantum level, we enter a world characterized by laws that seem totally contrary to those prevailing on the surface levels. The sages of ancient India depicted this feature of reality by imaging a tree whose roots were in heaven, and whose branches were on earth. In other words the familiar world has its origin and roots in a dimension of almost infinite fineness, almost like an idea, or an ocean of pure consciousness. From an embracing perspective, one cognizes that all that is here inheres in and has its fundamental existence due to that incredibly fine Universal Field. In Paul’s words. “we live and move and have our being in Him“ (and AS Him — my interpolation). Pardoning Paul his anthropomorphic sexist terminology, perhaps he was pointing in the right direction.

    Modern physics is proceeding inexorably towards the realization that even the quantum level inheres in and is manifested from an even more infinitely subtle dimension. Some have called this deeper dimension by an extra-dimensional term: The Unmanifest, a realm beyond our familiar landscape of dimensionality. Even some few scientists have dared to refer to this possible reality as “the mind of God.” I say daring because these folks raise the heretical possibility of burying the hatchet in science’s long running battle with its conception of religion (constructed mostly as a straw man to knock the stuffing out of.)

    Now an interesting corollary of all this is that our own physical vehicle exists as a result of the out picturing of several subtle levels of reality which exist as a sheath or field known to spiritual observation as the subtle body(s). Those who engage the proper inner meditative practices can become aware of these subtler levels of themselves and actually use them consciously as means to contact and discern the wider universe of subtle dimensions. “For God is a Spirit, and must be known in Spirit.” Let me remind that I am not a Christian, but I tend to quote relevant material from East and West, ancient and modern without privileging it in any way above other valid insights into truth. And so finally after a lifetime of practice in many traditions I was given to experience the undeniable reality of these concepts, which has given me a solid basis of knowing their truth. For which I am profoundly grateful. I have no claim whatever for some special excellence or authority for these rare experiential validations of my search, and only offer this as an explanation to my newfound friends, so that they may better understand where I am coming from. To deny these types of experiences which many others have testified to would leave out something that is of central relevance to our discussion. Generally I do not share anything of this nature due to the complete misunderstanding that most modern folks would meet it with. I risk it here because of the openness to mystery that you two have demonstrated.

  415. Mike: I don’t dispute your statement that there is not a sliver of difference between science and technology, but I would add that that has only been the case since science has been taken captive by industry and commerce. Now, virtually all science is applied science, because that is where money can be made. But there used to be this thing called pure science, whose driving motive was simply to understand the world we live in, fueled by curiosity, and (mostly) in the absence of greed. This was back in the days of yore when America was a functioning republic (it never was a democracy, nor was it set up to be one). But just as there once was a time when government by, for, and of the people wasn’t a laughable proposition (when it wasn’t by, for, and of the corporation) there were a few inquiring minds who sought knowledge for its own sake. There is not much money to be made in plate techtonics, but it is good to know this little bit of Earth’s history. Jonas Salk wasn’t doing pure science, but he did subscribe to a different ethic than the marketplace ethic of today. He didn’t think it was right to make a profit on his polio vaccine, and so he gave it away as a gift to mankind, and prevented all kinds of suffering because of his work. Now we make a hero out of Steve Jobs, because he so energized the marketplace and provided us with electronic gadgets that we couldn’t possibly live without. The world of the ‘forties and ‘fifties that I grew up in wasn’t as pure and innocent as we were taught to believe, just as we weren’t really the greatest and best people the world has ever known, with the best system of government and the best economic system ever devised by man. But that was the standard propaganda of the day, and I guess still is. And I believed it for awhile, too. But, given that the ‘fifties weren’t totally the good old days of purity and innocence, they still look pretty good when you compare them to the decadence and corruption of today, including the hijacking and corruption of science.

  416. Gary — When one is trying to hammer home a point that too many fail to appreciate there is a tendency to ignore arguments such as, “after all there are wonderful disinterested scientists who have been exemplary servants of God and men.” Amen. I am totally on board with that. In every field there have been outstanding people who are in every way free of the faults of their numerous colleagues. Even in the field of religions some rose above the abysmal level of the herd, and even managed to avoid martyrdom or calumny. But the all too common reprehensible practice of justifying a whole profession on the basis of the heroic performance of a few of its members I cannot buy into. I condemn the majority of politicians only in order to point out and praise the few exceptional heroes among them. Certainly true scientists are practitioners of truth worthy of a high place among the truly spiritual of mankind.

    Then again, I have to cut some slack for a large number of scientists who really intend no harm, but are woefully unaware of the potential or probable harmful consequences of there research. Needless to say I don’t put those scientists who prostituted their expertise to expedite the US Government’s programs of torture. The reluctance of the American Psychological Association to condemn these traitors to honest science however, told me something about major scientific institutions and their profound lack of conscience. Those who work for DARPA to invent more effective methods to destroy their fellow beings don’t get a lot of sympathy from me either. The whole destructive power of the corporate project of planetary rape is based upon the intelligent students of our universities and their science degrees. Stop me before I go on a real rant about the predominate role of science in the nightmare we are facing. Of course no one of their ilk wishes to accept the slightest degree of responsibility for their activities, and they will invoke dozens of alibis for having sold their souls for fame and dollars. As a footnote, one of my friends from U. of Chicago days went to work for Lockheed Martin the weapons merchants. He recently sent me a thick volume from an Australian “scientist” who refuted every claim that we are facing global warming, or if we are, our burning of fossil fuels ha no connection with it. So much for science in the public interest…

  417. errata: ‘in their number’ should follow ‘programs of torture’.

    Damn. It sure is hard to proof your own work. Another reason we need others…

  418. Mike: I ordered Wilber’s Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality. From what you said, this seems like the book where he expounds most fully upon holons and holarchy–and that is the focus of my interest in Wilber. It is my belief that once you have grasped the deeper implications of holarchy, you see the moral order of the Universe, and knowing that provides the basis for all human morality.
    This moral system trumps all others, and it is just as simple as can be. Give back to the Whole more than you’ve been given–at the holonic level of the individual, at the level of the group, and also at the species level. This is what we are called upon to do for the gift of life we’ve been given. Once we live by the Law of Holonic Reciprocity, our plight and the plight of the Earth will improve dramatically, should there be any Life left by then.

  419. Gary — Glad you ordered Wilber, I’ll be interested what you think of it. I just got Prechtel’s new book from Amazon, and am looking forward to getting into it. I also got Soulcraft, Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche, by Bill Plotkin, which bodes to be a deep look at how to reconnect with Nature through vision quests and other means.

  420. The idea of classifying scientific thought into “pure” and “applications” seems wasted effort to me. Pure research is what feeds the applications. Without new knowledge applications dry up. They are simply different aspects of the same thing. I teach several Japanese researchers English. They complain to me that their bosses are only interested in practical applications. It is because of the influence of the “bean counters”, that they are pushed to find applications (read: money) for their work. I think this is counterproductive because it is really a chicken and egg situation. If you don’t have new knowledge, you don’t have new applications.
    I now have Wilber’s Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality in Kindle and am curious about it.

  421. The whole point of my “beating up” on science is that knowledge and power are inextricably entwined. Knowledge is power. The problem is that our grasp of new knowledge/power has outstripped our spiritual development. Power for many is like the ultimate drug addiction. This temptation to embrace powers before we can properly control them has been known from long ago. The myths of Icarus, Pandora, Prometheus, etc. tried to warn humankind of this inherent danger in the process of escalating intellectual development. Our present situation is commentary on how little we have heeded the wise among us.

  422. How to effectively address the above problem is the number one item on our survival agenda. Until we solve this one all of our band-aids and palliatives will be for naught.

  423. When I say ‘we’, I do not lose sight of the fact that a few elite power holders among us are overwhelmingly responsible for our headlong rush towards the precipice.

  424. Mike and Ron: I take both your points about the “purity” of any science at all, and I don’t disagree with anything either of says on that subject. But you have to realize that I have this idealist bent that runs pretty deep with me and causes me to see things as they might, or ought to, be. Years ago, I had a tape I listened to over and over again, called “Fate of the Earth.” The speaker on that tape was Sister Miriam MacGillis, who had come under the influence of that amazing thinker Thomas Berry, and who herself spoke in terms unlike any religious voice I’d ever heard before. (Like you, mike, I am not a Christian, but will sometimes listen to one who makes special sense.)That is to say, she clearly understood the global ecological crisis, and made no excuses for humans in general or the Church in particular. Anyway, she used to say, “We humans are the Earth (or the Cosmos) conscious of itself.” The idea behind this, as I understood it, was that the human being has been granted special powers in order to reflect back on the “Creation” (a word I have trouble with because it seems to imply a “Creator”) the glory of its own being. Learning about the Cosmos and the Earth and Life itself are all ways to honor these wondrous gifts. And I kind of buy this argument up to a point. I want to learn everything I can about Nature in order to more fully appreciate the miracle and mystery of it all. Now, I’m going to go in way over my head here and talk about the anthropic principle, which I’m pretty hazy on. I believe there is a weak version and a strong version. I believe the strong one says something like: The Universe has no meaning without us here to appreciate it, because we are the only meaning-making beings in existence. (Now, how’s that for arrogance!) The weak version is something like what McGillis was saying. By coming to know the many intricacies, subtleties, and beauties of all that is, we humans serve as a reflector of the Divine (whatever that word means) and also come to a humbling appreciation of all that we survey. I find something appealing in this way of looking at things, but, at the same time, I think you know that I am not a big fan of anthropocentrism, and even this weaker version of the anthropic principle is self-centered as hell. It makes us humans so very special.
    So this is sort of what was at the back of my mind when I spoke in an approving way of pure science, because I can see this sort of inquiry as a kind of devotional labor of love, and not for the sake of humans so much as for the sake of deepening one’s love of life and all that is. Call me naïve and idealistic, but I still think that, in a different culture, pure science could be a pure labor of love, respect, and devotion, that gave back to the Great Mystery, instead of just taking from it.
    Yes, the culture I describe is purely conjectural, and certainly not the one we live in today. But to get to a better place, it doesn’t hurt to have a vision of what that better place might look like.

  425. Gary and mike k:
    I think it is natural that we humans are always trying to connect us to some idea beyond the “facts” we actually have. A more physics oriented version of the anthropic principle states that the whole universe or at least our part of it is fine tuned for human life. I think there are several versions of this idea. And it is possible to go into great detail showing that if this or that constant was just a tiny bit different then there would be no life. My take is that this is just part of our gigantic puzzle and the last word on this has yet to be spoken. The idea may or may not be significant but I will pretty much ignore it until more information shows itself.

  426. Gary,Ron — To those of us who seem to be born with an insatiable curiosity, the world and even ourselves are not matters we can take for granted, but rather the occasion for unending questions. If we persist (and oh yes, we do) sooner or later we come to basic questions such as the one Wilber considers on the first page of the introduction (page 3) of SES. Shelling’s question is a version of the key koan of Korean Zen: What is it?? And indeed, what is this world, how did it get here, why is it here, how am I to live, who am I — all of this comes tumbling out of my wide eyed confrontation with what turns out to be the Mystery of Existence. My fellow children would look at me strangely and say something like, “What’s the prob? Stuff just is what it is.” A child’s version of Oops! This infernal (and blessed!) curiosity of mine was destined to make me an outsider and cause me all kinds of discomforts and problems as life went on, but I never disowned it or settled back into the supposed comfort zone of conformity my compeers pretended to enjoy.
    People that know me a little bit come to realize that whatever I may say that sounds like a conclusion isn’t, its only the jumping off point for a whole new series of further questions. For me nothing is beyond question. Nevertheless some understandings are extremely probable, but never beyond question. It turns out that my curiosity was a big reason that I did not commit suicide in my younger years. I couldn’t stand to die with so many pregnant questions hanging in the air. If Prince Hamlet had thought of that when delivering his famous soliloquy he would no doubt have included it in his list of reasons to stick around a while in spite of the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ etc. That I was often a pain in the ass to my occasional companions goes without saying. They were always wondering when will he come to some conclusion and give the eternal questioning a rest?

    OK I have to go eat breakfast now. But you can see why I am taken by the lengthy and profound enquiry Wilber has undertaken in SES.

  427. Ron: I wasn’t trying to win converts. I was trying to explain some of the background reasoning behind my favorable view of inquiry for its own sake. My “What if…” approach to certain questions has many times before fallen upon uninterested and unappreciative ears, so I’m accustomed to that sort of rebuff. “Just give me the facts, ma’m,” as sergeant Friday used to say. And by the way, I fully appreciate that those who would pursue pure science, or inquiry for its own sake, are routinely used, manipulated, and exploited by others with agendas not so pure. That is a hallmark of the culture we live in today—a culture I regard as failed and fated to fall. I am therefore not at all interested in reforming the culture we have. Things have gone far beyond that point. What I am interested in is how humans of the future, informed by a wholesome and more viable culture, might be able to live in the world. Such an interest inevitably involves speculation—not everyone’s cup of tea.
    To perform this kind of speculation I look at what I know about “human Nature”—which is an array of potentials, which are activated or repressed by the forces of culture. Culture works a bit like epigenetics works on the genome. It triggers, or leaves in nascent form, the human potential for all sorts of behaviors. I can envision a culture where knowledge of the world is sought strictly for the good of the world itself, not just one selfish species. People are curious; they want to know things. I’d like to see a culture that directed that drive in a direction that contributed to the well-being of the entire holarchy. That is what I believe is the proper human place and function. That is what the Law of Holonic Reciprocity is all about.
    So, we can agree to disagree on this point. But disagreements, and different approaches to problems, can be a very positive thing. I’m a splitter; I believe you are a lumper. Taken together, these two approaches offer more than either one alone. So, let’s proceed with the understanding that diversity is better than its opposite. Peace.

  428. Mike: I so enjoyed your last post, in part because I could identify with being the hyper-curious odd man out. It has possibly been less isolating and painful for me than for you, because you seem to be a very social, gregarious person, and I am more the loner. My life circumstances, growing up in an alcoholic family while having plenty of Nature to explore on my own, added to an introverted, contemplative personality, combined to make me pretty self-contained from an early age. I am very comfortable in a one-to-one relationship, much less so in a group setting. I taught university English for five years, and could almost get comfortable in a class of twelve, but was made anxious by a class of twenty or more. I have a feeling you are more extroverted than that, and perhaps feel more keenly the rejection that comes from not being just like everyone else. I also identify with your stance on questions and answers. It is really the questions that are engaging, and how one question leads to another, and stirs up new excitement. I have always been interested in the Big Questions, and, like you, am a far-ranging generalist who is not afraid to cross academic borders and pry into private preserves of knowledge. I got in a little over my head when speaking of the anthropic principle, but I got quite a bit out of venturing beyond the borders of what I actually know.
    After posting my off-the-cuff impression of the anthropic principle, I went to Wikipedia to see what they had to say. Here’s what I found out: There are several different brands of the principle, and all of them are expressed in techno-speak. My conclusion is that one of the following is true: 1) there are so many nuances, contributing factors, and technical details involved in the anthropic principle that this principle cannot be expressed in any other way; or, 2) These guys have been trained to write only for their academic peers in a language of exclusion, and that the results of their thinking, if expressed in plain English, is not beyond the capacities of an intelligent layman. I tend to favor the latter alternative, because I have seen so much of it in technical and academic writing. It’s a way to elevate oneself above ordinary mortals. And I’ve also seen the reverse of this with such fine science writers as Fritjof Capra, Elizabet Sahtouris, and Bruce Lipton, who can make complex concepts accessible through clear prose.
    I found something on this Wikipedia site which I think bears some discussion among the three of us, and anyone else who wants to join in. The topic is: What is the nature of the Universe we live in? There are some interesting alternatives, and, as you noted in your last post, these questions are central to everything about our lives. More later.

  429. Openness. How easily we assume that we have it. Something that actually requires a lifetime to achieve in useful amounts, we think we already are gifted with like a genetic trait that needed no nurturance. When I came out of my isolation and began interacting with others, I soon observed that they were far from open, especially to my own pet certainties. For instance they were not open to considering my persuasive ideas about the totally false nature of religion and all spiritual ideas. It took quite a while for me to realize that my closedness and certainty of my own correctness was the mirror image of what I was running into in others. There seemed to be an epidemic of closed minds! In the words of a song, people hearing without listening. We all seemed convinced that our own inner world of ideas and understandings was totally correct as it stood, and would reject anything that seemed to question it. In fact we would become irate if our ideas were challenged.

    Then a mentor suggested I read this quote from Herbert Spenser:

    “There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance — that principle is contempt prior to investigation.”

    How often I have encountered that principle at work in myself, and in others. As my own knowledge quest took me into more and more obscure and little known areas it arose within me and around me again and again. The only way beyond its paralyzing stasis was to once more become willing to open my mind and investigate more deeply. By now I have experienced realities that convinced me that what I thought was sure ground and irrefutable truth was only a temporary refuge in a world of greater encompassing Mystery. It was not my intention to encounter the profoundly mysterious nature of reality, I wished to understand everything in the clear light of reason, but it proved not to be so. Those who wish to transcend and go beyond the little light of our present knowledge into the vast Darkness beyond had best be prepared to have their safe little boat of ideas overturned, and risk being drowned in deeper waters…

  430. Gary — Up to the age of 28 I was extremely introverted, to the extent that I had ceased talking to others, and was sent to a child psychologist. He saw me for two hours in the evening three times a week for a minimal fee. It was about two months before I uttered my first words to him. Prior to that he had mostly read to me from a popular science weekly, as he knew from my parents that I was deeply interested in science. At 28 I took refuge in an AA related club every waking hour, only going home late at night to sleep. There was a group meeting almost every night, and it was about a year before I spoke my first words in a meeting. So you see, I was not exactly a born extrovert. A lot has changed for me since that first AA meeting on Christmas night 1960. Its a whole new ball game for me in almost every way. Somewhere on the way I spent a year alone as a hermit on Orcas island. Even in recovery my loner tendencies were quite strong in the early years.

    As to the Anthropic Principle, it relates to the equally controversial Conscious Design debate. Unfortunately that discussion is often muddied by references to the Christian Bible and its primitive ideas about how the Earth and ourselves came to be, and the supposed role of a patriarchal Deity of dubious ethical principles in that whole affair. This is not really a fair fight, and is set up for “science” to knock the socks off superstitious, ignorant, fundamentalist Christianity. Lets leave Jehovah
    out of the discussion as to whether a higher order of intelligence had a role in manifesting this incredible adventure we are involved in. Maybe we can delay my sharing my take on these weighty questions until we have all read (or read at — it gets pretty heavy, especially if you do the footnotes, which can run twenty pages) SES. Wilber’s book has a lot to say about the evolution of intelligence, which still has a long way to go. I will probably read the whole thing again as it has deeper levels I need to study. I always select and read things not only for their content but for what they stimulate in my own thinking.

  431. Gary & ken k:
    Its just after breakfast time here and I’m looking over my computer mails etc. It must be approaching evening at your house according to the time table I made have taped up in front of me.

    I am in sympathy with your sense of curiosity Gary. There are so many topics here that I don’t have the time to respond to but I’ll give some of them a “go”. As background I am not a member of any religious oriented organization or group. Even as a child I did not succeed in becoming a “believing” member of any such group. If I were pushed to describe my belief system I simply say that “I believe I probably am” and let it go at that. I grew up in a community in which I was more like an alien than anything else. Everybody in my small community seemed to be in lock step on every and anything but for me I was a stranger in a strange land. In regard to religion or whatever, I could not get any response to my delicate questions except lockstep answers or vague warnings that usually implied “Don’t go there”. I’m sure that some of my fellow similar-age students suspected I was weird but in general I tried to play the local game until college-age when I allowed my brain to think what were non-standard thoughts. It was in those years that I believe I “learned” a somewhat different way of seeing than many others.

    But ken k, your situation seems even more severe than mine. Its an incredible story that perhaps I just touched on a little in my life.

    “Clear light of reason” Pure reason can be a civilized way of misrepresenting something to my way of thinking. Certainly there can be great truth there but it can also lie. Our feelings and subjective ideas must not be ignored at our peril. All must always be considered including the idea that we are wrong.

    SES book:

    “Why is there something rather than nothing”. I think thats a great question to start off a book.

    However, immediately questions entered my mind when he used the expression:

    “everybody pretty much agrees”


    “My point is that if we take these types of largely-agreed-upon orienting generalizations from the various branches of knowledge (from physics to biology to psychology to theology),” our already-agreed-upon knowledge.

    Wilber, Ken (2011-09-07). Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution (Kindle Locations 462-465). Shambhala Publications. Kindle Edition.

    When I read the above my “critical thinking” brain kicked in and began asking a multitude of questions in regard to just what “already-agreed-upon-knowledge” are we talking about?

    For me at least, I didn’t see anything in the book that listed something like “assumed truths”. Am I missing something? My way of thinking is that in order to build a structure you have to first define what foundation you will build it on. Then there mentions of holons, atoms etc. Are all of these things among the “assumed truths” and just what might the “assumed truths” be?

  432. Ron — I am not a member of ANY group that has a definition of membership. I do not make a good member. I stand inwardly apart from any gathering I attend. This does not mean that I cannot take part in various activities with others, but if the question of professing my membership arises I must demur. I agree with Krishnamurti that to formally declare one’s membership in some group cuts you off, separates you from others who have not declared themselves thusly, or may say that they belong to some other group. I have found that any group I attend will have some differences with my ideas, so why should I label myself with their name when in some ways I disagree with them. This only creates confusion for myself and others. Perhaps what I share in common with others is that we all exist. Beyond that lets not compromise our uniqueness and freedom with limiting definitions.

    If you choose to read SES, I would advise you to give it a chance and withhold your questions and criticisms until you have a better idea of where and how Wilber is journeying. He has a rather unique set of ideas to explain, and it would be impossible to explain them in detail outside of the context he will fit them into. I think you will find him to be one of the least dogmatic thinkers you will encounter. He participated in a whole book where he asked his strongest critics to take their best shots at him and his ideas. Give him a chance to expound his ideas a bit before judging him, and you may pick up some worthwhile knowledge, even if you eventually disagree with him on some points. I do.

  433. mike k: Perhaps I am not used to reading this kind of thing but I simply wanted to express some thoughts that I had right off the bat. I will now continue reading in order to see what is said and how it is said. I feel the book covers highly interesting topics that I am sympathetic to but these topics gain in legitimacy in my mind by rigorous examination.

  434. Ron and Mike: When I went to Wikipedia to look up the anthropic principle, I found an interesting surprise: a list of seven possible or likely forms our Universe might take. Which one or two do you like best?
    1) The Absurd Universe: Our universe just happens to be the way it is.
    2) The Unique Universe: Everything must be the way it is.
    3) The Multiverse: Multiple universes exist having all possible combinations of characteristics.
    4) Intelligent Design: A creator designed the universe.
    5) The Life Principle: There is an underlying principle that constrains the universe to evolve toward life and mind.
    6) The Self-Explaining Universe: A closed explanatory or causal loop. “Perhaps only universes with a capacity for consciousness can exist.” This is Wheeler’s Participatory Anthropic Principle (PAP).
    7) The Fake Universe: We live inside a virtual reality simulation.

    There was a time when I was enamored of the multiverse option—mostly, I think, because it contradicted conventional wisdom. I believe string theory predicts something like this. Anymore, I don’t favor this view at all, because it introduces complications and confusions to some of the views I now hold. I am reminded, too, of those days when the heliocentric view of our solar system was rising in prominence, and scientists in the terra-centric crowd came up with extremely contorted mathematical explanations to make the old system plausible. This fails Occam’s Razor.

    I can’t really buy the Fake Universe, or Intelligent Design. The Absurd Universe I leave to Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, and Sam Harris.

    That leaves the Unique Universe, the Life Principle, and the Self-Explaining Universe. That everything must be the way it is might be true, or might not, but either way is not real rich with implications.

    As for “constrains the universe to evolve toward life and mind,” I lean pretty heavily this way, despite a hint of teleology (which I’ve been told to distrust or even despise). What I think I see in the evolution of Earth, and perhaps in the evolution of the Universe itself, is a tendency toward ever greater complexity, ever greater diversity, and ever greater abundance. This “tendency toward” might actually be a “will toward,” or a “constraint” in favor of Life, Mind, complexity, diversity, and abundance. I don’t insist on this, but it seems to square with observation and gut feelings. Everything I see around me (fortunately I don’t live in a city) tells me that there is a potent Life-Force that very much wants Life to be. On this two acres where I live, bare ground does not stay bare for long. In the old growth forest where I walk every day, there is no bare ground, except for the trail itself. A mantle of feather moss covers every square inch that is not taken up by trees and shrubs. Life wants to be, and it means business. And if that is true of this Earth, it seems to me that if the Universe is continuous and self-consistent, this must also be true of the Universe at large.

    The self-Explaining Universe is not self-explanatory to me, but seems somehow to loop back to something like what I described as the weak anthropic principle. This of course puts humans right back in the middle of everything.

    The way I described the strong Anthropic Principle is embodied by a book I read a year or two ago, called Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe. In the case of this particular book, the Anthropic Principle morphs into the Solipsistic Principle. According to author Robert Lanz, the Universe exists only because we are here to observe it. A lovely bit of narcissism there! Around the time I read this book, I also read The Living Universe by Duane Elgin. I no longer remember much about that book, maybe because his observations so coincided with my own. I own a copy of The Holographic Universe, but haven’t read it, and don’t know if it’s worth my time.
    I’ve done this reading, and in other books of this kind, because I feel it is important to get down to first principles, and that entails knowing (or at least believing you know) what kind of Universe we live in. I am very interested in your opinions in this matter.

  435. I went through maybe 15 or so books in my kindle collection since its easy and fast to search them and copy if I like what they say. Below are three selections I chose of about 8 of the books that had some discussion of the Anthropic Principle. In general the idea was not liked all that much:

    The so-called anthropic coincidences, in which our universe appears, to some, incredibly fine-tuned for the formation of carbon-based life, are readily accounted for in a universe of universes. And those who think these coincidences provide evidence for some special design, with humans in mind, exhibit the same lack of imagination as those who once thought that only one world existed and all else revolved about it.

    Victor J. Stenger. Timeless Reality: Symetry, Simplicity, and Multiple Universes . Kindle Edition.

    However, the weakness of this so-called anthropic reasoning is that it can be used to predict anything, and a theory which predicts anything predicts nothing. It seems as though we are giving up finding a theory which unambiguously predicts the nature of the universe. As Brian Greene says in his book The Elegant Universe, this method has the capacity “to lessen our insistence on explaining why our universe appears as it does.”

    Thomas, Andrew (2012-06-09). Hidden In Plain Sight: The simple link between relativity and quantum mechanics (p. 39). . Kindle Edition.

    In many ways the Anthropic Principle bears some resemblance to the famous statement made by Descartes: “I think, therefore, I am.” In a sense the Anthropic Principle seems like a restatement of this concept, something along the lines of “I am here; therefore, it is necessary that I am.” But I also feel that the Anthropic Principle can readily be distinguished from Descartes’ statement by turning it upside down, such as in “There’s no way I could be holding this discussion if I didn’t exist.” This is an obvious statement of truth at the core of which is very little meaning. If I didn’t exist, then the only statement I could ever utter would be “ ” and this is equally meaningless.

    Tyson, Scott (2011-05-04). The Unobservable Universe: A Paradox-Free Framework for Understanding the Universe (pp. 149-150). Galaxia Way. Kindle Edition.

  436. Gary, Ron — You guys don’t waste time fooling around with minor questions! Lets just solve this whole deal from A to Z and be done with it, eh? My kind of people. That’s why I liked Wilber right away. He had the chutzpah to write books with titles like A Brief History of Everything, and A Theory of Everything. Years ago in my research into Indian Philosophy, I ran into this enigmatic saying ascribed to Veda Vyasa, the supposed author of the Vedas: Know That knowing which all things are known. It stuck in the background of my mind for years, and only began to make sense when I eventually experienced a revelatory state of consciousness explicating it. At any rate, congratulations to you both; all true seekers of truth have this primal question behind all there diverse enquiries. To the non-seeker it seems idiotic or unanswerable, but we are of those who will not take a simple ‘no’ or ‘don’t ask ‘ for an answer. We insist on finding out what all of this is about, or will die trying! Like Socrates, who considered taking the hemlock to be an interesting experiment to hopefully answer some questions he had about death. ***If Ockham’s Razor really ruled reality, wouldn’t it have been simpler if there was just Nothing? Why all this incredible complexity? Did God or Whatever misplace His Razor, or if He did, couldn’t He just use it now, seeing the mess he made, and dele the whole maddening affair? Thereby solving Hamlet’s agonizing problem, to be or not to be? Why wouldn’t God or Whatever do that? Thus we enter the intriguing area known in philosophy as Theodicy, a favorite bone for me to chew on. More of this later…

    In answer to the query about possible Universes, how about — all of the above, and some other possibilities not mentioned, but with important amendments and interpretations to all, and a whopping whipped cream topping of Mystery over the whole delicious dessert! For instance there is the irritating habit of western thinkers to ignore profound and helpful concepts like Maya, which originated in India. And remember, the simple translation and definition of Maya as ‘illusion’ is totally inadequate, especially in light of our thinking that illusions are somehow ‘out there’ instead of realizing that they are ‘in here’ — misunderstandings within our own minds. At any rate perhaps we could bounce our questions and ideas off the ideas of Wilber in his quest to answer the supreme question we are interested in. His analysis of the history of enquiry into the meaning(s) of Existence, and his attempt to build better tools to aid our understanding of this central question could be a useful addition to our own individual efforts to untie the Primal Knot.

  437. Ron: I too have taken an interest in Rupert Sheldrake, but have only read The Presence of the Past, which, incidentally, has quite a good overview of the history of science in chapter two, for those innocent of science’s past. I haven’t read his other books, figuring they’d be pretty much more of the same, but I have looked into other writers interested in field energy, including Lynne McTaggart’s The Field and Ervin Laszlo’s Science and the Akashic Field: An Integral Theory of Everything. I’m sure you must know of these, but I mention them just in case. I’ll quote the most interesting paragraph I found in the book:
    “Generations after generations of humans have left their holographic traces in the A-field, and the information in these holograms is available to be read out. The holograms of individuals integrate in a superhologram, which is the encompassing hologram of a tribe, community, or culture. The collective holograms interface and integrate in turn with the super-superholograms of all people. This is the collective in-formation pool of humankind.”(p.115)
    I wouldn’t know a hologram from a monogram, or a superhologram from superman, but leaving that aside, this looks a lot to me like Jung’s collective unconscious and racial memory, embodied in the Akashic Field. The science for this would seem to be in its early phases, but for me, personally, a world with such a memory field makes more sense than a world without one.
    Another alternative thinker you might be interested in is Nassim Haramein. I haven’t read any of his stuff but have watched the documentary DVD, Black Whole (available from Amazon), wherein he explains his view of the Cosmos. This is from a blurb on the back cover: “Building on Einstein’s work, Nassim Haramein developed a United Field Theory that unveils a specific geometric array to explain creation and the vacuum that connects all things.” He gets into some other stuff that I just ignore, like Egyptian secret codes and crop circles and alien nonsense, but I like the way he unifies things and shows them all to be connected. I guess this is a bias of mine. I like the idea of a coherent whole.
    “If the stars in the heavens were not there, we could not exist. Nature is an interconnected Universe.”—Milo Wolff, Schrodinger’s Universe
    This Milo Wolff is another guy I looked into, because he, too, is describing a Universe that is in accord with my own gut feeling about how the Universe SHOULD BE. I admit to not being neutral or dispassionate on the question of the nature of the Universe. I want a Universe that is continuous, consistent, and coherent—whether or not we understand all the connections, or ever will understand them. I have mentioned the Law of Holonic Reciprocity. This is a term my friend, Tim, and I came up with to describe what we believe to be a Universal Law, one conveniently overlooked by most thinkers of our cultural background, but not by most indigenous peoples. We believe it as sure a thing as the Law of Gravity. Its essence is: Give as good as you’ve been given, and a little bit more. That is where the word Reciprocity fits in. The word Holonic is just a reminder of the “why” for the Law. It’s because we’re all connected, and the holarchy only succeeds when every holon at every level of the holarchy makes a positive contribution to the well-being of the Whole. The elegant simplicity–and the simple elegance– of this proposition is most consistent with a Universe in which: All things come out of the One and the One out of all things.”
    If the Law of Holonic Reciprocity is indeed a Universal Law, then abiding by this Law might be a good way to live. Everyone wants to know: What can I do? Well, why not start by living within the Law?
    The problem, of course, is that our pathological culture is founded upon breaking the Law. And that is why this culture needs to go away.

  438. mike k

    “If Ockham’s Razor really ruled reality, wouldn’t it have been simpler if there was just Nothing? Why all this incredible complexity?”

    Ockham’s Razor is not about the simplest theoretical reality but the simplest hypothesis consistent with the available evidence. I find it interesting that no matter how complex the universe may seem to be that somehow the patterns they exhibit seem to submit to apparently simple universal formulas.

  439. When I was a child in the 1930’s my parents took myself and my two older brothers to the World’s Fair in New York City. The theme of the fair was the wonderful world of the future which science was rapidly bringing into existence. Of course visiting the sprawling slums of New York was not on our middle class itinerary. Nor were we likely to rub shoulders with these unfortunate denizens of the big city. Nevertheless we were assured by the glamorous pavilions that, at least for us, the world that was coming would be a paradise provided by the wizardry of Science. That we were living in the depths of a great economic depression was never allowed to spoil the fun of enjoying the promoter’s dreams of the delicious pie from the skies inhabited by the wise men of Science that we would soon be enjoying.

    And I ate it up! Wow I decided then and there I would be a Scientist when I grew up. At the same time I was being lured by the sensational stories of the newly emerging science fiction. I would make amazing discoveries and travel gloriously to the stars… I began studying algebra, and talking my father into funding what was probably the most advanced chemical laboratory any kid had in the country.

    Well, enough of all that. I am an older and miraculously somewhat wiser person now. The horrible events in Europe and Japan gave me a whole new appreciation of what science could do for mankind. Please don’t tell me that scientists were not responsible for what was done with their “pure” research. It reminds me of the NRA’s idiotic mantra: Guns don’t kill people, people do. Yeah, people with guns.

    I just watched a program in the excellent series Through the Wormhole about the search for extreme human longevity. It left me with a really creepy feeling about the cutting edge scientists who explained their current work. If there is one group of people on Earth who are the last ones who I would trust with our future it is the intellectual freaks lacking any vestige of wisdom called scientists. Of all the threats we face now, these folks perhaps are the greatest of all. Who else is smart enough to tweak the smallpox virus to make it more virulent and impossible to stop if utilized? The list goes on, we all know some of it, what we don’t know would probably be even more terrifying, if that is possible.

  440. David M — You apparently disregarded the ‘if’ at the beginning of what you quoted from me. I am perfectly aware of the proper definition and use Ockham’s razor. With regard to your belief that all this complexity we observe will be found to result from a few simple equations, let me give one counter example (there are innumerable others). Fermat’s last theorem, which can be simply stated by a grade school student defied the best efforts of numerous top flight mathematicians for over three centuries, in spite of very large prizes that were offered for its solution. When it was finally solved the proof ran to many pages of the most abstruse math, and it took the professional community quite a while to understand the proof and validate it.'s_Last_Theorem

  441. “If there is one group of people on Earth who are the last ones who I would trust with our future it is the intellectual freaks lacking any vestige of wisdom called scientists.”
    While I admit you have a point I would like to add a modifying twist. I am not a scientist (my inability to work math problems flunked me out) but I have worked on the edge of research i.e. writing reports, documentation, writing manuals, conducting literature searches etc. As a result of my experiences I have the opinion that its not so much the researchers and scientists that are crazy but someone above them who is bonkers. Perhaps this is a fine point but most of time when I ran across a really incredibly stupid idea it was not the product of a scientist but someone in middle management (or above) who didn’t have a clue as to the nature of their bull-in-the-chinashop proclamations and directions.

  442. Mike: I think you will enjoy Soulcraft, by Bill Plotkin. I read it about three years ago, so it isn’t all just fresh in my mind, but I remember doing a fair amount of underlining, and thinking that here finally was a psychologist who understood Nature and the human’s proper relationship to same. Over the course of many years, Bill has led groups into wilderness settings and set them certain challenges. Many individuals reported feelings of growth and development by program’s end. I was reminded of the years I put in as a Wilderness Ranger for the US Forest Service (seventeen of them) and some of the Outward Bound groups I talked to out in the backcountry. They, too, were set certain challenges, and many reported a sense of breakthrough. What impressed me most was that some of these young people were city kids who had never experienced wild Nature in their lives, but found something out here in the natural world that resonated deeply with something inside themselves. This always moved me, to hear of this from the person concerned. And I invariably wondered if this bond with Nature would deepen over the years, or kind of get lost in the shuffle of everyday city life. What I know, and what Bill Plotkin knows, is that a well-developed relationship between an individual and Nature is a vital part of becoming a fully human being. In this society, there are a lot of people who never fully grow up. Part of that is because of this severed relationship.
    The downside of the book for me was, I eventually got the feeling that you really had to experience one of Bill’s wilderness workshops to arrive at the desired state of mind. Anything less might not produce the desired results. Still, I found the book worth my while.

  443. mike k

    “David M — You apparently disregarded the ‘if’ at the beginning of what you quoted from me.”

    No I didn’t. Your “if” set up a hypothetical that had nothing to do with Ockham’s Razor – my point.

    “With regard to your belief that all this complexity we observe will be found to result from a few simple equations”

    That’s way above my pay grade to assert “all” phenomena in the universe is reduceable to a set of simple formulas, I’m just noting how many do and apparently universally.

    Probably I’m out of my league here but Fermat’s last theorem seems to say more about the internal workings of math than anything to do with natural phenomena. But I also still have the idea that this business of indeterminacy has more to do with the limitations of observation than the actual operations of the universe. I know you guys think otherwise but that is the way it looks to me.

    Unless one believes in miracles I simply don’t know any phenomenon that doesn’t exhibit pattern behavior even if we have difficulty illuminated all the elements of that pattern. It just seems observably true.

  444. Gary G

    “What impressed me most was that some of these young people were city kids who had never experienced wild Nature in their lives, but found something out here in the natural world that resonated deeply with something inside themselves.”

    I can certainly see that, not the least in my own life. The question is how can you turn that into effective politics. I look at Thoreau and John Muir as our premier examples of nature based political inspiration. I guess we got civil disobedience and some public parks as positive actions but the power-money juggernaut that sucks us all in seems to have no real antidote. It’s like a big societal junky trip. Obsession with expanding the part overruns the healthy integrity of the whole.


  445. David M — For whatever reason I feel that our back and forth has degenerated into a petty nit picking quibble. It is always possible to find fault with another’s comments, however reasonable and clearly stated they may be. I fully own my share of responsibility for allowing this to happen and continue. But I feel now that it is time to let go of my end of the stick. You have many valid and interesting viewpoints. Questioning them has not really benefited my understanding that much, so I will cease to do so, lest I fall into nit picking argument once more. Blessings and Peace be with you David. You appear to be an intelligent and compassionate person. Maybe if we take a break from mutual criticisms it will facilitate our friendly relations. I really hope so.

  446. Gary — I am impressed and a little envious at the extended time you had in Nature. My interest in vision quests comes from my own experiences doing that, and my more general interest in ways we might transform people’s relation to Nature, each other, and themselves. My analysis of our many current problems is that they start from inner deficiencies and misunderstandings within each of us, and become projected as our behavior in the outer world. In this sense, changing one’s inner world is key to changing the world out there. Your comment was that setting up vision quests such as Plotkin and his mentors did for years is a cumbersome process that will not reach many people. My reaction is yes, but if people were somehow motivated to seek these kind of experiences and growth opportunities, they would easily find the time and energy to do so. As in so many projects to awaken folks, convincing them to take part is a crucial first step. How to do this in a world so sound asleep is our problem. Its hard enough to get people to come together in a living room to discuss the world and themselves in it, much less try to motivate them to go out into the wilderness and fast, seeking deeper understanding.

  447. “David M — For whatever reason I feel that our back and forth has degenerated into a petty nit picking quibble. It is always possible to find fault with another’s comments, however reasonable and clearly stated they may be. I fully own my share of responsibility for allowing this to happen and continue. But I feel now that it is time to let go of my end of the stick.”

    Oh come on mike. We are simply having a difference of opinion, perspective or whatever. Enlightenment thrives on dialectics. It provides me with a jump off point to share my thoughts and clarify those that might have generated misunderstanding. That’s not petty nit picking in my book.

    “the NRA’s idiotic mantra: Guns don’t kill people, people do. Yeah, people with guns.”

    I agree. There is a kind of self-interested reductionism that separates the easy opportunity to engage in bad behavior from the bad behavior as if context means nothing.

  448. *** David M — Your response of ‘no problem’ leaves me more convinced than before that discussion between us is unlikely to bear any useful fruit. I intend no disrespect for you in this regard, but let’s just say we don’t ‘click’ and leave it at that.

  449. I am off to a three day retreat, at which I hope to solve the problems of the Universe (including me!) or at least a minute portion thereof. Be back on line Thursday…

  450. David M: You ask: How do we turn a wholesome relationship with Nature “into effective politics?” You go on to note:”… the power-money juggernaut that sucks us all in seems to have no antidote.”
    My answer to your question is spread out over the course of this discussion, bits here, other pieces there. I’ll try to bring as many of these together here as I can. The first thing I have to say is that we live in a system that is beyond fixing, reforming, tweaking, or overhauling. That is because it is built on a rotten base of theft, deception, and violence, and those qualities run all the way through the culture of civilization. It started when we broke our bond with Nature back in the first days of domestication. That is, we are living in the end days of a ten thousand year mistake. Our system is based upon plundering the living world for our own selfish purposes. When you hear people talk about wealth creation or growing the economy, the unstated part of that is equation is that wealth creation comes from world destruction, and growth of the human economy is inevitably a subtraction from the natural economy. We have been able to get away with this because we have been mining the accrued resilience of four billion years of Earth’s evolutionary experiment with Life. We’ve been taking and taking and taking and never giving anything back. That is, we have been defying the Law of Holonic Reciprocity. Well, by this time, that resilience has been pretty well depleted, and our plan is to go ahead and take everything that’s left there is to take, and then go extinct. No, I really do wish I were making a bad joke, for effect. That power-money juggernaut you mention is coked up and cooking right along, and has no intention to go into withdrawal, thank you.
    So I’m putting my money on a (highly conjectural) future human presence on the planet, one that has a cultural operating system that is compatible with the Community of Life and a living planet. This is what causes me to speculate about how “human nature” can be informed, directed, guided, and (when necessary) reined in, under the influence of a new and better culture. Culture includes the stories we tell ourselves about the world, ourselves, and what we are supposed to be doing here. Culture is also contained in language, and the metaphors we live by. This is a problem, because our language is constructed around a faulty and destructive worldview. So, when it comes right down to it, I really have no idea how we get from here to there. I think there has to be a lot of trouble and turmoil that reduces our global population to a number compatible with long-term sustainability. And to live far into the indefinite future, that optimum population must be kept in check, in exactly the same way that all the other plant and animal populations are constrained by the daily solar budget and the output of photosynthesis.
    So, a new culture with different and better stories, and probably a new language. Even at that, there are other forces that worry me a lot, because of their history of taking over human life turning our lives to its own ends. You speak of the money-power juggernaut, which I see as a late stage manifestation of two of these forces working together and effectively enslaving us to their own perverse agendas. Our economy is supposed to be our servant, but instead is now our master. Power is another insidious force, which seems not necessarily in human nature itself, but something outside that uses human nature to perform its own dark deeds. Technology is another of these forces. We form our tools and then they form us. In this culture, for sure, we have never been able to say no to technology—no matter how horrendous in its implications (nuclear fusion, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, etc.). The fourth force that always seems to have its way with us is culture itself. So, even if we get a fresh start in some utopian/dystopian future, we’re going to have some tough challenges. My best hope in all this is that there is something out there in the invisible 97% of the Cosmos that will be in sympathy with this new version and iteration of humanity and will give us a bit of a hand. In return, I think we are going to have to be a strong, disciplined, and faithful people, who are in love with the world and all that is in it, and willing to work hard to keep the whole enterprise going strong. That is, I am banking on there being such a thing as spirit and spirituality, in us and in the Universe at large. This is not a novel idea, but it seems to me that organized religion has run roughshod over actual spirituality, and then pretended to be spiritual itself. What I’m talking about is something deeper and more profound than is dreamt of in our philosophy of the moment. I believe this realm or dimension exists, but of course I can’t prove it scientifically. Anyway, if it does, it would be good to be on good terms with it.
    I don’t think you will find my answer very satisfying. You are living in this world, and you want to see it become a better place. Good luck with that. And if you find the antidote to the juggernaut (other than collapse) please let me know.

  451. Gary — Glad I am still here to read and make a brief comment about your excellent post. You have pretty much stated my own position. I might add a few thoughts, but you pretty much nailed it. I like it because it faces the hard truths of our situation without watering it down. Our chances at this point are indeed perilously slim. This is the point where people cry out for help from beyond, from anywhere. We see this in AA when people hit their ‘bottom’. the dark night of the Soul. Even Derrick Jensen cries out to what he calls the Other in his recent book Dreams. (We are packed and ready to go on retreat with fellow seekers, so more later….)

  452. Gary, clearly you have done a lot of reflection and I’d say I agree with about 90% of what you say. I do think cultures can develop some ecological wisdom. When Europeans came to North American to many it was a pristine Eden although every inch was occupied or at least used by its native inhabitants. That suggests to me a lot of sustainable management. And that involved a huge number of different cultures living side by side. One problem appears to be a kind of Gresham’s Law that allows the most potent power-money juggernaut to dominate the scene and take every other culture down with it. At least as we’ve seen when they overplay their hand like the Maya they seem to disintegrate fairly rapidly and things get more normal. Perhaps we under estimate how fragile they are when less than optimum conditions prevail. The 10,000 year holocene interglacial period, with some ups and downs has been pretty close to optimum. But now we are drowning in plastic and a climate that is starting to get scary.

    “We form our tools and then they form us. In this culture, for sure, we have never been able to say no to technology—no matter how horrendous in its implications (nuclear fusion, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, etc.).”

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I know of one Hopi group that actually made the choice to go back to the old way, technology and all, and created a village based on that and made a go of it for a while, but I think by now they’ve gotten sucked in by the pressures of modernity. Still it’s nice to know there is some countervailing impulse that is hopefully there to draw on in the future.

    Until a critical mass of folks get at least the connection between population and our suicidal future and get pro-active about it, which means a whole different attitude toward growth and accumulation much beyond necessity, our “Community of Life” is not going to have a future.

    I’m inclined to think we are going to have to build our future along the lines of self-sustaining communities where the members know each other. Moving away from that seems to have unbalanced us.