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The Basic Psychological Structure of Our Society Does Not Work

2017 March 20
The Course of Empire by Thomas Cole

The Course of Empire by Thomas Cole

Here’s the thing. Our society only works after generational crises which don’t destroy it. After the Napoleonic Wars, the survivors made Europe more or less work. They got a good long run out of it–a surprisingly long one–but it began going south starting around 1870, and it blew up with WWII.

It went south in ways that are recognizable, by the way. For example, the British Empire pushed laissez-faire trade policies which made the rich richer, but gutted the British manufacturing base over time, moving much of it, ironically, to America.

The system went into crisis from 1914 to 1945, and the Americans took it over and ran it basically well up until the early 70s, about 25 years. Then it went into decline. It’s hard to tell exactly when the end-game crisis start(ed) until we can look back, but if we aren’t in it right now, we’re close.

1945 to 2008 is 63 years. If you count up through to today, it’s 71 years. If the crisis isn’t seen to have started for another ten years, it will be 81.

But the core point here is that it’s very hard to create people who can run a system.

A common refrain is that prosperity destroys character. But that’s not quite right: The people who created the good post-war economy were the FDR types, mostly. People who were adults in the 20s and 30s, who saw what went wrong.

People have a hard time learning from other people’s experiences. They have to see it themselves. So, in the early 70s there is an attempt to get rid of the short-sale uptick rule (you can only short a stock on an uptick of the stock) and it dies in the face of massive backlash. A couple decades later, those people are dead, and even more wholesale revisions to the rules are put in place to prevent another Depression. Finally, Clinton kills Glass-Steagall, the main spar, wholesale, something entirely unthinkable in 1960 when the population had lived through and remembered the reasons Glass-Steagall existed in the first place.

But the rot goes deeper than just, “It’s hard to learn what you didn’t experience.” It goes to the core of how we raise ourselves and our children.

School, as we do it, is a terrible way to raise people. What it actually teaches us is to, “Do what you’re told, when you’re told. Wait to be told how to do things, don’t figure out things for yourself, and give the approved answer, not one you came up  with  yourself.”

It trains drones. It trains people who are meant to spend their adult lives under supervision, doing what they are told, when they are told, and giving their bosses the answers their bosses want.

Those people make fine wage slaves, yes, but they don’t make good citizens. They have been failed to be taught how to think for themselves. Even worse, they have been taught that if a thought of their own should come up, they should keep it to themselves.

Meanwhile, school interactions with peers are terrible. When we call something “high school” we mean horrible peer pressure bullshit. A few people remember high school fondly, but most people remember it as one of the worst times of their lives.

Wage slavery, and I use the term slavery very deliberately, is a terrible system if you want a democracy or a Republic. Mass production consumer societies, in which we choose from menus rather than creating anything ourselves, are terrible for democracies or Republics.

The ways we school people, the jobs most people work at, and the methods through which we distribute goods to people (through money gained by sitting down, shutting up, and doing what you are told) are antithetical to free, egalitarian societies. Only a crisis which forces people to think for themselves and where they have to be trusted for a while can briefly create people suited to political freedom.

But we can’t have world wars and depressions all the time, for what I assume are obvious reasons. So we stagger along, brief good periods sliding into shit periods, regularly.

Of course there is more to it than this, such as cycles of destruction of capital and labor and so on, but much of that is manageable–in theory. It isn’t manageable in practice, not because it couldn’t be done, but because our society–we, ourselves–don’t create the people who can do it.

Freedom, democracy, equality: these things are not compatible with how we order our economic affairs, how we raise our children, or how we condition our adults.

We will not reverse course, this cycle; that doesn’t happen and it won’t. It’s too late. But there is always another cycle. If we don’t want the next cycle to be as disastrous as this one, we must figure out a better way to run our economy, to educate our children, and to live as adults. A way suited to people fit to be free.

This doesn’t mean “work or starve” as many libertarian morons would think; it means allowing real choices to be made, which requires an absence of existential fear while still including consequences. It means teaching children to to be something other than “good workers.” It means jobs that aren’t “you’re a kneepad for the boss or you lose everything.” It means a power structure that does not concentrate wealth and power in the hands of a few and create a gate around access to the good life, which fosters outside of it a subservience born of the desperate knowledge that the good life comes from good jobs, which are in scarce supply.

All of this is do-able. In some sense, most of it isn’t even all that complicated. But that doesn’t mean any of it is easy, and it is hardest because we have been trained to exist in a poverty of imagination, an inability to imagine worlds that are much better than the one in which we live.

We have the technology. What we don’t have is the people. We aren’t the people who can run a good society (this is obvious, as we haven’t).

But as people, we can re-create ourselves and our descendants. Biology is only half destiny, the rest is in our hands.

So far, we’ve been acting like bacteria in a petri dish, rushing to destroy our environment through unchecked, stupid growth.

Let us hope we can prove ourselves wiser than that. Or, instead of us instructing ourselves, Nature will instruct, and her lessons will be harsh.


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82 Responses
  1. V. Arnold permalink
    March 20, 2017

    Ian, you constantly amaze.
    “Let us hope we can prove ourselves wiser than that. Or, instead of us instructing ourselves, Nature will instruct, and her lessons will be harsh.”
    Nature will rule in the end, but instruct?
    Never; we’re the classic example of following our meme (whatever the fuck it is) to our ultimate end.
    We’re so obviously a virus model; destroying its host…

  2. Tom permalink
    March 20, 2017

    Well punishing public corruption and white collar crime with the death penalty with no plea bargaining would be a start.

    Once we send a message the above two won’t be tolerated, we can focus on the rest.

  3. Herman permalink
    March 20, 2017

    The problem seems to be that without some sort of mass mobilization where large numbers of common people have a shared experience most folks will resort to selfish, small-minded politics. You mention the Napoleonic Wars and World War II resulting in better times for people and I think that is correct.

    I would even go back to Roman times and argue that the Marian army reforms that brought many poor Romans into the military eventually made the oligarchic republic impossible to maintain in the long run. Eventually concessions had to be made to Rome’s Italian allies (especially after the Social War) and to the soldiers generally in the form of colonies for veterans and other benefits. The senatorial elite was allowed to keep its wealth if it accepted the Principate and the concessions to the common people in the form of land, the grain dole and later programs like the alimenta (support for poor children in Italy).

    When people must work together for some goal it builds a culture of solidarity where people understand each other and can see why their neighbor’s prosperity is important to their own lives. Unfortunately today our society is very atomized. People are encouraged to see beneficial policies for some as an attack on their own livelihood. You see this in the wave of rural resentment toward urbanites, public sectors workers and unions that has helped the Republicans win so many elections. Unfortunately the Democrats continue to support complex means-tested reforms that help to fuel this resentment, Obamacare being a good example of this tendency.

  4. Will permalink
    March 20, 2017

    “History had brought forth a great moment but the moment found a mediocre people.” – Friedrich Schiller

    That quote has haunted me from the first time I heard it. You post, Ian, brought it to mind. History seems rife with mediocre people fumbling great moments. Perhaps the masons are right in their philosophy. Maybe the only path to true change occurs one man (or woman) at a time. And only then with hard work and discipline.

    Will

  5. V. Arnold permalink
    March 20, 2017

    Will
    March 20, 2017
    “History had brought forth a great moment but the moment found a mediocre people.” – Friedrich Schiller

    Will:
    Perfect. It describes our present.
    Thank you.

  6. March 20, 2017

    As a possible data point of hope: the school my children attend only superficially resembles the drone schools I myself attended forty years ago. My kids are learning quite a bit on independent thinking and how to discover and learn things on their own. Even discipline is handled differently, with a strong focus on helping kids focus rather than on punishing them for failing to do so. I have far more confidence in my son being a good citizen when he grows up than I am in myself learning new tricks as an old dog.

    It’s only a data point, and I know our school is not the national norm, but it’s a point nonetheless.

  7. nihil obstet permalink
    March 20, 2017

    An obstacle to developing the kind of people we want to be is that it happens necessarily from the ground up. A group of people not subject to discipline and command will always be defeated by an army acting on discipline and command. Thus, Occupy was rooted out by nationally coordinated police raids, and subsequently the social growth and experiments that Occupy was making possible were derided as silly hippy failure.

    Threats to the powers that be will be destroyed unless the system has gone south enough for a generational crisis.

  8. Willy permalink
    March 20, 2017

    I know most home schooling wingnuts will use such as a means to try and indoctrinate their children in the ways of readin’, rightin’, and godrithmatic. But the ones who make an honest effort to teach their kids to think for themselves, might need to be careful what they wish for. Those kids might become rational enough thinkers to find the truth in blogs such as this.

  9. peonista permalink
    March 20, 2017

    The home-school movement started with “hippy” back to the landers. When we had kids we continued with the hippy ethos of rejecting “the establishment” and began home-schooling, or un-schooling, as many of us preferred to call it. The religious home-schoolers came later. One of the few good things the religious home schoolers did was stop the authorities from harassing and prosecuting hippie home schoolers as they were more main stream. The conservatives stopped attacking the home schoolers once the religious people started to do it. Many of us went to the obscurity of rural areas to live our counter culture life styles and raised our kids in the heart of rural conservative America.
    Home schooling our kids fit with the hippie mantra “Question Authority”. I was not surprised to read that Edward Snowdon dropped out of hight school and got a GED.
    Maybe what we need is a resurgence of hippie culture

  10. Will permalink
    March 20, 2017

    V. Arnold: You are quite welcome. Always a pleasure to spread a little high brow doom on a monday morning. :p It is sobering though.

    It is rare for history to bring forth these types of transformational opportunities. The US has made its fair share of mistakes, but it has also grabbed more than its share of these moments and made things better. I have watched one of them completely ignored and another (probably) squandered in the last 10 years. How many chances does one nation get?

    Will

  11. BlizzardOfOz permalink
    March 20, 2017

    Ian: good article – worth reading, reflecting on and re-reading.

    The quote above of Schiller’s “On the aesthetical education of man” seems relevant – his idea was to educate the emotions to develop citizens worthy of republican government. Nor was Schiller uninfluential, as Wilhelm von Humboldt, an admirer, was a Prussian minister who undertook to reform its education system. All that good work, only to have Germany humiliate itself and finally be reduced to a vassal state within 100 years.

    I’m not sure what the moral is, other than “the best laid plans of mice and men…”. I do think the Enlightenment’s de-emphasizing Christianity was a hubristic mistake, because it effectively severed Europe from its roots, and left ordinary people without transcendental ideas. There was in Schiller’s time a successful republican state in the Americas, rooted in Christianity, short of Rome maybe the most successful example of republican government. But where Prussia was destroyed by losing 2 wars, the USA was seemingly destroyed by winning them. Where Lincoln and FDR saved the nation in the short term, the aftermath proved their critics right, as they had sown the seeds of its destruction.

    Is republicanism still a plausible idea? I wonder if men like Schiller would still want to abolish the nobility if they knew how the 19th and 20th centuries would unfold. Anyway, the west’s history is a gold mine of knowledge. We could maybe learn something from China with its durability that puts even the Romans to shame. With the evil empire gasping its last breath, we’re already seeming some green shoots of different ideas. Interesting times …

  12. BlizzardOfOz permalink
    March 20, 2017

    On transmitting knowledge specifically: my grandfather, while personally racist, tried *not* to pass that on to his children. Also, while not a practicing Christian himself, all 4 of his children became devout Christians. To me this suggests a deep confusion in that generation. They hardly knew themselves, what to pass on to the next generation.

    I think America vacated huge parts of its identity during the world wars and their aftermath. In proving to themselves that they were better than Hitler and Stalin, they went too far in the other direction. No, it’s not good to try and exterminate another race. That doesn’t mean it’s good to adulterate your own race or nation. As in Aristotle’s Ethics, virtue lies in between two opposite vices.

  13. Bill Hicks permalink
    March 20, 2017

    This theory makes a lot of sense, but in practice it doesn’t look like their is going to be a “next time.” The previous examples you cite happened in individual countries at a time when natural resources were still plentiful, the environment was not rapidly spinning out of control and the world was not massively overpopulated. Now we have all those things and a system that has become truly global. When it goes, billions will die, and I don’t see how that can happen without the survivors reverting to a pre-industrial state.

  14. Fox Blew permalink
    March 20, 2017

    Ian. Your posts have been gaining momentum over the last couple of years. I thank you so much for your brutal common sense. Wonderful! You are the Paul Goodman of our generation.

  15. bruce wilder permalink
    March 20, 2017

    There’s a lot to be said for bureaucracy and for the efficient use of legitimate authority. There’s a lot to be said for good followers. Much of what made the modern world infinitely superior to what went before rested on the ability to formulate a rational policy in administrative terms and implement it in a regime of effective social control.

    Much of what manifests as failure is the breakdown of effective bureaucracy and authority.

    The most pathological ideologies are pathological precisely because they cannot handle hierarchical authority on its merits. Libertarians, of the right or left (remember them, thank you Stalin), are notorious for their bouncing back and forth between denying any authority is necessary and insisting that authority should be unconstrained and unquestioned.

    I am not as worried about the effects on society of rote learning (I use the order of the alphabet, which I learned by singing in kindergarten, every day, several times a day) than I am about the absence of professional ethics in business schools and law schools.

    It is the credentialed, ambitious, self-satisfied upper-middle-manager, who outsourced your job to India and the Harvard professor who elaborated policy analysis so Obamacare could be as complicated as humanly possible — these are the people I think are destroying civilization, while voting for Hillary Clinton. ymmv

  16. sidd permalink
    March 20, 2017

    ” … the Americans take it over and run it basically well up until the early 70s …”

    Perhaps if you were in the West, the world improved. If you name was Lumumba or Mossadegh, not so much.

  17. highrpm permalink
    March 20, 2017

    no mention of the effects of the less than 100 year old independent variable hollyworld and its mass entertainment products on this society. whatever they are, they’re not negligible. and they’re not on sum beneficial.

    I’d go so far as to propose a tweak on an old quote, t.v. the opiate of the masses.

  18. markfromireland permalink
    March 20, 2017

    The sub-macho posturing above would be funny were it not so pathetic. Let me guess – the condemned will be bitch slapped to death.

    Here, have a nice glass of grow the fuck up.

  19. realitychecker permalink
    March 20, 2017

    We were originally “designed” to live in groups of 50-100.

    Think about it.

  20. Synoia permalink
    March 20, 2017

    After the Napoleonic Wars, the survivors make Europe more or less work. They get a good long run out of it, a surprisingly long one, but it goes south starting around 1870, and blows with WWII.

    What? Death or Transportation, Corn laws, Enclosure Act, Sidney St Riot, and Dickens’ London spring to mind.

    That’s working? For whom?

  21. bruce wilder permalink
    March 20, 2017

    We got past the 50 to 100 limit at least 10,000 years ago. Even before the shift to agriculture allowed sedentary settlements larger than that, we probably managed widely dispersed trade nets and clan structures spread over vast areas, with occasional gatherings of many hundreds or thousands.

    Our distinctive adaptations, from at least 75,000 years ago, have scaled. Tool use scales, with both the crafts of making tools and using tools. Language and communication scales. Storytelling and science scale. Few of the characteristics that have allowed humans to survive are really of much use to a group of 100 or less in true isolation: knowledge could not be developed, applied or reproduced thru generations.

    The social problem is that we are not ants or bees: obedient, selfless. We resist and there is always much to resist in both the collective and the hierarchical.

    We cooperate, and sometimes great things are accomplished. But, then we turn around and propagate cruelty and superstition. We suspect and resent; the same human instincts drive great loyalty and great betrayal. We are big cheaters and slackers. We are skeptics and believers. Both our willingness to question and our willingness to believe have gotten humans into great trouble as well as found solutions to great problems. And, then allowed vast societies to founder, most of their populations more or less helplessly miserable for centuries.

    The big problem, as Ian identifies it, is reproducing effective leadership. Just by chance, effective leadership may arise in response to a challenge to a society already functioning fairly well, and that leadership may succeed by means of improving the functioning of society, but subsequent generations will have not the challenge to cope with, but other opportunities, including the opportunity to turn parasite or drone. The social system initially set up will be gamed from above and from below.

    I think scale plays a bigger role than we usually give it credit for. Scale and surplus enable the artisanal and scientific problem solving that make a political economy dynamic and prosperous. Exhausting the surplus deflates the potential for that “urban” activity. This is why the rise of civilizations are so often associated with an agricultural revolution and the fall or stagnation with a exhaustion of surplus in depletion, congestion, pollution or climate change.

    It is not just that people have difficulty reproducing competent leadership, but the systems they set up tend to create problems as they scale, which outrun the cultural capacity to invent new systems of solutions.

    The Chinese invented a fantastically productive rice agriculture that fed an urban civilisation on a vast scale, which in turn invented many things in a short period, but eventually overpopulation on the farm choked off much of the surplus, and an oppressive system of extraction was introduced to sustain the cities, miring both city and countryside in poverty and stagnation.

    The ancient Greeks emerged from their Dark Age with a remarkably productive agriculture complemented by trade and a population explosion carried their city-state model through the Mediterranean. The Romans added some improvements to engineer urban life. But, it all ended in agricultural exhaustion, declining trade, depopulation.

    We are not meeting the challenges of overpopulation and the depletion of resources. We at least have inkling of what the problems are that we are not solving. But, it would be strange indeed if we had answers for problems of scale only realized in the last century of human existence.

  22. bruce wilder permalink
    March 20, 2017

    We got past the 50 to 100 limit at least 10,000 years ago. Even before the shift to agriculture allowed sedentary settlements larger than that, we probably managed widely dispersed trade nets and clan structures spread over vast areas, with occasional gatherings of many hundreds or thousands.

    Our distinctive adaptations, from at least 75,000 years ago, have scaled. Tool use scales, with both the crafts of making tools and using tools. Language and communication scales. Storytelling and science scale. Few of the characteristics that have allowed humans to survive are really of much use to a group of 100 or less in true isolation: knowledge could not be developed, applied or reproduced thru generations.

    The social problem is that we are not ants or bees: obedient, selfless. We resist and there is always much to resist in both the collective and the hierarchical.

    We cooperate, and sometimes great things are accomplished. But, then we turn around and propagate cruelty and superstition. We suspect and resent; the same human instincts drive great loyalty and great betrayal. We are big cheaters and slackers. We are skeptics and believers. Both our willingness to question and our willingness to believe have gotten humans into great trouble as well as found solutions to great problems. And, then allowed vast societies to founder, most of their populations more or less helplessly miserable for centuries.

    The big problem, as Ian identifies it, is reproducing effective leadership. Just by chance, effective leadership may arise in response to a challenge to a society already functioning fairly well, and that leadership may succeed by means of improving the functioning of society, but subsequent generations will have not the challenge to cope with, but other opportunities, including the opportunity to turn parasite or drone. The social system initially set up will be gamed from above and from below.

    I think scale plays a bigger role than we usually give it credit for. Scale and surplus enable the artisanal and scientific problem solving that make a political economy dynamic and prosperous. Exhausting the surplus deflates the potential for that \”urban\” activity. This is why the rise of civilizations are so often associated with an agricultural revolution and the fall or stagnation with a exhaustion of surplus in depletion, congestion, pollution or climate change.

    It is not just that people have difficulty reproducing competent leadership, but the systems they set up tend to create problems as they scale, which outrun the cultural capacity to invent new systems of solutions.

    The Chinese invented a fantastically productive rice agriculture that fed an urban civilisation on a vast scale, which in turn invented many things in a short period, but eventually overpopulation on the farm choked off much of the surplus, and an oppressive system of extraction was introduced to sustain the cities, miring both city and countryside in poverty and stagnation.

    The ancient Greeks emerged from their Dark Age with a remarkably productive agriculture complemented by trade and a population explosion carried their city-state model through the Mediterranean. The Romans added some improvements to engineer urban life. But, it all ended in agricultural exhaustion, declining trade, depopulation.

    We are not meeting the challenges of overpopulation and the depletion of resources. We at least have inkling of what the problems are that we are not solving. But, it would be strange indeed if we had answers for problems of scale only realized in the last century of human existence.

  23. Hugh permalink
    March 20, 2017

    We have always had rich and elites. The scales have always been tilted in their favor, but about 40 years ago this ceased to be enough for them and they, like the rest of the world, moved on into full-blown kleptocracy. Instead of skimming they looted. Instead of taking some of the fat, they blew straight through that, through the muscle and sinew too. Now they are into the bone, grinding it up, and selling it for fertilizer.

    So my first advice is not to have rich and elites. All citizens should have the basics for a decent life: decent housing, healthy food, accessible healthcare, good free education, a job that pays a living wage, and a retirement without fear. If all citizens have this, how much more does any one individual need? If you want to have some degree of inequality, that’s fine, but have a clear limit on how much is too much and tie that inequality to some useful contribution to society. And stop making wealth (the rich) and privilege (the elites) hereditary.

    My second is pay attention to agency. The rich and elites duck responsibility for their actions by invoking impersonal processes. It’s globalization. It’s the markets. It’s the invisible hand. It’s inflation. It’s the budget. It’s the deficit. It’s the business cycle. It’s unavoidable dislocations. It’s bubbles that can neither be foreseen nor pre-empted. It can’t be stopped. It’s creative destruction. It’s TINA. What it is is them and what they are doing to us.

    My third is that we were sold a consumer society. Now that is being taken away with the death of the middle class. What we need, and ahve always needed, is a citizen society. Both economics and politics are dead easy. They are made hard to disempower us. As I have said so many times, have a clear idea of the society you want to live in not just for the people like you but the people not like you, the kind of society you want if you were a minority in it, because we all are a minority one way or another. Do this and you have a ready measure to evaluate those you entrust to run your society.

  24. March 21, 2017

    Never lived the Crimea War… good idea in theory, but it does not work in practice.

  25. March 21, 2017

    Ian, you are a pessimist! I am an optimist. Do we still live in caves with a lifespan of 30? No. Like the stock market there are ups and downs along the way but the long term trend is up. And it is precisely because people can think for themselves that they voted for Brexit and Trump. Of course it remains to be seen if either can deliver, but that’s another matter.

    Global population is now expected to peak at under 11 billion before the end of this century. Food poverty is expected to be a thing of the past by 2030. You forget how awful things were in the past because they weren’t reported. Life was cheap and expendable and conquest was glorious. People used to do indescribable things to each other and think nothing of it. In poor parts of the world they still do, but at least most of us now have a say and can object.

    I think you’ll find we as a species survive. Pity we as individuals won’t be around by then, but I am quite enjoying the present!

  26. Hugh permalink
    March 21, 2017

    Shorter John: Sparkle ponies for everyone.

  27. The Stephen Miller Band permalink
    March 21, 2017

    Ah yes, JP, look how far we’ve come. This sure as hell beats living in caves, doesn’t it? Obama bin Laden lived in a cave once upon a time, didn’t he? With his dialysis machine in tow? It was better fortification than any manmade bunker since it took more than a decade to hunt him down, kill him and feed him to the sharks. Don’t knock caves. It’s an insult to spelunkers everywhere.

    We a need a sequel to this excellent documentary. I think the human species, unlike ants & bees, acts both individually and as a superorganism like an ant colony or bee colony. We are terraforming the planet in ways our progenitor, nature itself, could never have conceived or intended. We have become death, the destroyer of worlds — and nature.

    And JP, what do you call cutting Meals on Wheels (and so much else to those with no voice or influence) if not austerity? Or is your notion that austerity is not necessary intended to mean austerity is not necessary for The Rich (your former clients) but it’s a mandatory requirement for the increasingly impoverished (people you have no time or use for since you cannot make money off of them)?

    Pruit Igoe

  28. V. Arnold permalink
    March 21, 2017

    John Poynton = Pollyana

    The U.S. is visiting untoward violence on 6 countries; killing scores of civilians daily.
    The real unemployment rate in the U.S. exceeds 25% (which matches the Great Depression).
    Militarized police are killing record numbers of African Americans (unarmed for the most part).
    Constitutional violations against U.S. citizens go unchecked on a daily basis.
    The incarceration of U.S. citizens is the world’s largest per capita, exceeded by no other country.
    So, you pompous jerk, enjoy your oblivious-ness style of life…

  29. The Stephen Miller Band permalink
    March 21, 2017

    And the voice said unto thee and them, hear me when I sayeth, come forth out of your caves and transform this chaotic paradise into a monument of your undying love for me. Prepare it so that I, the opposite of our enemy nature, may one day come again and be with you, my children, forever and ever, amen.

    Cave Free — Look What’s Inside Of Me

  30. Paul permalink
    March 21, 2017

    Global, I assume, food poverty a thing of the past in less than thirteen years!
    John, engage your mind for a little while (longer than it takes to read a news headline) and ponder the details involved in this statement.
    You should soon realise how ridiculous the statement sounds.

    By the way, glad to hear that you’re having a ball.

  31. realitychecker permalink
    March 21, 2017

    @ Bruce Wilder

    “realitychecker permalink
    March 20, 2017

    We were originally “designed” to live in groups of 50-100.

    Think about it.”

    “bruce wilder permalink
    March 20, 2017

    We got past the 50 to 100 limit at least 10,000 years ago.”

    I regard you to be one of the more intelligent commenters here, so no disrespect intended, but I think you completely missed my point, and that you did not heed my admonition to “Think about it.”

    You focused on technological and scientific advances, which can happen very quickly, but I was trying to point out that psychological changes occur very slowly, and that rapid change breaks down the simple original response patterns in many ways that are inefficient and destructive.

    Our species has only been around for about 100,000 years. I don’t think our basic emotional machinery has changed very much at all in that time. That is the aspect that I was asking readers to think about.

    Your argument on this proves too much, IMO. Just consider the incredible changes that tech advances have wrought in the last 25 years alone. Do you really think it reasonable to consider that we have already evolved psychologically to where we can make sense of a world where we are constantly staring at cell phone screens?

    Now, extend your thought process to consider the grand sweep of our history. We are so far from the situation we evolved to survive and succeed in as a healthy species. That is what I was asking readers to think about.

  32. March 21, 2017

    John Poynton is not Pollyanna. He is UKIP.

  33. Willy permalink
    March 21, 2017

    As a designated representative of the lowbrow clan, I’d say John Poynton is Chip Diller. Be cool if he’d come back to describe the circumstances behind all the optimism. Not the perceptions, but where he’s coming from personally.

  34. someofparts permalink
    March 21, 2017

    If you thought training people to be consumer drones was bad, just wait. Plans are afoot to make things much worse. http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/features/trump-education-secretary-betsy-devos-a-win-for-the-christian-right-w470605

    “The goal is a sweeping overhaul of society and a merging of church and state: elevating private charity over state-run social services, returning prayer to school and turning the clock back on women’s and LGBTQ rights. It would also be a system without a progressive income tax, collective bargaining, environmental regulation, publicly funded health care, welfare, a minimum wage – a United States guided by a rigorously laissez-faire system of “values” rather than laws.”

  35. nihil obstet permalink
    March 21, 2017

    Since the post is titled “The Basic Psychological Structure of Our Society Does Not Work”, maybe it’s time we noticed that the developed world appears to suffer more mental illness than the developing world. The one area I know of where the evidence is very clear is schizophrenia, where people in the developing world are less likely to suffer it to begin with and show much better outcomes when treated. This does appear to speak to the problems with the psychological structure of the developed world.

  36. S Brennan permalink
    March 21, 2017

    Will offered this comment:

    “History had brought forth a great moment but the moment found a mediocre people.” – Friedrich Schiller

    And my mind went back to 2008-9 and how Obama took an FDR moment and made sure that no social reform occurred. Someday the great evil Obama perpetrated will be understood fully, but for now, his acolytes rule our Orwellian world.

  37. Tony Wikrent permalink
    March 21, 2017

    V. Arnold is correct, but J. Poynton is also correct. The technology exists to eliminate hunger worldwide and provide 11 billion people adequate shelter, clothing, water, energy, education, and medical care. The technology exists; it does not need to be developed. Obviously, we’re not using it.

    Even providing all this for 11 billion people on a sustainable basis is possible. Making it sustainable is merely an engineering problem. The kicker is: elites are NOT willing to pay the extra cost it takes to do the engineering. Cheap production in China or Mexico or Bangladesh is partly cheaper labor, but the even bigger cost differential is simply ignoring environmental costs, and worker safety.

    A handful of countries, notably the Scandinavian countries, and Germany, have shown how to do this in large part, including legally mandated “design for disassembly.”

    So, it’s not an engineering problem. It’s a problem of political economy. We have to eliminate elites who want to maximize profits. The overriding goal of economic activity has to become doing it sustainably. So industries require a lot of redesign and reengineering, which means significant increases in end product price. In an economy of equitably distributed income and wealth, this is not a problem. I look at it this way: if USA working family wages had increased annually since Reagan by the same percentage they had increased before Reagan (and since the end of World War 2), average family income would be about double what it is now. That, in turn, would have meant much, much larger sales for Toyota Prius, Chevy Volts and even Teslas. Especially if sumptuary taxes on fuel inefficient cars were imposed. That the bright MBAs running the car companies do not see this is proof of what Veblen termed “trained incapacity.”

    Wall Street has to be curbed. Hedge funds and private equity firms must be eliminated. And I mean eliminated — wiped off the face of the planet. Mass incarceration of MOUs, financial whiz kids and profit maximizing MBAs is going to become the order of the day once some climate related calamity kills a million or so people. It’s just a matter of time.

  38. March 21, 2017

    The problem is lots of poor people want a free ride, and rich say “Just kick of some of the other poor people.” And watch the fun.

  39. Steeleweed permalink
    March 21, 2017

    Production of food, healthcare, housing, education, etc for everyone in the world is indeed possible, at least for the time being. The problem that it is not always profitable for those who control the production and distribution of goods and services. As long as societies operate on a for-profit basis, – e.g. capitalism and greed – things won’t change by human direction and action. They will change when global warming disrupts the production of vital goods and modern life styles – and produces political and social chaos and disaster.

    I grew up in a small town – cattle, mining, timber. Worked on ranches throughout my youth, without electricity or indoor plumbing. We grew most of our food except for a few basics like flour, sugar, salt and coffee. I know what it takes to survive in a post-industrial, post-consumerist world and I know I have but a fraction of the necessary skills. My kids have no skills at all and my Millennial grandchildren don’t know such skills existe. You think my great-grandchildren have any chance of a good life with we blow through 4°C warming and possibly 6 or 8°?

    In addition to raising thoroughbred horses, Don Henry Ford Jr raises his own food. He and Leah freeze it, can it, make cheese, etc. He remarked, “I have way too much, as long as the trucks keep running. If the trucks stop running, I don’t have anywhere near enough.” He knows what it takes, he has and does what it takes – and he’s worried.

    History is often seen as cyclical, and while I’m not a fan of “End of History”, previous cycles have simply been reruns of the same script, with different characters and scenery. They have never had to contend with a world that may become largely uninhabitable. The “end of history” may arrive, just not the way the social philosophers envision it.

    I have a great faith in the ingenuity of humans and it’s quite possible, even likely, that some will survive. But billions won’t, and those who do survive won’t have the luxury of history, science, technology, or any knowledge beyond what it takes to ensure their next meal.

    Tip O’Neill used to say “All politics is local”. IMO he wasn’t talking abut grassroots organization. He was talking about person-to-person communication and relationships. When we got too big to know those who affect us and whom we affect, things went downhill.

    What I find unutterably sad is the huge gap between what America, the world, humanity could have done & become and what we have done and become, whether that gap is in politics, economics, or society. Nice try, Mother Nature, but we’re a failed experiment. Time to reset and start all over.

  40. Arthur permalink
    March 21, 2017

    Two quick comments. First to Tony Wikrent: There is no way 11 billion people can live comfortably on this planet. You remind of a teacher I had fifty years ago at Raster Public School in Chicago, Illinois. This gentleman used to look at a map of the United States and say over population is nonsense. Why just look at all the empty space out west. Maybe he was using satire. Could be he was just making fun of moron kids of blue collar workers from the southside. Anyway, I haven’t thought about that guy till I read Wikrent’s nonsense.

    Point two for Some of Parts: Don’t worry too much about what the crazy right wants to do. Please don’t misunderstand. You are correct in stating the world they would like to create. It’s just that if they ever do (and I don’t doubt the pain it would cause) in reality it would only hasten the demise of an already crumbling empire.

    Take care, all.

  41. Tony Wikrent permalink
    March 21, 2017

    Arthur writes “There is no way 11 billion people can live comfortably on this planet.”

    Sir, you may believe that now, but I seek leave to inform you that overpopulation has been the smokescreen financial and economic predators have hidden behind for centuries. Here is the greatest USA economist of the nineteenth century, Henry Carey, writing in 1851 about British economic thinking and policies, including “free trade,”:

    “We thus have here, first, a system that is unsound and unnatural, and second, a theory invented for the purpose of accounting for the poverty and wretchedness which are its necessary results. The miseries of Ireland are charged to over-population, although millions of acres of the richest soils of the kingdom are waiting drainage to take their place among the most productive in the world, and although the Irish are compelled to waste more labour than would pay, many times over, for all the cloth and iron they consume. The wretchedness of Scotland is charged to over-population when a large portion of the land is so tied up by entails as to forbid improvement, and almost forbid cultivation. The difficulty of obtaining food in England is ascribed to over-population, when throughout the kingdom a large portion of the land is occupied as pleasure grounds, by men whose fortunes are due to the system which has ruined Ireland and India. Over-population is the ready excuse for all the evils of a vicious system, and so will it continue to be until that system shall see its end… (The Harmony of Interests, pp. 64-65) ”

    http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/documents/1851-1875/the-harmony-of-interests/v—why-is-it-that-protection-is-required.php

    My worry is that beliefs such as yours prevent otherwise well-intended people (may I assume you are one?) from 1) identifying who the real problem is and 2) also prevent them from being effective in actually doing some good in this world during their brief sojourn here.

  42. March 22, 2017

    Hugh: “We have always had rich and elites. The scales have always been tilted in their favor, but about 40 years ago this ceased to be enough for them and they, like the rest of the world, moved on into full-blown kleptocracy. Instead of skimming they looted.”

    Not that much more than 40 years ago, Nixon took the u.s. dollar off the gold standard for international settlements and placed us on full-blown fiat. That has been a huge tool for the looters. When you can create money as you please, you can leverage that to push around the markets to your will as well as create systems by incentivizing behavior. Not to mention it being used to bail their asses out when they start losing the game they created.

    Z

  43. tony permalink
    March 22, 2017

    Around here people deeply care about educating the kids. As far as I’m concerned, it’s still a bunch of obedience training. However, when I speak with white Americans, it’s often ‘their children’ and the americans have little interest in investing resources in competing groups.

  44. V. Arnold permalink
    March 22, 2017

    tony
    March 22, 2017
    As far as I’m concerned, it’s still a bunch of obedience training.

    Agree; it always has been. I would never allow a child of mine to set one foot in any school in the U.S.. Home schooling is the only option, IMO.
    A must read is John Taylor Gatto’s; The Underground History of American Education
    A mind blowing revelation regarding forced education and the infantilization of America’s children.
    Here’s a link to a free audio version of the book;
    http://www.unwelcomeguests.net/The_Underground_History_of_American_Education

  45. highrpm permalink
    March 22, 2017

    @willy,

    waxing a bit religious, with your excessive use of emo-triggering terminology,
    home schooling wingnuts ….indoctrinate their children in the ways of readin’, rightin’, and godrithmatic. … find the truth ….

    you’d benefit from using some mindfulness techniques and deep – breathing to avoid falling into the judgmental habits of the religionists. and the liberals hyperventilate on their beliefs just as much as the traditionalists.

  46. Willy permalink
    March 22, 2017

    highrpm,

    If you’re saying that the dogmatic wingnut sees the truth as well as Ian does, what are you doing here?

  47. Arthur permalink
    March 22, 2017

    Mr. Wikrent, you are quite correct to state our present system is terrible. You will get no argument from me on that score. But are you suggesting that we engineer every piece of useable land for humans? I for one do not want to live in a world were everything in nature is gone and nothing remains but concrete and glass. On that score things are bad enough already.

  48. realitychecker permalink
    March 22, 2017

    @ Arthur

    As you have implicitly recognized, some people have absolutely no appreciation for the concept of “enoughness.”

    Which is why we are probably doomed as a species, and will probably take most of the other higher species down with us.

  49. bruce wilder permalink
    March 22, 2017

    replying to realitychecker

    re: human evolution

    I don’t think we know much of anything about the genetic foundations of behavior or human social psychology, which invites people (absolutely not accusing you of this at all) to project their prejudices into the void. A certain sort of reactionary conservatism, in particular, likes to imagine that social change is driven by genetics in a simplistic, one-to-one way that denies social responsibility or the effects of institutions. This can be simple racialism: the racist assertion that African-Americans are dumber and more violent. The historian Gregory Clark has argued an interpretation of English economic history that features the higher reproductive rates of the upper middle classes as an explanation for the decline in civil violence. The field of evolutionary psychology is full of people who think they are making serious arguments (and are mostly wrong in their assertions and in their conceits concerning their own capacity to reason).

    Never mind rates of technical change, the sheer plasticity of human culture is amazing. The variety of cultures and languages is fantastic and the rates of cultural change can be amazing as well. In the last century or two, the change in the cultural regime of sexual categories and control is pretty amazing across the Western world. I don’t see how people can posit a short or straight path from alleged genes to particular forms of institutionalized behavior, but they do.

    I participated a few weeks ago on Crooked Timber in a discussion of evopsychology, where one of the evopsych assertions was something along the lines of taboos on incest are nearly universal, therefore taboos on incest have an evolved genetic basis. It is kind of crazy stupid put plainly like that. A reasonable person would draw the arrow of causality in the opposite direction: if a cultural prohibition like that is nearly universal, it must be substituting for the absence of a genetic barrier. Human sexuality has evolved in a way that makes child abuse and incest serious problems to which we must have cultural remedies. Taboo probably has some genetic foundation in our emotional psychology, but what we make taboo, not so much. And, in this case, if there were a genetic foundation inhibiting incest, we wouldn’t need culture to make the behavior taboo. Ditto for child sexual abuse. Neoteny has driven so much of human evolution that it is almost inevitable that that is a weakness in human psychology.

    That’s a long and winding way of saying that I don’t think human evolution reached stasis or stopped 50,000 years ago. The advantages of intelligent social cooperation in technology, imho, have put a lot of pressure on human social behavior to scale up, because the advantages of technology scale up. That pressure has been present and increasingly intense for tens of thousands of years, which is plenty long enough to induce significant changes in the genetic pool. (Compare adult lactose tolerance.)

    If I think about language in Australia and how fractured the aboriginals were, linguistically, then your 150 number doesn’t look so bad. But, how many speakers of English, Chinese, Spanish are there? How important is shared language to the functioning of the economic system and the ability of individuals to reproduce? Language scales and puts pressure on society to scale and that pressure has existed for a long time, though it has gotten more intense as modernity has spread.

    That doesn’t mean that humans are ready to manage societies numbering billions, even if the earth’s resources could permit such a thing. I think Ian may be right that humans are ill-equipped by their social psychology to manage economic hierarchy. Dominance-submission, in-group, out-group stuff is socially hazardous, given to pathology.

  50. highrpm permalink
    March 22, 2017

    @willy,

    I don’t see myself as a dogmatic wingnut and I like and benefit from how Ian expresses his views of issues.

    and I think your labeling of homeschoolers tends to religious expressionism a bit too much.

    as other’s express disgust with public education, similar to Ian, and as one commenter put it, deeply care about educating the kids, home schooling may be a reasonable option. and, no, it’s not owned by the wingnutters.

  51. BlizzardOfOz permalink
    March 22, 2017

    @Z – progressives are congenitally unable to see this kind of problem. They always see themselves as rightfully and imminently in power, so why would they want to put limits on power?

    But it’s hard not to see the credit expansion’s fingerprints on a range of contemporary evils. Behold this hyper-intelligent progressive tackling the problem of cost disease. He hems and haws for 10,000 words and concludes: “What’s happening? I don’t know and I find it really scary”. Von Mises and the Austrian school, who may be said to have predicted exactly this problem, does not score a mention there.

    This is an issue that deserves a lot more scrutiny, and so of course our famously free press and tenured academics will not touch it.

  52. Willy permalink
    March 22, 2017

    highrpm,

    Somehow, I think “most home schooling wingnuts” got mistranslated to mean “home schoolers are mostly wingnuts”. I try to stay pithy around here. But maybe I’m coming to understand the why behind all the lengthy detailed comments. Very different from face to face interacting.

    The point was that people like Ian, who I believe to be mostly self-home-schooled (autodidactic in these matters – and a good observer) may become interesting to kids from wingnut families who are taught to use their freedom to be personally responsible when thinking for themselves. Happened to me.

  53. March 22, 2017

    Blizzard of Oz,

    Yep, instead of people being able to directly see that our rulers are stealing from them … and it being so obvious that their subjects can recognize and rally around it, and go after the folks that are looting them … now it’s a slight of the hand behind a curtain. It makes accountability a lot more nebulous when it’s part of a system, a system of soft tyranny that our rulers try to sell to us as being damn near organic, as if it just sprang up out of the ground on one fine April morning and coincidentally bequeathed to them a huge amount of power over us.

    It’s a robbery/murder weapon with no fingerprints on it.

    It ought to require a hundred thousand armed troops to protect that deplorable institution from the people.

    Z

  54. March 22, 2017

    The federal reserve, that is.

    Z

  55. Tony Wikrent permalink
    March 22, 2017

    Arthur asks: “But are you suggesting that we engineer every piece of usable land for humans?” Well, what do you mean by “usable land”? Every square millimeter of land is usable in some way or another I would think. So, my answer is not to engineer every square millimeter of land. Can we determine what is “sustainably usable” land? I think we can. But, I have no doubt that there is much land that is “sustainably usable” that is also the host of some geological or environmental wonders and treasures. I believe we can also preserve those.

    But the way you phrased your question caused me to think of something that is rarely discussed: aesthetics. I currently live in North Carolina. I generally detest the place. A couple years ago, I figured out why. The boom years of the state were in the 1960s through 1990s – the development of the sunbelt. And the architecture of that period is plain ugly. I realized this after returning from a trip in New England. Most urban areas in USA are similarly ugly. But the old downtowns, where they have been preserved, are actually quite pleasant. Because of the architecture, which embodies classical proportions. I believe that most people would be generally much happier if they spent their waking hours walking around someplace as beautiful as the Left Bank of Paris, or the old town of Montreal. Or even Greenwich Village in NYC.

    It’s interesting to read about the City Beautiful movement
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/City_Beautiful_movement
    and the efforts of such designers as Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmstead. If they had not done what they did over a century ago, most USA cities would be irredeemable hellholes today.

    James Howard Kunstler is completely on target in his critique of modern architecture and city planning. We need to redesign and rebuild most of our urban areas to be beautiful and livable, at the same time that we make them carbon neutral. Again, the engineering exists to do all this. But elites are not willing to expend resources on anything that they cannot get their cut from.

    Someone brought up the notion of “enoughness.” That’s very enlightened for someone in a Western industrialized country. But I do not see how attempting to apply it to developing areas meets the standard of the Golden Rule.

  56. Peter permalink
    March 22, 2017

    @Tony

    As the world adds about 4 billion new people they will be housed in Chinese type massive concrete apartment blocks in new cities full of those apartment blocks. Most of the arable land in the world will need to be intensely farmed but there will still be wilder places and preserves. Mega cities and mega farms are what will be required but the affluent will always have the choice of beautiful and livable areas that the masses can only view as they are bussed from sweatshops to their flops.

    The carbon released by this build-out will be enormous so any carbon neutral enclaves will be Green Potemkin Villages.

  57. Hugh permalink
    March 22, 2017

    The US uses about 25% of the world’s energy and has a little less than 5% of its population. Its current population is around 328 million. At energy consumption levels comparable to current US energy levels, a population of 11 billion would require 33 times the energy the US currently uses. Even if we were optimistic and factored in an unlikely 50% reduction in overall energy usage due to increased efficiencies and technological breakthroughs, this would still be 16 1/2 times current usage. At current population levels, we are already seeing global climate change, political and social instability, resource overuse and exhaustion, and habitat and species loss. Now increase the current world population by 50% and gear up its energy usage levels to US levels, and you see that the math doesn’t add up now for a happy ever after ending and will even less with these increased burdens.

    As I keep saying: never bet against the math. The far greater likelihood is that world population will hit a ceiling around 2050 and crash thereafter. By 2100, we won’t be seeing a world population of 11 billion, but more like one billion, 3 billion if we are extremely lucky.

  58. Tom W Harris permalink
    March 22, 2017

    Frankly, Scarlett, I’ll be dead by then.

  59. Tony Wikrent permalink
    March 23, 2017

    Peter and Hugh: Yes, of course: It is far easier to let six billion people die than it is to stop 100,000 psychopathic financiers and CEOs. It’s all just nature taking its course. Nothing to see here, just nature at work, move along, move along.

  60. Cleanslate permalink
    March 23, 2017

    The ending of food poverty by the end of the century is magical thinking that flies in the face of the impact that rising global average temperatures will have on crop yields. There are no technological wonders that can overcome this.

    Unfortunately, under the slowest warming scenario of a 2.4 degree Celsius rise in global average temperature by the end of the century crops yields will decrease by 30 to 46%. This is because crops have a large negative sensitivity to daytime temperature of 30 degrees Celsius (86 F) throughout the growing season. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HtZx2vGrh4Y&t=758s

    As James Lovelock predicted, climate change will go through a transition phase of extreme vacillating weather events (droughts, floods and severe storms) until a new stable climate is reached. That stable climate will be reached when global average temperate is at 4,6 or even 8 to 10 degrees Celsius. What this bodes for food production and the health of the oceans is nothing short of catastrophic.

  61. VietnamVet permalink
    March 23, 2017

    The question is distribution of resources. How to maintain stable populations living in healthy and safe environments. Clearly the neo-liberal-con system put in place by the Reagan – Thatcher Counter-Coup is a failure. Austerity and the influx of refugees is destabilizing the West. The new Cold War with Russia and climate change could destroy mankind. There are alternatives; Peace, Cooperation, Social Democracy, Public Education and the Rule of Law. I remember once when life was getting better. Not now. The tragedy is mankind’s innate need for green pastures seized from others.

  62. Hugh permalink
    March 23, 2017

    Tony, we aren’t “letting” anything. We are explaining the math to you. Our planet can sustainably maintain at current technological levels between one and two, and no more than three billion people. At 7.5 billion and with our world’s current degree of cultural, religious, and political divisions, weak social institutions, and kleptocratic ruling classes, we are well past the point of being able to manage our populations down. This is even more baked in given that the topic of overpopulation remains off the table essentially everywhere. So these populations will crash. As I have written before, Africa minus South Africa, the Middle East, South and Central Asia, and Central America are already gone. South America and South Africa are toss ups. China, the Far East, Europe and Russia, and the US are the only areas that still have a better than even chance of weathering the storm, –but only at reduced population levels and with reasonable policies, such as reducing family sizes and essentially ending immigration.

  63. March 23, 2017

    >Frankly, Scarlett, I’ll be dead by then.

    7-word short story. Here is mine
    https://symbalitics.blogspot.com/2017/03/7-word-short-story.html

    Lesson:
    It takes a person with a considerable amount of intelligence to express the thoughts of the average person’s idea, succinctly.

  64. realitychecker permalink
    March 23, 2017

    @ bruce wilder

    I appreciate your thoughtful comment above (as usual), and share your appraisal of the soft sciences like psychology (my first area of serious study lol).

    Not willing to pen a treatise here, so please try to share my mindset for a moment–when the data isn’t very good, I retreat to fundamentals that can be trusted.

    Those fundamentals I am focusing on here (based on my readings in anthropology and related areas) are one, that we evolved to live in groups of 50-100 persons, and two, that in our natural state, we were able to secure our food and shelter needs in just a few hours per day, and spent the rest of our time in sleep and social interaction including play and sex.

    I posit that as we departed from that state, we stretched our capacity for adaptation and stress management. We accepted many substitutes for what used to be natural gratifications. The substitutes are never as good as the original gratifications. Increased stress is the natural result of all those departures.

    We are, as you obviously agree, incredibly flexible in these areas, but everything has its limits, and I suggest that we are probably at or beyond our limits right now, and are awash in all the many dysfunctions that flow from these excesses. (Even if we have not yet exceeded our limits, I would submit that we are not limitless, and must be close to our limits by now, considering how far we have already stretched the rubber band.)

    I think I will leave it there, and trust that you can take my meaning.

    I marvel at the low value the modern “we” place on the concept of “enoughness” (sigh).

  65. Tony Wikrent permalink
    March 23, 2017

    In reply to Hugh:

    The “math” is not settled.

    http://iere.org/ILEA/leaf/richard2002.html

    I will try to paste the source code for the table, and hope it does not adversely affect Ian’s site.

    Human Carrying Capacity of Earth

    Gigi Richard

    Introduction

    The carrying capacity of an ecosystem is defined as the “maximum population size of a species that an area can support without reducing its ability to support the same species in the future”1 . Biological studies of population change typically demonstrate that once the carrying capacity of an ecosystem is exceeded, a severe crash or collapse of the population follows associated with rapid environmental degradation.2 An example of the “boom-bust” cycle of population growth is found on St. Matthew Island, Alaska, where 29 reindeer were initially introduced in 1944. The reindeer population grew to 6,000, depleted the resource base, and subsequently declined to fewer than 50 deer by 1964.3

    Though human population growth can demonstrate similar cycles,4 human population is also affected by more than just resource availability. We, as humans, are unique in our ability to modify the environment and to improve technology for food and energy production. These unique abilities combined with the inherent social nature of humans complicate the estimation of the human carrying capacity of the planet.

    According to the United Nations Population Fund’s (UNFPA) latest population report,5 the world population has doubled since 1960 to 6.1 billion people and is projected to increase to 9.3 billion by 2050. Along with the increase in number of people, there is an associated increase in the demand placed on the resources of the Earth. As human population increases at an unprecedented rate combined with the developed world’s reliance on non-renewable energy sources it becomes salient to look at how far the human population can continue to escalate while remaining supportable. Ecologists, economists and other scientists and policy makers from all over the world have attempted to estimate the human carrying capacity of the planet. The results vary dramatically depending on the methods used and the assumptions made. The variety of methods employed and assumptions made result in a broad range of estimates varying from as low as fewer than one billion people to as high as 1,000 billion6. This paper compiles numerous recent estimates of socially sustainable carrying capacity into a single compendium and investigates the estimates of carrying capacity resulting from methods utilizing energy consumption and production as a metric for estimation.

    Biophysical vs. Social Carrying Capacity

    The long-term sustainable carrying capacity for the human species on the Earth varies with resource availability as well as culture and level of economic development7. Two measures of human carrying capacity arise: the biophysical carrying capacity and the social carrying capacity. The biophysical carrying capacity is a maximum population that can be supported by the resources of the planet at a given level of technology. The social carrying capacity is the sustainable biophysical carrying capacity within a given social organization, including patterns of consumption and trade8. The social carrying capacity therefore must be less than the biophysical as it will account for quality of life and estimate the number of humans that can be sustainably supported at a given standard of living.

    Currently there exists an extreme dichotomy in the level of energy consumption between the US, other developed countries and undeveloped countries.9 The amount of energy consumed per person per year is a useful measure of standard of living.10 Per capita energy consumption is measured in kW/person and includes industrial uses, transportation, home heating and cooling, clothing, electronic entertainment, vacations, food production, etc.. Table 1 summarizes per capita energy consumption from the early 1990’s. The U.S. consumed an average of 12 times more energy per capita than developing nations.11 North American per capita energy use is more than twice that of Europeans, more than 10 times that of Asians and more than 20 times that of Africans.12

    In order to estimate a sustainable human population, a standard of living or level of consumption must be selected or assumed. At this point, the introduction of social issues becomes important. For instance very high global population could be supported at a very low level of food consumption, perhaps even on the brink of starvation. The result however could be a socially unstable situation. A socially sustainable carrying capacity must be based on a level of consumption that meets basic human needs of food, water and space as well as provides opportunity to enjoy socio-political rights, health, education and well-being.14 Another important aspect of social sustainability is equitable distribution of resources. Inequitable distribution of wealth can lead to social instability and disruption. As a result, some researchers propose that estimates of carrying capacity should include a downward adjustment for inevitable inequality resulting from human selfishness and short-sightedness.15

    Estimating Sustainable Carrying Capacity

    The basic resources of the planet, such as land, water, energy and biota are inherently limited.16 Selection of one or several of these limited resources as a metric for measuring the carrying capacity of the planet is a common method of estimating global human carrying capacity. The use of a single resource or combination of limited resources to estimate carrying capacity includes measuring how much of that resource is available globally. For instance, global wheat harvest can be estimated based on land area and water availability, then used to compute the number of humans that those quantities can support.

    Resource use must also be differentiated between renewable and nonrenewable resources (Table 2) for estimation of global carrying capacity. Renewable resources are driven primarily by solar energy and are regenerated through natural processes. Non-renewable resources are those with limited quantities and very low or no renewal rates. Long-term use of non-renewable resources is generally not sustainable. A socially sustainable global carrying capacity must be based on use of renewable resources, possibly supplemented by very low consumption of non-renewable resources.17

    Recent estimates by the World Energy Council18 suggests that one-third of the world’s oil reserves have been used and that the remainder will be significantly depleted by the end of the 21st century if current rates of consumption continue. Other studies19 suggest that declines in oil production will occur as early as 2010. Other non-renewable energy sources, such as coal and natural gas, will supplement as oil production potentially declines; however, these sources are also not sustainable over the long-term.
    Changes in available technology for energy and food production and distribution, and waste disposal also impact the resulting carrying capacity estimate. Sir Thomas Malthus, in his famous 1798 treatise on population growth, did not account for the advancements in fertilizing agricultural land leading to increased food production, which in turn allowed for greater population growth than he estimated. Some estimates of carrying capacity account for future improvement in technology, and other estimates presume that the level of technological development remains the same.

    Energy inputs

    Energy availability is a useful metric that can be used to estimate carrying capacity because it can account for many different resources. Energy from the sun is the driving force of the Earth’s ecosystems. Solar energy generates atmospheric processes that provide wind energy and freshwater. Plants, trees, food crops, and animals all require energy from the sun. The balance of energy consumption and production can be used to estimate the number of humans that the planet is capable of sustainably supporting. The total amount of energy input by the sun to the earth is finite and can be estimated. When that energy is divided up among the entire earth ecosystem, it is possible to estimate at a given level of consumption, how many humans can be supported on the earth. The resulting estimate is a sustainable number because it does not rely on non-renewable energy sources. Currently, about 50% of all solar energy captured by photosynthesis is used by humans. On its own, solar energy cannot support the present human population without supplementation by non-renewable energy sources, such as fossil fuels.20

    Land area

    Land area can be used in different ways to estimate carrying capacity, either as a metric for other resource uses or as a measure itself. The simplest way of using land area to compute carrying capacity is to presume a population density for a given area and compute the total number of people that the region can support. Another method, the ecological footprint concept, uses land area as a metric for a combination of other factors. Ecological footprint takes many different resource uses and measures them by the equivalent amount of land area required for their production. The ecological footprint describes how much land is necessary to support a given population in terms of energy, food, and other resources at a certain level of consumption. The result is that developed/rich countries with high levels of resource consumption have much larger footprints than they actually occupy.21

    Food production

    Estimates of carrying capacity using food as a metric determine the total amount of food that can be produced globally and divide by a standard level of food consumption per person. The result is a global population that can be supported at a given level of subsistence assuming that food is equitably distributed around the globe. More complex methods consider changes in crop yield with increased technology, food distribution, varied world diets, and other resource supply, such as fossil fuels.

    Recent carrying capacity estimates

    When one considers the array of factors that must be estimated and the conditions that must be assumed, it is unrealistic to expect a unique figure defining the Earth’s human carrying capacity. Professor Joel Cohen in his 1995 book, How Many People can the Earth Support?,22 summarized estimates of human carrying capacity of the Earth beginning with estimates made as early as the 1600’s. His summary is not limited to estimates that are considered socially sustainable as he includes estimates that only consider biophysical parameters. Many studies cited by Cohen give a range of population carrying capacities with a low estimate and a high estimate. In his 1995 Science paper,23 Cohen computed the median of the high estimates and the median of the low estimates. The result was a range of medians from 7.7 to 12 billion people.

    Table 3 summarizes the estimates from Cohen’s book that do consider social sustainability as well as estimates from other sources. The estimates vary from 0.5 to 14 billion depending on the metric used and the standard of living and technological improvements that are assumed. The medians of the low and high estimates provide a range from 2.1 to 5.0 billion people. With the current Earth population estimated to be 6.1 billion people,24 the median range of sustainable carrying capacity estimates suggests that the Earth’s population be reduced in order to be sustainable.

    Summary & Conclusions

    A sustainable population of humans on the Earth implies reliance on renewable energy sources combined with socially sustainable standards of living. Standard of living and carrying capacity are inversely related, such that as standard of living decreases, the number of people that can be supported on Earth increases.25 The current global population of 6.1 billion people exceeds the median range of socially and biophysically sustainable carrying capacity estimates shown in Table 3. Exceedance of the Earth’s carrying capacity is made possible by consumption of nonrenewable energy sources, such as fossil fuels as well as inequities in global distribution of food and energy consumption.

    Energy is a useful metric for estimating carrying capacity because it can be used to estimate available renewable energy from the sun as well as standard of living based on energy consumption. Solar energy is the primary source of renewable energy on Earth as it generates atmospheric processes as well as food and forest resources. Per capita energy consumption can be used to estimate resource use that defines human standards of living, including food, transportation, manufacturing, heating and cooling, housing, etc. Using standards of living lower than the current North American average, estimates of carrying capacity using energy as a metric range from 1 to 3 billion people. This is less than half of the current global population.

    Estimating the carrying capacity of the Earth is a difficult task involving value-based decisions and assumptions. Whether the future of the Earth includes a dense population of humans with reduced biodiversity and degraded environmental qualities or a smaller human population living sustainably on a diverse resource base remains to be seen. However, current levels of energy consumption and the impending depletion of non-renewable energy sources point toward the necessity for a change in either population growth or consumption trends if the human race is to survive at anything close to its current level of subsistence.

    That list of carrying capacity estimates was compiled in 2002 – fifteen years ago. There have been some major scientific and technological breakthroughs since. The progress of human technology can roughly be summarized as moving ever further down 1) a spectrum of energy density and 2) molecular and atomic scale. From the rapidly diffused light and heat of burning wood twigs, we have progressed to concentrate fire in boilers, then in internal combustion engines, and are now mastering the techniques of directing and manipulating single molecules, atoms, and even photons. We can now perform surgery on genes, and arrange individual atoms. These technologies are all breathtakingly recent in the context of known human history.

    You are trying to convince me that the “math” is an iron law of nature which dooms six billion people to a short, brutish, miserable life.

    And I am trying to convince you that for hundreds of years now, the “math” has been promoted by TPTB to hide the effects of their policies and practices, and get us to accept that it is “natural” that our lives are short, brutish, miserable. Just look at what the foundational assumption of mainstream economics is. I will be back later this evening, curious to see if anyone knows what assumption I am referring to.

  66. Tony Wikrent permalink
    March 23, 2017

    Well, sorry, none of the table apparently shows up. Worse, a lot of text shows up which appears to be written by me, but it is not. It is from the website I tried to paste the table from.
    http://iere.org/ILEA/leaf/richard2002.html

    I apologize Ian, if you have to go in and delete or blockquote my immediately previous comment.

    Here is what I wrote after attempting the paste:

    That list of carrying capacity estimates was compiled in 2002 – fifteen years ago. There have been some major scientific and technological breakthroughs since. The progress of human technology can roughly be summarized as moving ever further down 1) a spectrum of energy density and 2) molecular and atomic scale. From the rapidly diffused light and heat of burning wood twigs, we have progressed to concentrate fire in boilers, then in internal combustion engines, and are now mastering the techniques of directing and manipulating single molecules, atoms, and even photons. We can now perform surgery on genes, and arrange individual atoms. These technologies are all breathtakingly recent in the context of known human history.

    You are trying to convince me that the “math” is an iron law of nature which dooms six billion people to a short, brutish, miserable life.

    And I am trying to convince you that for hundreds of years now, the “math” has been promoted by TPTB to hide the effects of their policies and practices, and get us to accept that it is “natural” that our lives are short, brutish, miserable. Just look at what the foundational assumption of mainstream economics is. I will be back later this evening, curious to see if anyone knows what assumption I am referring to.

  67. Willy permalink
    March 23, 2017

    I’d think that foundational, would be an understanding of the scope and limits of genetic temperament, and understanding how and why so many ‘hump of bell curve’ median folks are so willing to remain compliant in the face of some obvious, destructive, predatory, psychopathic extreme.

    Having an ubermencsh in the cave clan was acceptable as long as his dominance was limited to first dibs on food, shelter and sex, and only after proving his worth at being the best at getting those things for everybody else. But most modern humans seem completely messed up in that regard. And that’s where most of the voters are.

  68. anon y'mouse permalink
    March 23, 2017

    Wikrent–

    i would guess you are referring to “rational” actions by individuals to “maximize” “utility”. and yes, the quotes around those are deliberate. at least, this is what i dimly remember being the first lesson in my near-useless economics textbook back in community college.

    the teacher couldn’t answer questions about money. but he essentially gave the answer you just did in regards to peak oil–“we used to burn trees. then whale oil. we will find something else.” in other words, technoscientific deus ex machina.

    the basic building blocks for a good life are down at the near archaic level, and barring food security (yes, with this many, i believe you do need mass mono agriculture). if you want the energy-using techno first world (not to be found in most of USA except by the rich, really) lifestyle, and a sustainable footprint then we will have to get population down. how many earths are we using in effect to keep everyone alive now, even given that the rich steal 95% of it? 5? i think that this rough math is highly illustrative.

    what technological base one uses to determine this and how sustainable it needs to be are the determining factors, i would think.

  69. Tony Wikrent permalink
    March 23, 2017

    Almost every economics textbook I have seen – and I have acquired quite a few and looked at many, many others for just this reason – begins with some definition or other involving the allocation of scarce resources. Scarcity is central to mainstream economic thinking. Thorstein Veblen, however, argued that the level of development of an economy is best measured by humans’ use of tools, with industrial mass production actually breaking through what had been solid assumptions of classical British school economics. Under previous economic arrangements of a craft and guild economy, humanity had suffered recurring shortages of food and other goods. Now, industrial mass production made food and many other goods plentiful. There then arose a conflict between the masters of industrial mass production, typified by engineers, and the owners of the means of production. The owners could not tolerate plenty; plenitude destroyed pricing power and therefore profits. Hence, they engaged in what Veblen termed industrial sabotage to limit and retard the industrial process, and create artificial scarcity.

    Now this does not mean that resources are infinite. But it does mean that making an assumption of scarcity the basis of your economic philosophy is incorrect. Even worse, it creates a philosophical basis toward accepting a Hobbesian / Malthusian view on the natural condition of humanity: human life is “short, nasty, and brutish.” Now, if you believe that most human beings are doomed to lives that are “short, nasty, and brutish” how can you possibly justify granting most human beings any share of political power? You simply cannot.

    Maintaining the belief that resources are scarce thus is a crucial prop to the continuation and perpetuation of rule by pre-industrial elites. Do you know who the largest shareholders in Royal Dutch Shell are? Or Glencore Xstrata, BHP Billiton, and RTZ, the largest mining companies in the world? Why do you think BP donates millions of dollars each year to the World Wildlife Fund? You think it’s because Robert Dudley is as environmentally progressive as you are?

  70. bruce wilder permalink
    March 24, 2017

    Mainstream economics has become civic religion, propagating a mythology in place of a genuine analytic understanding and at the center of that myth is the black box of technology, promising ever better magic.

    Here is one inescapable mundane truth mainstream economics takes great pains to distort and obscure: if you eat, you shit.

    There is no possible utopia of “sustainable” tech where that ceases to be true. The second law of thermodynamics is not subject to repeal. Anything we humans do expends energy and every expenditure of energy entails waste. The capacity of the environment to assimilate that waste is limited, a scarce resource if you like. The carbon we dug up out of the Jurassic and put back into the carbon cycle will be with us for centuries, destabilising the climate, changing the acidity of the oceans. Reallocate that.

    Driving a Prius is not going to be enough. Solar panels are not going to be enough. We have to do less and be less. That is “the math”. Whatever else we also do — and there is a lot we could do to better manage and control production processes, to reduce waste and handle the consequences responsibly — we have to do less and be less, if we are to save ourselves and our planet from a civilization immiserating catastrophe. That is how it adds up.

  71. realitychecker permalink
    March 24, 2017

    @ bruce wilder

    If we eat, we shit, true enough. But if (when) we eat another human, he/she shits no more, not ever.

    Cannibalism may be the environmentalism of the future.

  72. Tony Wikrent permalink
    March 24, 2017

    Bruce: so, you’re a Republican?

  73. Ché Pasa permalink
    March 25, 2017

    The basic premise of modern economics is the concept of “scarcity” which presumes there is not and cannot be “enough” to satisfy the needs, wants and desires of everyone, ergo the necessity of competition for scarce resources, and all the moral and physical failings that ensue.

    “Scarcity” is seen as a permanent condition by most economists over the last few hundred years, whereas in reality, scarcity was episodic during most of human history. It was dealt with through various strategies including moving to greener pastures, waiting out the lean periods, or conquering neighbors who had plenty. But whatever the case, “scarcity” only became a permanent condition for populations ruled by overlords who took the majority of resources for themselves leaving an insufficiency for the rabble.

    Once a ruling class is deprived of their overabundance, it’s discovered that there are plenty of resources for everyone.

    The job of the modern economist is to ensure that doesn’t happen.

  74. realitychecker permalink
    March 25, 2017

    @ Che Pasa

    Wrong.

    Control of home territory has always been a basic natural drive, precisely because of the need to insure adequate availability of essential resources. Overuse of that territory has always been understood to lead to scarcity of those resources.

    You cannot create infinite resources in a limited territory, like Earth, sufficient to provide adequate distribution to an infinite number of people.

    What you are looking for is magic, which does not actually exist.

  75. StewartM permalink
    March 25, 2017

    School, as we do it, is a terrible way to raise people. What it actual teaches is “do what you’re told, when you’re told, wait to be told how to do things, don’t figure out things for yourself, and give the approved answer, not one you came up with yourself.”

    Ian, just now getting to this excellent post.

    I fully agree with this. For starters, just look at the results of our education system among our politicians, and not just K-12: Newt Gingrich, PhD in history, or Larry Summers, PhD in economics, given their public utterances? I have heard off-hand that children of the elite get “assistance” (i.e., cheating) to get them through so-called “elite” schools, but even if that’s not true, certainly critical thinking isn’t taught.

    It’s worse today than when I was in college, given our current fascination with the “Asian” education model that puts a premium on standardized test scores and regurgitating memorized facts, possibly without any fundamental understanding. It’s also been made worse by the current emphasis on vocational education; now we’re so focused on making ‘good workers’ we neglect to make “good citizens’ and worse yet, ‘good humans’.

    Teachers who teach fundamental understanding are rare. I recall a calculus class that I dropped when I was 18, for a more ‘practical’ approach, but now I wished I hadn’t. The instructor’s first homework problem? It was “prove, that given any number ‘x’, ‘x’ times zero equals zero”. Something kids are taught as being de facto true but apparently there’s a proof for it.

    A similar problem for high school science would be to ask “what’s the distance between the earth and sun?” then when the smart kid raises his/her hand and answers “93 million miles” then return with “how do you know that?” (the solution is simple trigonometry, and people did it with fairly simple observations starting 300 years ago, and got values that were within 2 % of the values gotten today bouncing radar beams off planets).

  76. nihil obstet permalink
    March 25, 2017

    On economics and scarcity: some things are scarce, some things aren’t. We have, however, developed societies where power is based on control of scarce things, and so where there is abundance, those in power pass laws that create scarcity. The whole “intellectual property” sector is the most glaringly obvious of these laws, but lots of overly restrictive licensing requirements, privatization of the commons, acceptance and even promotion of monopolies in other ways serve the same purpose.

  77. Ché Pasa permalink
    March 25, 2017

    @rc

    Obviously you didn’t read what I wrote.

    I’d say try again, but I really don’t care, as your “insight” is little more than regurgitation of standard tropes.

  78. realitychecker permalink
    March 25, 2017

    @ Che Pasa

    What you WROTE concluded with:

    “But whatever the case, “scarcity” only became a permanent condition for populations ruled by overlords who took the majority of resources for themselves leaving an insufficiency for the rabble.

    Once a ruling class is deprived of their overabundance, it’s discovered that there are plenty of resources for everyone.”

    My point is that there are NOT “plenty of resources for everyone” if “everyone” keeps growing the way it is. You certainly can’t produce those resources. Neither can I. Neither can anyone else.

    The key resource is FOOD.

    Magic is your only solution, and even Marx can’t provide that for you. Sorry.

  79. Ché Pasa permalink
    March 26, 2017

    Keep shouting at the clouds, it’s worked so well for you so far.

  80. realitychecker permalink
    March 26, 2017

    @ Che Pasa

    “Keep shouting at the clouds, it’s worked so well for you so far.”

    That’s pretty funny, fool. I got a lot of what I wanted out of this election.

    Did you?

    Now all you can do is whine and complain. A grand display of impotence.

    Is that what “working out so well” looks like to you?

  81. cybele permalink
    March 26, 2017

    @V Arnold:

    JT Gatto is an interesting anomaly – taught for 30 years in the public school system, and then after he has put in enough years to get his pension, decides it’s all a waste of time and parents should home school. What an incredible hypocrite. The fact that he’s a Trump supporter says it all.

  82. anon y'mouse permalink
    March 27, 2017

    yes, i guess i forgot the scarcity assumption underlying it all. regardless of the technology we use to make all of this stuff we use, the underlying biosphere used to make it is still a scarce resource. and we should consider what technological or “lifestyle” level we are desirous of when contemplating the number of people the biosphere can generate useful elements sustainably in order to provide that lifestyle to.

    i am all in favor of many arguments here, even from opposing sides. i think the best thing we can do is actually remove the scarcity issue and provide everyone a meaningful life doing things that matter to them, which requires adequate education and freely available birth control. when people need to grasp for money and things, that is usually when they do “stupid” stuff that tends to harm their neighbors and their community, and even themselves in ways that they don’t realize sometimes ever (but usually later).

    take away the need for everyone to grasp for a “living”, whatever that means to them, and then the question becomes about how to spend one’s extremely scarce time. make the means of maintaining the population a totally shared “burden” but also transparent and truly equal. remove that mania i have heard described as the “terrible preoccupation that someone, somewhere is getting a free lunch” because it already is. the only question should be “did they really need it?” i bet given this kind of society, a lot of people would be more free in their day to day to notice how poor everything is around them, no matter how many flashy lights and touchless screens it has. they will be asking how to truly make their short time valuable, both to themselves and others.

    oh, and before we get the sociopathic free-rider argument, a healthy family and community is the best combatant for that. i can think of nothing worse than the underlying ideology that runs our western society, and now imposes itself around the world—you had better get yours before someone else grabs it, and if you got it then you were better at grabbing and thus “deserve” it.

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