Cybernetics in the 3rd Millennium (C3M) -- Volume 3 Number 9, Oct. 2004
Alan B. Scrivener --- www.well.com/~abs --- mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org
Ecological Crisis, World Models, and the Nature of Proof
"And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on
him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went
forth conquering, and to conquer...
And there went out another horse that was red: and power
was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the
earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was
given unto him a great sword...
And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him
had a pair of balances in his hand...
And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that
sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him..."
-- Revelations 6, King James Bible
For almost two millennia the Christian Bible has carried around the
creepy metaphor of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, usually
identified as War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death.
( en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Four_Horsemen_of_the_Apocalypse )
When the words were written life was brutal and short, and war,
famine and pestilence were real, immediate fears of most of humanity.
Today, in western civilization, many of us find these fears remote.
Most of us are more likely to die from heart attacks or car accidents.
But the 1950s brought the specter of Nuclear Armageddon, the 1960s
brought the threat of Ecological Disaster, and the 1980s added new
fears of an HIV epidemic. Since 2001 we have added the fear of
Terrorist Attack. That makes a pretty compelling set of horsemen
for the 21st Century.
* * * * * * * *
"Seems that when some innocents die
All we can offer them is a page in a some magazine
Too many cameras and not enough food
This is what we've seen"
-- "Driven to Tears" by Sting
on the album "Zenyatta Mondatta" (1980) The Police
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00008BRDV/hip-20 )
I first learned the word "ecology" in the early 1960s from the
juvenile science fiction novel "Farmer in the Sky" (1950) by
the great Robert A. Heinlein.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0345324382/hip-20 )
The story of colonists farming a moon of Jupiter tells how
they must bring an entire ecosystem with them, from the crops
the grow all the way down to the bacteria in the soil. I was
fascinated with the complexity of it all.
Later in the 1960s the general public discovered that --
unbeknownst to us -- we had been living in an "environment"
all of our lives. This reminds me of the character in Moliere's
"Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme [The Bourgeois Gentleman]" (1670),
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1566633044/hip-20 )
who discovers that:
"...for more than forty years I have been speaking prose
without knowing it."
More recently I have learned that though the "environmental
movement" began with the concerns of biologists and ecologists,
the first serious attempt to publicize these concerns came from
a group of "beat poets" in San Francisco who used their "City
Lights" bookstore and small press to launch the "Journal for
the Protection of All Beings" (1961).
( www.enquirer.com/editions/2003/06/19/tem_0619citylights.html )
(The name comes from Buddhist ideas of the sacred nature of
all life.) Later the scientists themselves began to sound
an alarm. Perhaps the most famous and influential was "The
Population Bomb" (1968) by Paul Ehrlich.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1568495870/hip-20 )
I read it in high school and began to worry about the future.
It described a number of scenarios reminiscent of the Four
Horsemen, in which war, famine, and/or pestilence lead to
a global "collapse" in which millions die.
In college I went on to read "The Limits to Growth: A Report
for the Club of Rome's Project on the Predicament of Mankind"
(1972) by Donella and Dennis Meadows.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0451136950/hip-20 )
Here Erhlich's scenarios are lent more credibility by a computer
model (called World3) that predicts most of them given various
( dieoff.org/page01.htm )
Three main conclusions were reached by this study. The first
suggests that within a time span of less than 100 years with
no major change in the physical, economic, or social
relationships that have traditionally governed world
development, society will run out of the nonrenewable
resources on which the industrial base depends. When the
resources have been depleted, a precipitous collapse of
the economic system will result, manifested in massive
unemployment, decreased food production, and a decline in
population as the death rate soars. There is no smooth
transition, no gradual slowing down of activity; rather,
the economic system consumes successively larger amounts
of the depletable resources until they are gone. The
characteristic behavior of the system is overshoot and
The second conclusion of the study is that piecemeal
approaches to solving the individual problems will not
be successful. To demonstrate this point, the authors
arbitrarily double their estimates of the resource base
and allow the model to trace out an alternative vision
based on this new higher level of resources. In this
alternative vision the collapse still occurs, but this
time it is caused by excessive pollution generated by
the increased pace of industrialization permitted by
the greater availability of resources. The authors
then suggest that if the depletable resource and
pollution problems were somehow jointly solved,
population would grow unabated and the availability
of food would become the binding constraint. In this
model the removal of one limit merely causes the
system to bump subsequently into another one, usually
with more dire consequences.
As its third and final conclusion, the study suggests
that overshoot and collapse can be avoided only by an
immediate limit on population and pollution, as well
as a cessation of economic growth. The portrait painted
shows only two possible outcomes: the termination of
growth by self-restraint and conscious policy -- an
approach that avoids the collapse -- or the termination
of growth by a collision with the natural limits,
resulting in societal collapse. Thus, according to this
study, one way or the other, growth will cease. The only
issue is whether the conditions under which it will
cease will be congenial or hostile.
In attempting to "bring home" the dire messages of these
studies, the science fiction writers and filmmakers jumped in,
with works such as the movie "Soylent Green" (1973),
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00009NHBM/hip-20 )
based on the book "Make Room Make Room" (1967) by Harry Harrison,
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0425040437/hip-20 )
with obvious influences from the short story "Welcome to the
Monkey House" (1968) by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.,
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0385333501/hip-20 )
especially the idea of government-sponsored suicide parlors.
This is a story of overpopulation, ecological disaster, and the
dooming of humanity, presided over by evil leaders in government
and big business.
Another group that jumped into the fray were the political activists.
The Yippies pioneered the technique of "guerilla theater," best
exemplified by Jerry Rubin who was subpoenaed to appear before the
House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and showed up
in a rented Revolutionary War "Minute Man" costume. (He recognized
that they wanted to portray him as a traitor, so he adopted the
symbolism of the revolutionary patriot. The congressmen recognized
that he would make fools of them on TV if he went on before them
this way and they tried to give him the 3rd degree, so they sent him
home without having him testify.) This tale is told in Rubin's`
"Do It!" (1970).
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0345220382/hip-20 )
The environment activists in Greenpeace refined this technique,
producing what they called "mindbombs," news footage so visually
compelling that the networks COULDN'T not air it; for example,
volunteers steering Zodiac inflatable boats under barrels of
nuclear waste as they were being dumped in the ocean, and having
their boats flipped over by the drums. Boom! Film at eleven.
This story is told in "Warriors of the Rainbow: A Chronicle of
the Greenpeace Movement" (1979) by Robert Hunter.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0030437369/hip-20 )
A compelling bit of political theater was the "Hunger Show"
produced by Stewart Brand, described in his "Last Whole Earth
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0394709438/hip-20 )
Recognizing that starvation would happen first in the Third World,
and the Developed Nations would watch on TV, he organized a group
"fast" with an audience in a Northern California shopping center
parking lot in 1969.
( www.socialchemy.com/figmento/2004/08/long-dwindling-future.html )
It was sort a work of futurist performance art.
Subsequently, in his magazine "The CoEvolution Quarterly" (named
for a term coined by his mentor Paul Ehrlich), Brand had a regular
section called "Apocalypse Juggernaut, Hello," which chronicled
the approach of collapse and efforts to forestall it.
As my own contribution to the public debate, I took a journey
by bicycle across America in 1975-76, and took every opportunity
to play the "Mad Prophet of the Environment." I told frat boys
in Florida about the wisdom of the forests, lectured overheated
Bostonians on the evils of air conditioning, and even stood
on a fire hydrant in Carlsbad, New Mexico and railed against
teenage cruisers for wasting gas.
In the midst of my self-righteousness, in a most unexpected place
I ran across the point of view that maybe I wasn't doing the right
thing. My mentor, Gregory Bateson, held a conference on "the
Effects of Conscious Purpose On Human Adaptation," and his
daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson, wrote a book: "Our Own Metaphor"
(1975), which was a personal account of that conference.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0394474872/hip-20 )
I read it while hanging out at Northern Arizona University in
Flagstaff during the bike trip. At one point in the account
the conference participants began talking about what to do about
the ecological crisis, and some of them suggested a public relations
strategy: contacting TV and newspapers, arranging speeches,
publicity stunts and "gimmicks" (like collecting children's
teeth to test for Strontium-90), etc. The dialog continued:
"I think that nobody should be permitted to say anything
that he cannot tie directly to the problem," said Ted [Schwartz].
"Anything abstract in the sense that we are not directly
talking about how to control the environmental crisis.
I think we should devote our remaining time to political
questions of praxis -- what kinds of agencies, what kinds of
communications are available, what sorts of messages,
possible films or TV series and what can go in them
who doesn't have the facts and who needs them, the kind of
rhetoric of persuasion we can put with all that we're worth
behind this thing."
Gregory put both palms down on the table. "I think we might
as well stop today, frankly. If we're going to do that we
might as well stop today."
"Do what? What Ted suggests?" Barry was aghast.
"Yes. I think it's ridiculous. Because... there's one
matter which we have not discussed, which is very important,
which is the whole problem of public relations."
"Isn't that what Ted's talking about?"
"Yes. But this has not been discussed as a part of the
whole pathology we're discussing. As far as I can see, we
have a society which is not only going over the brink in
population and in terms of NO2 and pesticides and Lord knows
what, but is also going over the brink by the rapidly
increased corruption of its own communications stream.
This is being done in large measure by people with very
good intentions, you know, who honestly believe that to
increase the G.N.P. is a good thing, and do their public
relations to increase the G.N.P. Now we honestly believe
that to control the population is a good thing and we're
going to try to flood the public relations thing with an
attempt to do that. The whole theory of planned public
relations and the implications carried on the word 'gimmick'
in the discussion of this is a matter which we have not
yet thought about and I believe we should."
I was reminded that Bateson was very disturbed by the idea of
humans doing the right things for the wrong reasons. It was okay
for bees to pollinate flowers for the honey, but with our advanced
technology and its extreme side-effects, we conscious beings needed
to be more careful. In fact, this was the kind of fundamental
issue he organized a conference on "the Effects of Conscious
Purpose On Human Adaptation" to explore. (Bucky Fuller used to
talk about money being the honey for humans, but he was clearly
conflicted about it, and wished we could do the right things
for the right reasons.)
Before I went on the bike trip I was rattling around
Santa Cruz waiting for civilization to collapse. I lived on
an organic dairy farm for while, trying to learn skills that would
help me be self-sufficient in the new dark age. I was adopting
pathetic strategies like wearing a down jacket with the pockets
stuffed with trail mix. I even bought some fallout shelter
survival crackers in a giant tin can.
( www.civildefensemuseum.com/cdmuseum2/supply/food.html )
I wasn't the only one worrying. The Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter Day Saints (Mormons) issued an edict the head of every
household should stockpile a year's worth of food. Some people
claimed this was socially irresponsible, but I had the opposite
view -- at least these families wouldn't be dependent on others
if the grocery shelves went empty, whether it was due to a food
shortage or a shortage of gas for the delivery trucks.
Biologist Garret Harden wrote a chilling essay called "Lifeboat
Ethics: the Case Against Helping the Poor" in 1974.
( www.garretthardinsociety.org/articles/art_lifeboat_ethics_case_against_helping_poor.html )
He offered arguments such as:
Every human born constitutes a draft on all aspects of the
environment: food, air, water, forests, beaches, wildlife,
scenery and solitude. Food can, perhaps, be significantly
increased to meet a growing demand. But what about clean
beaches, unspoiled forests, and solitude? If we satisfy a
growing population's need for food, we necessarily decrease
its per capita supply of the other resources needed by men.
India, for example, now has a population of 600 million,
which increases by 15 million each year. This population
already puts a huge load on a relatively impoverished
environment. The country's forests are now only a small
fraction of what they were three centuries ago and floods
and erosion continually destroy the insufficient farmland
that remains. Every one of the 15 million new lives added
to India's population puts an additional burden on the
environment, and increases the economic and social costs
of crowding. However humanitarian our intent, every Indian
life saved through medical or nutritional assistance from
abroad diminishes the quality of life for those who remain,
and for subsequent generations. If rich countries make it
possible, through foreign aid, for 600 million Indians to
swell to 1.2 billion in a mere 28 years, as their current
growth rate threatens, will future generations of Indians
thank us for hastening the destruction of their environment?
Will our good intentions be sufficient excuse for the
consequences of our actions?
This kind of cynical analysis began to give me pause.
After the bike trip I went back to the dairy farm, but I
finally realized I was deluding myself -- if civilization collapsed,
I was toast. So I went back to college and began to study computers
(though I still went to Bateson's classes, until he was too sick to
Bateson died in 1980, a few weeks after I took the est training.
I went to his memorial service, where I saw Stewart Brand (founder
of the Whole Earth Catalog) and Werner Erhardt (founder of est).
By 1982 I was living in San Diego working in the growing personal
computer field. That year I was able to get to my first Bucky
Fuller "World Game" event, in Boulder, Colorado. It was there
that I was presented with the first good news I'd heard in a long
time about population growth: affluence reduces the birth rate.
They showed us graphs that showed that in developing countries,
birth rates went down as energy consumption per capita went up.
I resisted at first, becasue this violated the doom scenarios I'd
gotten from Ehrlich, but began to see the hope in this news.
(The work of the now-defunct nonprofit World Game Institute founded
by Bucky Fuller is carried on by the for-profit company o.s. Earth,
which offers Global Simulation Workshops.)
( www.osearth.com )
After the World Game I was inspired to volunteer work with the
goal of ending hunger. I offered my services to the Hunger Project,
( www.thp.org )
a charity founded by Werner Erhardt. His impetus for this organization
was the discovery that the technology existed to end hunger, and the
charities currently working on the problem had the skills to
accomplish the goal, but what was lacking was the widespread political
will. Doomsayers had convinced people that the problem was unsolvable,
and that well-meanings attempts to improve things only made them worse.
(I believe this is called "learned helplessness.") Werner's goal was
to create the political will, mostly through the exponential mechanism
of recruiting individual commitment. The goal wasn't to raise money
(though money was raised), it was to reach a "critical mass" of
people committed to solve the problem.
On of the things I learned from this work was that a key indicator
of a nation's hunger problem is its infant mortality rate, since
malnutrition kills children first, mostly through sickness.
Another thing I learned was that a lot of people were hostile to
the idea of a self-help guru working to end hunger, and such an
abstract way. They seemed to think the only legitimate way to
attack the problem was to fill planes with food at take them
to hungry people -- even though this was being done, and it hadn't
solved the problem.
( www.xs4all.nl/~ahein/hungerproject.html )
But, interestingly, people were not as hostile to pop stars
working to end hunger, and in 1985 the Live Aid concert and
movement made a big difference in creating the political will
to end hunger.
( www.live-aid.info )
I like to think that the Hunger Project helped lay the groundwork
to make Live Aid possible, but how can we ever know for sure?
Today, starvation is all but eliminated on earth, except where political
factors such as civil wars perpetuate it. Hunger due to actual food
shortages is fading away. This is not to say no one is starving,
or that we will never face the problem again, but go to google news
( news.google.com )
and search for famine. Where is it? North Korea, due to a defiant,
isolationist dictatorship. Ethiopia is holding off famine despite
drought due to proactive international aid. The places that were
SUPPOSED to be starving, according to the 1970s doomsayers, such as
India and China, are doing fine. Can I say yay?
( www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/afp_world/view/113165/1/.html )
* * * * * * * *
"Unless we change direction, we are
likely to to end up where we are headed."
-- Chinese proverb
The beginnings of population doomsaying was "An Essay on the
Principle of Population" (1798) by Thomas Malthus,
( www.ac.wwu.edu/~stephan/malthus/malthus.0.html )
along with his subsequent writings. Bucky Fuller gave some
background on Malthus in 1980 in a speech at the Unitarian
Universalist Church in Harvard Square.
( www.harvardsquarelibrary.org/unitarians/fuller.html )
The time when the British Empire was established, was also
the time after Magellan had first been around the world.
It was the first time we had a great empire which was a sphere.
The political and economic strategy of the British Empire
was that of the East India Company.
...Thomas Malthus was a professor of political economics
for the East India Company, and in 1800, five years before
Trafalgar, he wrote his first book. In 1810, five years after
Trafalgar, he wrote a book confirming his theory. He was
the first human being in the history of humanity to have
the total vital statistics from a closed-system spherical
empire within his hands. He said it was perfectly clear,
and he was deeply aware of the fact, that we're dealing
in a sphere which is a closed system in contradistinction
to a plane going to infinity. He said, "Quite clearly,
humanity is multiplying itself at a geometrical rate and
increasing its life support on an arithmetical rate.
Quite clearly, the majority of humans are destined to
have to live out their years in great want and pain."
There were very few people who were interested in what
Malthus was saying. In fact, it was pretty much classified
information, only of interest to those who were ambitious
to try to take the British Empire away from the British.
Elsewhere Bucky explained that his grandfather warned him
that there was not enough to go around, as Malthus and Darwin
and shown, and he would have to be ruthless to ensure his family's
survival. Bucky rejected this advice.
Progress in applying rigor to understanding humans has been slow.
Lewis Fry Richardson was a pioneer of weather prediction and
( maths.paisley.ac.uk/LfR/home.htm )
When he found the poison gas researchers in the British Army
were using his work, he burned what he had not yet published
and began a lifelong study of the causes of war, becoming a pioneer
of mathematic social sciences. In "Arms and Insecurity: A
Mathematical Study of the Causes and Origins of War" (1949),
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0835703789/hip-20 )
he devotes quite a few pages to defending the use of mathematics
in analyzing politics. Basically he argues -- against those who
say only human judgment can deal with the complexity of diplomacy
-- that we need mathematics to confirm that our conclusions follow
from our premises. I say the same is true of computer models.
I remember in 1967 a book appeared called "Report from Iron Mountain:
On the Possibility and Desirability of Peace" by Leonard C. Lewin.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/068482390X/hip-20 )
A review at Amazon by Michael Gerber says:
From 1963 to 1966 the U.S. government assembled a team of
prominent thinkers from all walks of life to determine what
would happen if "peace broke out." The group, surprisingly
but with unassailable logic, determined that war was necessary
and desirable and that the government should do all it could
to maintain the status quo. If peace became inevitable, the
report suggested everything from creating an outer-space
menace to setting up some new, socially acceptable form of
slavery. The report was leaked in 1967 by a conference member
harboring a guilty conscience, and it scandalized Washington.
The ultimate compliment for any form of political satire is
to be taken seriously by the people it is skewering. On that
scale Report from Iron Mountain, which has been a lightning
rod for both Right and Left since its appearance, could
hardly be more successful. The hoax, written in perfect
think-tankese, captures the mix of Olympian detachment and
awesome cynicism that has flowed out of Washington for much
of the American Century. Lewin's book (and he really did
write it) exposes the mindset that we can thank for Vietnam
and so much else.
Report from Iron Mountain was bolstered, if not trumped, by
reality--the Pentagon Papers and the Pax Americana, a Defense
Department plan to take over Latin America, emerged soon
after. But the book's enduring popularity, particularly
among those who never got the joke (apparently Lewin had
to sue to get right-wing groups convinced of the book's
authenticity to stop printing and selling copies) suggests
that the governmental worldview that Report from Iron
Mountain lampoons--as well as the paranoia that that
immorality unleashes in the citizenry--is very much with us.
I remember in high school identifying this book as a hoax. It
was because the think-tank claimed to have a computer model so
sophisticated it could predict the effect of a U.S. moon shot
on a Swedish election. I had never programmed (or even seen)
a computer in 1967, but even I knew that computer modeling was not
that advanced. (It still isn't.)
But it is advancing, and it is vital to understanding our future.
In one of my earlier e-Zines, "What Ever Happened to Cybernetics?"
(Volume 2 Number 4, Apr. 2003),
( www.well.com/~abs/Cyb/4.669211660910299067185320382047/c3m_0204.txt )
I related this story:
Some time in the last decade -- I've forgotten exactly when --
scientists using computer models predicted a dire global warming
catastrophe if we didn't reduce greenhouse gas emissions pronto.
Then they revised the model and said the situation was less dire.
An editor for a southern California newspaper (I think it was the
Long Beach Press-Telegram) wrote and editorial condemning the use
of computer models in deciding public policy and suggesting they
should be banned. I wondered: would it be okay to use calculators?
How about counting on fingers? How low-tech and unconscious do our
models need to be to be acceptable to this editor? He obviously
missed the fact that opinions based on ignorance (and stuff
"everybody knows") are models too -- just very bad ones.
In my own career I have experienced the effects of scientists
testing their own intuitions with computer models of their
equations. In my job at Advanced Visual Systems (AVS)
( www.avs.com )
I worked with a number of scientists who had been working with
computer models for years but had never visualized them before
getting our software. On many occasions I've had interactions similar
to one described in the trade magazine "Computer Graphics World,"
( cgw.pennnet.com/home.cfm )
how in the production of the PBS series "The Astronomers" (1991),
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00004T342/hip-20 )
in the episode "Waves Of The Future" about gravity waves, Cal-Tech
Kip Thorne was assigned a programmer from Silicon Graphics, Inc.
(SGI) to produce computer graphics of the gravity waves created by
two colliding black holes. When he first saw the graphics, Dr. Thorne
said, "That's not right. That can't be right. [pause] It is right."
So it goes. Richardson was right. We need to confirm that our
conclusions follow from our premises.
This was the goal of the above-mentioned "Limits to Growth" (1970),
as well as its sequel, "Beyond the Limits: Confronting Global
Collapse, Envisioning a Sustainable Future" (1992) by Donella H.
Meadows, Dennis Meadows, and Jorgen Randers.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0930031628/hip-20 )
This month I sat down and carefully read this book. It's main
conclusions are that, yes, our technology turned out to be better
than we thought, and yes, people do slow down their breeding when
they become more affluent, but no, that doesn't mean there are
now "no limits." According to their model we still have to
worry about polluting ourselves to death. They give a useful
definition of sustainability, which I found reproduced on-line
in the web document "Sustainability Principles, Ecosystem Principles."
( www.sustainableliving.org/appen-b.htm )
World Bank economist Herman Daly has suggested three simple rules
... to define the long-term or ultimately sustainable limits to
- For a renewable resource -- soil, water, forest, fish --
the sustainable rate of use can be no greater than the
rate of regeneration (For example, fish are harvested
sustainably when they are caught at a rate that can be
replaced by the remaining fish population);
- For a nonrenewable resource -- fossil fuel, high-grade
mineral ore, fossil groundwater -- the sustainable rate
of use can be no greater than the rate at which a renewable
resource, used sustainably, can be substituted for it.
(For example, an oil deposit would be used sustainably
if part of the profits from it were systematically
invested in solar collectors or in tree planting,
so that when the oil is gone, an equivalent stream
of renewable energy is still available.);
- For a pollutant the sustainable rate of emission can
be no greater than the rate at which the pollutant can
be recycled, absorbed, or rendered harmless by the
environment. (For example, sewage can be put into a
stream or lake sustainably at the rate at which the
natural ecosystem in the water can absorb its nutrients).
The book's main conclusions are also reproduced on-line in
the periodical "Watershed Sentinel: Environmental News from
Georgia Strait in British Columbia, Canada and from the World"
April/May 2001, as part of a tribute to Donella Meadows, who passed
away in Feb. 2001.
A sustainable world can never come into being if it cannot
be envisioned. The vision must be built up from the contributions
of many people before it is complete and compelling. As a way
of encouraging others to join in the process of visioning,
we'll list here some of what we see, when we let ourselves
imagine a sustainable society that we would like to live in.
This is by no means a definitive list or a complete vision.
We include it only to invite you to develop and enlarge it.
- Sustainability, efficiency, sufficiency, justice, equity,
and community as high social values.
- Leaders who are honest, respectful, and more interested
in doing their jobs than in keeping their jobs.
- Material sufficiency and security for all. Therefore,
by spontaneous choice as well as by communal norms, low
death rates, low birth rates, and stable populations.
- Work that dignifies people instead of demeaning them.
Some way of providing incentives for people to give of
their best to society and to be rewarded for doing so,
while still ensuring that people will be provided for
sufficiently under any circumstances.
- An economy that is a means, not an end ...
- Efficient, renewable energy systems; efficient, cyclic
- Technical design that reduces pollution and waste to a
minimum, and social agreement not to produce pollution
or waste that nature can't handle.
- Regenerative agriculture that builds soils, uses natural
mechanisms to restore nutrients and control pests, and
produces abundant, uncontaminated food.
- Preservation of ecosystems in their variety, with human
cultures living in harmony with those ecosystems ...
- Greater understanding of whole systems as an essential
part of each person's education.
- Decentralization of economic power, political influence,
and scientific expertise.
- Political structures that permit a balance between
short-term and long-term considerations. Some way of
exerting political pressure on behalf of the grandchildren.
- High skills on the part of citizens and governments
in the arts of nonviolent conflict resolution.
- Reasons for living and for thinking well of oneself
that do not require the accumulation of material things.
A number of years after the original "Limits to Growth" came out
in 1970, a friend (Kim Levitt) and I wanted to play with the model.
We got two books by Jay W. Forrester, "Principles of Systems" (1968),
which describes the World2 model's general methodology, and "World
which gives a detailed specification of the World2 model in the
DYNAMO modeling language, along with the "DYNAMO User's Manual"
(1976) by Alexander Pugh,
which described the modeling language itself. But we didn't
have access to a DYNAMO compiler, and through we toyed with
the idea of trying to port the model to an Excel spreadsheet,
we didn't make much progress.
Luckily today -- with the Internet and cheap PCS -- the situation
is much better. There are several versions of the latest World3
model available. A guide to them is maintained by Peter Brecke
at the Georgia Institute of Technology ("Georgia Tech").
(Coincidentally, he also is doing empirical and theoretical work
in conflict resolution which extends Richardson's ideas; this is
described on his home page.)
I was able to download Ken Simon's Macintosh version and run it,
and finally got to play with the model!
(I was reminded of the fascinating game/pastime "SimCity," which
taught me a lot about urban planning and city management, and
the disappointing sequel, "SimEarth," which taught me nothing
about ecology though it tried to inflict some heavy-handed bio-
diversity lessons. SimCity is now sold by Electronic Arts.)
* * * * * * * *
"pollution -- useful chemistry in the wrong place at the
wrong time at inappropriate concentrations"
-- J. Baldwin
A few things occurred to me while reading "Beyond the Limits."
- Why aren't more people running world models by now? Computers
are cheap, the software is available, and we're talking about the
freakin' END OF THE WORLD here people! I would've expected every
high school and community college to be teaching this by the
year 2000 if you'd asked me back in 1990.
- If we do end up polluting ourselves to death, I would expect
it to resemble the dystopian sci-fi novel "The Sheep Look Up"
(1972) by John Brunner.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1932100016/hip-20 )
What it looks like is more disease, more sick kids, more
political and corporate scandals involving food and water
purity, rich people freaking out because they can't buy
health at any price, more blame, more denial, etc.
- I do have a minor quibble with the definition of sustainability.
By saying that "for a nonrenewable resource ... the sustainable
rate of use can be no greater than the rate at which a renewable
resource... can be substituted for it," we tacitly assume that
the GOAL of society is resource use. This ignores the possibility
that we can do more with less, achieving the same (or better)
results with fewer resources. But this is not a very significant
- I find myself very suspicious of any ecological plan which
depends on people being motivated to act selflessly, therefore
I favor economic pressure above all else. For example, gasoline
needs to be more expensive. It is fashionable right now to slam
the government and oil companies because of record high oil
prices, but I think THEY AREN'T HIGH ENOUGH! Higher prices
means less driving, fewer SUVs sold, more hybrids sold, more
alternative fuels, more solar and wind power, etc. It all
happens "automatically." Scolding (or bombing) SUV buyers
and sellers accomplished nothing. (And while I'm ranting,
what's with this "oil depletion allowance" insanity? We're
rewarding oil companies for using up a non-renewable resource?
Huh? We should be taxing them extra for it!)
- Economic controls may help us with our resource problems,
pollution is a stickier issue. (Yech.) Legal waste disposal
is hard to monitor. It's no accident that organized crime likes
to get involved in garbage collection and toxic waste handling.
One of the most intriguing ideas I've run across is from
do-it-yourself author John Muir (not the Yosemite conservationist)
who wrote "How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step
Procedures for the Compleat Idiot" (1969).
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1566913101/hip-20 )
He also wrote a book on how to fix our government, "The Velvet
Monkey Wrench" (1973).
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0943734398/hip-20 )
In it he proposed that nothing be allowed to leave your property
unless somebody paid you for it. Well, it looks good on paper,
anyway. (Tell it to the mob.) I worry a lot these days about
the sheer volume of old computer monitors and cell phones we have
to dispose of.
- I wonder are we -- or is anybody -- getting a real handle on this
"sustainability" thing. I mean, I go down to our local Earth Day
event in Balboa Park, San Diego every year, and see just about
all of the booths.
( www.earthdayweb.org/SDEW_EarthFair.html#EF99_Exh )
But if you took all of the advice offered by every booth: ate
vegan, drove an electric car, wore hemp clothes, went to beach
cleanups and voted Green Party, would you be living a sustainable
lifestyle? I doubt it. Setting aside the fact that this is more
attempts to get people to save the earth through altruism --
and we all know most people won't bother -- where is the master
plan? How do we get there from here?
When I lived in Massachusetts I was a fan of the New Alchemy
Institute, whose archives are now maintained by the Green
Center. They were trying to design an 'ark" of greenhouses
and fish tanks that people could live in sustainably, using
only solar energy, consuming no other resources and producing
no wastes. Wow.
( www.fuzzylu.com/greencenter/home.htm )
This is similar to the grand experiment of Biosphere II, an attempt
to create a closed (except to energy) ecological system with humans.
( www.bio2.com/index.html )
But even those little sealed Ecospheres with air, water, shrimp,
algae and micro-organisms only last 2 to 7 years.
( www.eco-sphere.com )
( www.greenfeet.com/ecospheres.html )
One idea I've been kicking around is the "sustainable timeshare."
It's hard to make long-term sustainability a priority in our
daily lives, with shorter-term personal, economic and political
problems to face, but maybe we could take a week a year and
see how close we could get. Imagine a vacation spot that's off
the grid, running entirely on renewable energy sources, with a
full-time staff to maintain, monitor and improve the systems,
and families that come in for a week at a time. Could it work?
It would be good to know.
* * * * * * * *
"What are people for?"
-- "Welcome to the Monkey House" (1968)
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Some time during the early 1990s, somewhere in WIRED magazine,
a conversation was reported between one of the magazine's editors
and a pollster. (I wish I could find the reference -- WIRED
is entirely archived on-line.)
The pollster told the editor that overall Americans seemed
pessimistic about the future, but one demographic segment
seemed wildly optimistic: the readers of WIRED.
It may be that that the WIRED readers are ahead of the curve on this.
Optimism increased throughout the nineties. Symbolic of this shift
is the famed bet between economist Julian Simon and biologist Paul
Ehrlich. One account is given by blogger Brian Carnell.
In 1980, economist Julian Simon and biologist Paul Ehrlich
decided to put their money where their predictions were.
Ehrlich had been predicting massive shortages in various
natural resources for decades, while Simon claimed natural
resources were infinite.
Simon offered Ehrlich a bet centered on the market price of
metals. Ehrlich would pick a quantity of any five metals he
liked worth $1,000 in 1980. If the 1990 price of the metals,
after adjusting for inflation, was more than $1,000 (i.e.
the metals became more scarce), Ehrlich would win. If,
however, the value of the metals after inflation was less
than $1,000 (i.e. the metals became less scare), Simon
would win. The loser would mail the winner a check for
the change in price.
Ehrlich agreed to the bet, and chose copper, chrome, nickel,
tin and tungsten.
By 1990, all five metal were below their inflation-adjusted
price level in 1980. Ehrlich lost the bet and sent Simon a
check for $576.07. Prices of the metals chosen by Ehrlich
fell so much that Simon would have won the bet even if the
prices hadn't been adjusted for inflation.
Another interpretation of these events is found at Stanford's
Center for Conservation Biology,
quoting Paul and Anne Ehrlich's "Betrayal of Science and Reason:
How Anti-Environment Rhetoric Threatens Our Future" (1996).
I want to say here that Ehrlich did a brave thing in 1970s when he
sounded an alarm amidst much institutional complacency. I believe
he was sincere. But he was mostly wrong, about millions dying in
the 1970s and billions dying in the 1980s. How many times does
he have to be wrong to lose some credibility? The man who bet
against him, Julian Simon, says there is no population problem.
An unattributed quote from him I found on the web
puts it this way:
It is your mind that matters economically, as much or more than
your mouth or hands. In the long run, the most important economic
effect of population size and growth is the contribution of
additional people to our stock of useful knowledge. And this
contribution is large enough in the long run to overcome all
the costs of population growth.
Simon claims we have a SHORTAGE of people! I found that to be
Along with futurist Herman Khan, in 1984 Simon published "The
Resourceful Earth" which laid out his position.
(An updated position is on-line in the article "The Ultimate
Resource II: People, Materials, and Environment" 1997.)
In 1989, Kevin Kelly wrote "Apocalypse Juggernaut, Goodbye" for
the "Whole Earth Review" (which evolved out of the "CoEvolution
Quarterly") in which that publication backed away from the doom.
THE ORTHODOX DOGMA for the last couple of decades has been
that there is no end in sight for the increase of population
of humans on earth. Nearly everyone can draw the generic
graph of surging human population rocketing further off the
charts, nearing infinity with each passing year. That's the
The proposition that in the future we might actually be in for
a population fizzle is so unthinkable, so contrary to our common
agreement, that it borders on the laughable. What sane or
compassionate person could suggest that there is no population
problem on earth? Yet when I set out to verify the population
statistic underlying the premise for the Global Teenager theory
[another article in that issue], I found sane and compassionate
people holding what could only be called population heresies.
And this, once again, brings us to consider "The Skeptical
Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World"
(1998) by Bjorn Lomborg.
I announced in the April 2003 C3M that I was going to review this book
"soon," and I got an interesting comment from one of my subscribers,
Talk about a hot potato! You might as well say you were
about to seriously deal with the veracity of ideas propagated
in "Mein Kampf".....I'll be very interested mostly in why you
chose that book. There are also some books by Rush Limbaugh
and Pat Robertson that could be included in the same collection
along with Lyndon LaRouch and people who will be glad to explain
to you just what the Vatican has been up to all these years.
Snake oil. But seriously, I haven't read it any more than I
would read any of the other people mentioned. So I admire your
bravery. But you see I'm biased, I'm watching a unique and
critical habitat in North America die while the people killing
it tell you straight to your face that they're proud of the work
they've done to preserve it.
The river has been here for millennia, other than foot traffic
of a few Native Americans, it was untouched until about 150 years
ago. Its pretty much going to become a filthy ditch in my lifetime.
In my reply I said:
I was a little surprised that you compared Bjorn Lomborg with
Hitler and bragged that you wouldn't consider reading his book
because you already know it's "snake oil." My question is, how
do you know? What sources did you rely on to make this
determination? This is not a rhetorical question. Please be
His response included:
We can both type Lomborg into a search engine and get plenty
but I think my correct answer is about 30 years of reading and
a lot of experiences which could fill a book which convinced
me that I should take the moderate environmental stance I do today.
And he gave me some links to see:
The latter gives a version of the "creation myth" of Lomborg's
What the media love about "The Skeptical Environmentalist" is the
tale of its genesis, which smacks of the apocryphal but, for what
it's worth, goes like this: Once upon a time, our protagonist
earnestly believed in saving the world from ecological destruction.
He believed so hard that he joined Greenpeace and stopped eating
meat. Then one day he came across the writings of Julian Simon,
who claimed that environmental concerns were largely bunk.
Horrified, Lomborg set out to disprove Simon, only to find that
he was correct in virtually every particular. With the blinders
removed from his own eyes, Lomborg set out to enlighten the rest
of us. And the media swallowed this creation myth whole -- because
... the folks who switch horses in mid-stream make great copy.
So I am forewarned that this is a "hot potato," and I've made sure
to have my "ducks lined up" before writing this e-Zine.
Something else that gave me pause was an on-line article called "The
Continuing Crucifixion of Bjorn Lomborg" by Jim Peron.
From the moment his book, "The Skeptical Environmentalist," was
published, he has been subjected to a ruthless campaign of
vilification and hatred. He's been assaulted by "Green
activists" who are then praised on Green web sites for their
attacks. He's been vilified by Green "scientists" who
themselves, have admitted that they lie to the public
so that they can push their own agenda.
The most recent example of an attack on Lomborg comes
from something called The Danish Committee on Scientific
Dishonesty. Green activists had filed complaints with this
Committee because Lomborg is Danish.
... is said by the Greens that Lomborg is a statistician
and thus unqualified to talk about "complex" environmental
issues. Of course Green gurus routinely pontificate about
fields in which they are unqualified but that's ignored.
So presumably the Committee was stacked with hard core
scientists who understand all the various issues which
Lomborg discussed in his book. Well, actually no. The
chairman of the "Working Party" to investigate Lomborg was
an MD. Another has a DPhil, another has an LLD, another has
a DPolSci and one has a DSc in Agronomy. So we've got a doctor,
a lawyer, a doctor in philosophy and a political scientist
investigating the claims.
... [An] attack on Lomborg ... was carried out by Scientific
Emeritus Professor Philip Scott, University of London, said
that the Scientific American article on Lomborg "was surely
nothing less than a disgrace to American science." Matt Ridley,
author of Genome, and a regular science writer for respected
newspapers, dismissed the Scientific American attack: "the
Scientific American articles are devastating not to Lomborg,
but to his critics. Again and again, before insulting him,
the critics concede, through gritted teeth, that he has got
his facts right."
So I stand warned -- I could be crucified too. Maybe it's a lucky
thing my e-Zine only has about 150 subscribers.
It's a big, heavy book: 515 pages including footnotes. The gist
of it, without examples and analysis, is that environmental
activists have been distorting the facts to create hysteria, and
things really aren't so bad as they say. (I guess the idea is
that it's hard to get people to donate to "save the Earth" if
it's not very threatened.) I have to admit I liked it. Lomborg
seemed to be writing carefully and with integrity. If I have a
complaint, it's that he went sort of overboard. Once he was "on a
roll" he couldn't seem to stop.
But of course the true test of this book are in its assertions.
What are the facts? I didn't have the time to fact-check this
whole book, so I picked the first few in chapter one to dive in
to. (The chapter is abridged as an article in "Asian Affairs.")
...Lester Brown said in early 1998 that he could detect
the beginnings of a historic increase in the price of wheat.
From 1994 to 1996 wheat got more expensive and we were heading
for the abyss. In Figure 49 you will that he was plain wrong.
The wheat price in 2000 was lower than ever before.
Equally, Worldwatch was telling us how grain yields are no
longer growing as fast or have perhaps even stopped completely,
because we are increasingly closer to the physiological limits
of the plants. Trying to discredit the World Bank grain
predictions, the editor of Worldwatch pointed out that from
1990 to 1993, the first three years in the Banks 20-year
projection period, worldwide grain yields per hectare actually
declined. While the claim was technically true for the
three-year period (the grain yield did decline from 2.51 t/ha
to 2.49 t/ha), Worldwatch neglected and misrepresented the
long-term growth, conveniently ignoring the fact that this
decline did not take place in the more vulnerable developing
countries, where yields have steadily grown. Actually, if grain
yield declined marginally in the early 1990s, it was primarily
due to the break-up of the Soviet Union, causing grain yields
there to plummet. This was hardly an indication of physiological
limits of the plants.
There were two things I needed to check. Did Lester Brown really
make these claims? And, are Lomborg's facts really correct?
It wasn't hard to find a 1997 press release on the Worldwatch
Institute web site about rising grain prices and falling grain
Rising grain prices may be the first global economic indicator
to tell us that we are on an economic and demographic path that
is environmentally unsustainable, reports a new Worldwatch
Institute policy paper The Agricultural Link: How Environmental
Deterioration Could Disrupt Economic Progress.
"The deterioration of the earth's ecosystem is slowing growth
in world food production during the nineties and ushering in an
era of scarcity," says Worldwatch Institute president, Lester R.
Brown, author of the report. "After a half century of falling
grain prices, the 39 percent rise in the world price of wheat
over the last three years may signal a new era of rising grain prices."
Lomborg's footnotes sent me to the web site of the Food and Agricultural
Organization (FAO) of the United Nations to get the raw data.
By navigating its query interface I was able to obtain the
following data for world wheat production since 1990:
1990 - 592,249,697
1991 - 546,804,457
1992 - 565,133,423
1993 - 564,489,749
1994 - 527,092,707
1995 - 542,507,590
1996 - 585,142,453
1997 - 613,273,546
1998 - 593,315,587
1999 - 587,808,791
2000 - 585,965,946
2001 - 590,519,905
2002 - 573,513,303
2003 - 556,348,627
It doesn't look to me like it's rising or falling as a general trend.
To get Lomborg's graphs, I'd have to query again for every type of
grain and add them up, and I don't have time this month. (Anyone game?)
But I did find an article in the CNN archives that summarizes some US
data for the year 2000, and production was up.
I also found an interview with Lester Brown from 1999 that says
lower wheat prices are bad news!
The exchange includes this Q & A:
Q: But most of us have no real way to keep track of how much
water China is pumping from its aquifers. What number could
we use as a proxy?
A: The price of wheat is a good number to keep track of. It's
dropped from $240 a ton in 1950 to $120 this year. If we were
managing our water supplies on a sustainable basis, wheat prices
would be far above where they are now. And since wheat is the
best single indicator of world food supplies, I think we're
going to see a situation where water scarcity leads to food
I have to wonder, if higher wheat prices are bad news and indicate a
shortage is coming, and lower wheat prices are bad news and indicate
a shortage is coming, what would good news look like?
So I haven't been able to verify the exact facts Lomborg used,
but I haven't found anyone who's refuted them, either. In fact,
it's hard to fin d anyone who refutes anything he says. They just
seem to accuse him of "dishonesty" and sometimes of being a "partisan."
I did run across a video clip (on Lomborg's web site) of Lester
Brown and Bjorn Lomborg engaged in a debate.
Brown says India is being deforested, Lomborg says it isn't and offers
to bet him, using the FAO stats to decide. Brown accepts the authority
of the FAO stats but declines the bet. Of course the stats favor
In one of the few legitimate attempts to refute him, a Lomborg critic
challenges the FAO stats as a true guide to deforestation.
Craig Simmons, Director Best Foot Forward writes:
Why Lomborg is wrong to say that forested area is increasing
Lomborg uses historical FAO data to make the case that, from
1950 to 1994, global forest cover has increased by 0.85 percent.
To understand why such historical data is unreliable one has to
understand that it is based on an aggregation of nationally
reported statistics. There are many economic and political
reasons why countries would not want to accurately report the
state of their forests and many different ways that they actually
count forest cover. Many countries do not collect data annually
but rely on old studies. Perhaps most significantly, an area it
not said to be 'deforested' until it falls below a certain
threshold level of cover. Thus forest densities can be
dramatically decreased - yet still be classified as forested
area. Also, remarkably, the FAO does not consider harvested
areas to be deforested as they might in the foreseeable future
be replanted or regenerate (only land use changes are recorded).
This makes it extremely difficult to make any assumptions about
changes in forest cover over such timescales.
Well, now we're getting somewhere. Though it does seem a bit
duplicitous for Greens to accept FAO figures when they agree
with their conclusions and challenge them when they don't, at
least this is a sensible, well-reasoned argument. (The same web
site shows Lomborg getting a pie in the face. And this proves what?)
Where I find Lomborg's argument weakest is in the area of pollution.
I can accept that we can find replacement resources, and I do
agree that our air and water are getting cleaner overall lately,
but -- as the World3 model shows -- an exponentially increasing
industrial base will need an exponentially increasing number
of places to dump stuff. One of the biggest reminders I've
seen that humans really can ruin things is at the dead zone of
Chernobyl, which was chillingly chronicled in a recent photo essay
by a young Ukrainian woman.
My tentative conclusion on all of this is that we need people
like Lomborg to keep us honest. When Lester Brown argues that
rising AND falling wheat prices are bad news, he may achieve
a tactical goal of rallying support for his organization,
but he erodes his credibility and that of the Greens in the
long run. This is not good, and it's not the fault of the
people who point it out.
* * * * * * * *
"Is balance really possible where even the gravity is manufactured?"
-- Stewart Brand
I know I've mentioned this twice recently, but it's important.
The best outcomes of world models happen when we include energy
and resources from space, as argued by Peter Vajk, a physicist at
Lawrence Livermore Labs, in his article "Space Colonies, Ethics
and People" in the Spring 1976 CoEvolution Quarterly.
A recent 'aha!" I read told of looking at a photo of the Earth from
space and realizing that the "black" part of the picture is bathed
in sunlight -- cloudless, nightless free energy.
And if we can ever get the "elevator to orbit" working, and safe
enough to use without major risk factors, maybe we can use it to
cart pollution to the moon. Or, maybe we can just locate the polluting
factories there in the first place, or in Earth orbit. The "space
fountain" or "elevator to orbit" idea seemed like it was 50 years
off when it was proposed in the 1980s -- see "Future Magic" (1988)
by Robert L. Forward --
but materials science has been advancing faster than expected and
we're getting really close already.
But some people oppose a solution to the limits to growth that doesn't involve frugality and, well, stopping growth. For example, Paul Ehrlich:
"Giving society cheap, abundant energy would be the equivalent
of giving an idiot child a machine gun."
-- quoted by R. Emmett Tyrrell in "The American Spectator,"
September 6, 1992
Boy, he really doesn't trust us, does he! In Vajk's article he describes
how it might be possible to send 200 million people a year from Earth
to live in space, and then adds:
Some population control advocates immediately cry out in objection,
"What's the POINT in making it possible for human beings to breed
so prolifically? What is the VALUE in increasing our numbers
20,000 fold? DO we have the RIGHT to go on filling up the
universe with ourselves and our progeny?"
These objections, carefully analyzed, are based, first, on a
mental model of ecological systems in a CLOSED environment,
and, second, on an unconscious denigration of the value of each
single human life.
It has been argued that the extreme case of this kind of unlimited
growth is a universe teeming with humans, in which most of the matter
has been turned to conscious protoplasm. Actually, I think the French
paleontologist and Catholic mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955)
was actually aiming at this outcome with his idea of the "noosphere,"
as well as Italian architect and mystic Paolo Soleri, with ideas
of "matter becoming spirit." See "The Bridge Between Matter & Spirit
is Matter Becoming Spirit: The Arcology of Paolo Soleri" (1973).
(Both used the Omega to symbolize their envisioned final stage of
But the extreme case of the zero growth approach leads to an attitude
satirized by National Lampoon in a piece on "terminal meditation."
You go into a subway terminal, meditate on the environmental
destruction you cause just be being alive, and hurl yourself in
front of a train.
And speaking of evolution, I must share with you "The Next Really
Big Enormous Thing" by Dr. Robin Hanson, Assistant Professor of
Economics at George Mason University. He wrote this essay
for the "Daily Brief," slogan: "one of the 'briefest' Internet
updates offered anywhere. (Unlike this e-Zine!)
I urge you to read the whole thing, on-line as a PDF document.
But here are some excerpts:
A postcard summary of life, the universe and everything might
go as follows. The universe appeared and started expanding.
Life appeared somewhere and then on Earth began making larger
and smarter animals. Humans appeared and became smarter and
more numerous, by inventing language, farming, industry, and
The events in this summary are not evenly distributed over
the history of the universe. The first events are relatively
evenly distributed: the universe started fourteen billion years
ago, life appeared by four billion years ago, and on Earth
animals started growing larger and smarter about half a
billion years ago. But the other events are very recent:
our species appeared two million years ago, farming started
ten thousand years ago, industry started two hundred years
ago, and computers started a few decades ago.
While growth rates have varied widely, growth rate changes
have been remarkably consistent -- each mode grew from one
hundred and fifty to three hundred times faster than its
predecessor. Also, the recent modes have made a similar
number of doublings. While the universe has barely completed
one doubling time, and the largest animals grew through
sixteen doublings, hunting grew through nine doublings,
farming grew through seven and a half doublings, and
industry has so far done a bit over nine doublings.
Once we have machines that can do almost all the tasks that
people can do, however, this picture changes dramatically.
Since the number of machines can grow as fast as the economy
needs them, human population growth no longer limits economic
growth. In fact, simple growth models which assume no other
changes can easily allow a new doubling time of a month, a
week, or even less.
If we stand back from all the big events and innovations we
have seen in the last century and look at the overall world
economic growth rate, it seems surprisingly steady. All those
events and innovations contribute to growth, but have not
much changed the overall growth rate. From this, one might
expect such steady growth to continue for a long time.
Looking further back in time, however, we see that once in a
while something has changed the growth rate by enormous
factors in a relatively short time. We might do well to
not ignore such a speeding freight train until it actually hits us.
2004, Robin Hanson, all rights reserved.
* * * * * * * *
"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold"
-- W. B. Yeats
"I acted entirely inappropriately by kicking you, giving
vent to a thoughtless knee-jerk political reaction..."
-- college instructor apologizing to Republican student
In his email correspondence with me, e-Zine reader James Hood
any further discussion really should focus on the phenomenology
of communication events and our theory of knowledge, not "partisan"
bickering over environmental policy or populist ideology...
(He also reminded me that -- speaking of phenomenology --
deconstructionist Jacques Derrida died on Oct. 9, 2004.
Perhaps in a future e-Zine I will get around to deconstructing
the deconstructionists, along with reviewing Sherry Turkle's books.)
When I was at Kresge College at the University of California at Santa
Cruz (UCSC), Gregory Bateson used to keep his recommended reading list
posted on his office door. (At one point Stewart Brand nabbed it to print
in the "CoEvolution Quarterly.") One of the books on the list was
"The Nature of Explanation" (1943) by Kenneth Craik.
It was quite an adventure tracking it down in the pre-internet era,
but I finally got and read it (and I still own it). It dealt with
the importance of scientific method in psychology (and was a seminal
work in perceptual psychology) , and I found it to be mostly a
disappointment, but the title stayed with me. It reminded me of
EPISTEMOLOGY, and how we decide what's true.
I feel compelled to discuss this because we have a presidential
election coming up in the U.S. in a few days, and the ad hominen
arguments, mudslinging, outright lies and increasing physical
violence have me a little perturbed.
In the groundbreaking popular book about nanotechnology,
"Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology" (1986)
by Eric Drexler,
he proposes a kind of "truth court" to decide scientific and other
facts that can then be used in trials without the need for expert
witnesses, and freeing each jury from having to decide scientific
truth. This might be a good idea -- depending on how it is done --
but what we have right now is a free-for-all in which the "big
lie" technique is practiced on the gullible.
My wife commiserated with me recently that public debate in America
has degenerated to the point where each side paints a false picture
of the other's position, a "straw man" if you will, and attacks THAT.
For example, Democrats want to force your children to look at porn
on the internet in public libraries, and Republicans want to destroy
Social Security. ("But they do!" I hear some of you screeching.)
I'm reminded of a joke I made up (one of the few): a husband and
wife are arguing over whether the area code of Miami is 305 or
312. The man gets on the speakerphone and calls 411 to ask the
directory assistance operator. The operator says it's 305. "Oh,
fine," says the wife, "take his side!" (Nitpickers and partisans
can ask why I didn't reverse the genders.)
We live in a world in which all facts are potentially politicized.
I remember after the OJ murder trial, when surveys showed that a majority
of whites thought he was guilty while a majority of blacks thought
he was innocent. And we all watched the same newscasts! (Alas,
in issues involving whites and Hispanics that much isn't even true.)
The updated version of this mystery is: the Kerry campaign says
that they have 10,000 lawyers and a fleet of private planes ready
to launch lawsuits to contest the 2004 election. Quick quiz, does
* Kerry is trying to steal the election.
* Bush is trying to steal the election and Kerry has to fight
extra hard to stop him.
Find someone who thinks the opposite as you on this one, and try to
reason it out. Good luck!
In tracking the "Bookwatch" web site this year,
I've seen an increase in craven, vitriolic partisan books on "both"
sides, with no books by or for centrists or others -- except maybe
Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Presents America
(The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction" (2004).
And speaking of Jon Stewart, the most interesting media event
of the election season was his appearance on CNN's "Crossfire,"
in which he accused both sides of "hurting America" with their
stylized partisan bickering.
In an essay in the nonfiction book "Wampeters, Foma, and
novelist Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. explains that the "Democrats" and
"Republicans" are make-believe political parties; the real
parties are the "winners" and "losers." Anyone elected to
congress is a "winner." According to Vonnegut, the "Democrats"
lie and say they will help the losers if they are elected, while
the Republicans don't bother.
Now I am a Libertarian who used to be a Democrat, and I have very
little regard for the current Democratic party (ever since the
Clinton presidency), but I still have some sympathy for the rank
and file Democrats. For you, I have this disturbing observation:
Back in the 1960s and 70s there were some high-profile people
who switched allegiances, such as Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked
"The Pentagon Papers" (1971),
and John Dean, who refused to take the fall for Nixon and later
wrote about it in "Blind Ambition" (1977),
and even the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. All of them were
moving "leftward." These days, the tide is going the other way.
There is Tammy Bruce, the lesbian ex-NOW leader who wrote "The New
Thought Police: Inside the Left's Assault on Free Speech and Free
There is Bernard Goldberg, the 20-year Emmy-winning veteran of
CBS news and self-described liberal who wrote "Bias: A CBS Insider
Exposes How the Media Distort the News" (2001).
There is Democratic congressman Zell Miller, who spoke this year
at the Republican convention, and wrote "A National Party No More:
The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat" (2003).
There is even former 20-year Clinton friend DIck Morris, who
is now flogging his new anti-Clinton book "Rewriting History" (2004).
The only counterexample I can think of is Senator Jim Jeffords,
who bailed from the Republicans in 2001 and wrote of it in "My
Declaration of Independence" (2001).
Every time one of these people breaks ranks they are vilified
and even character-assassinated by the Democrats, and I daresay if
Al Gore was president they would have their tax returns audited too.
My warning to you is this: not everyone who flatters you is a friend,
and not everyone who criticizes you is an enemy. This was the
lesson of Shakespeare's "King Lear" (1608),
and director Akiro Kurosawa's masterpiece film "Ran" (1985) based on it.
The daughter (or son) who refuses to flatter the king is exiled,
and ends up living with the king's enemy becasue no one else will
have them. This how Tammy Bruce, Bernard Goldberg and Dick Morris
ended up on conservative talk radio. I predict the Democrats will
not achieve greatness again until they can embrace their critics.
(Well, maybe not Dick Morris.)
Also, I have a final warning for "both your houses." There is a
tendency in the heat of political (or other) battles to reach for
whatever weapon is handy. This sometimes has the side-effect of
reducing civil liberties. But realize that both sides gain the
new powers. The Bush administration is fighting in court for
the power to incarcerate without trail (or any judicial review)
in the war on terror, ending a centuries of English common law
rights of "habeus corpus" and giving the president powers Stalin had.
The Kerry campaign is threatening if they win to yank the FCC
licenses of Sinclair broadcasting for airing an anti-Kerry news
special. Think about the game of "Zen chess," in which two people
play while a Zen master watches, who may reverse the board at any
time. If you are a Democrat, ask if you want Dick Cheney to be able
to censor the news; if you are a Republican, ask if you want Hillary
Clinton to be able to lock anyone up without appeal.
In conclusion, my fellow Americans, I urge you all to THINK and
then VOTE. (And even if you want "none of the above" for president,
be sure to research and vote for local offices and ballot measures.)
See you at the recount!
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Copyright 2004 by Alan B. Scrivener