Sunday, June 3, 2018

The Emergence of the Superorganism: Susan Kucera's Movie "Living in The Future's Past"

Imagine you are an ant. All you have seen in your life are only other ants, touching their antennas and moving on. Then, one day, the Ant God, who is benevolent and merciful, lifts you up in the air and shows you the world from there. And, miracle, you see the anthill for the first time. You see the teeming, organized, complex, superorganism which you never suspected to exist but of which have been a single cell for all your life.

That would be quite an experience for an ant and we, humans, might be subjected to something similar: the sudden, unexpected, and amazing perception of the human superorganism - a planetary-scale creature, not unlike a giant anthill, engaged in changing the world.

Physicists enjoy talking about "emergent phenomena," that is about entities appearing as the result of the interaction of smaller and simpler elements. An anthill is a good example: a single ant is not an anthill and knows nothing about anthills, but the behavior of many ants creates the anthill.

Humans can do something similar, it is an emergent characteristic which appeared only in recent times in the human evolutionary history. Collecting first into bands, then villages, then cities, then states, now humans form a single, giant creature - the superorganism - which is literally devouring the planet to keep itself growing. In a sense, it is like a science fiction novel, but it is real: you can see it at work - one good place to get a feeling of its presence is in Susan Kucera's movie "Living in the Future's Past."

The concept of a human superorganism is not new - its origins may go back to the work of Gustave Le Bon, "The Psychology of the Crowds" (1895). The idea of a single, worldwide human anthill is relatively recent, but it is clearly appearing in the human memesphere. Gaia Vince gave the name of "Homni" to it, and you can find the concept scattered over a number of sites and discussions (although often mixed with that of the human microbiome, a different emergent phenomenon).

The superorganism is explicitly mentioned by Nate Hagens in his several appearances in the movie, but it is present all over it. It is one of the threads, perhaps the main one of the whole story. The movie itself is an emergent phenomenon, it is amazing how Susan could weave together many different and complicated concepts, told by different people who are not speaking to each other, into a coherent whole. And out of this whole, a fundamental concept "emerges:"  humans have taken control of the planet, but they lost control of the superorganism.

So, once you discover that you are surrounded by this giant creature - you are actually part of it - what is to be done? This is the classic question asked in all the discussions on how to "save the environment." Turn off the lights when you leave home, bicycle when you can, eat less meat, that kind of stuff. All that, of course, will have no effect on a planetary-size monster devouring you and everything else.

But is the superorganism evil? If so, what should be done about it? A possible suggestion could be to break it down into smaller parts which could do less damage to the planet. But that would probably change little to the situation. Or, we could try to tame the superorganism, turning it into something benevolent and merciful. Is it possible? Let's say that it may not be impossible. And this seems to be the gist of the movie when, at the end, we hear Jeff Bridges citing Teilhard de Chardin as

Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides, and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire. (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)

And that makes perfect sense: if the superorganism can be tamed and educated, it can only be done by means of love.


Susan Kucera speaks at the presentation of "Living in the Future's Past" in Florence on May 31, 2018. In the picture, you see also Stefano Dominici (University of Florence) and Gloria Germani (Odeon Cinema)

Below, Nate Hagens speaks about the Superorganism


  1. For those interested, the complete transcript of Hagens' "Energy, Money and Technology" videorecorded talk is available on my website in 5 parts. Part 4 includes his bit about our species as an out-of-control, energy-hungry, global Superorganism. Here's a Shortlink to part 4 Once at part 4, you can access the other 4 parts.

  2. I have not seen the movie but I have heard Nate talk for over 10 years now. It always seems to be presented as some sort of mystical/etherial thing, like we can't quite know.... BS!

    Its money plain and simple. Money must become MORE money..."feed me Seymour". Capital will become more capital or it will go away and that will not be allowed. Capital will become more capital and that new aggregate of capital will become more...and so on, and so on. Without money you die. Everyone knows this and it is becoming more pronounced not less.

    The one and only thing that drives, no demands growth is money/debt/capital. Without growth it all goes away and then what?

    Our superorganism is a supersystem under which we have organized ourselves under and will spell our extinction unless we can end it.

  3. Look forward to watching the film. I highly recommend the writings of Daniel Quinn, author of 'Ishmael' and others, for more deep insights into our destructive ways as a species, or more accurately as a civilization.

  4. There has to be some math behind the superorganism. I accept that I am a cell of the superorganism. My consumption contributes to the total need of the superorganism but I am only a cell. Total need is a reflection of the fact that the superorganism is warm blooded. The cells consume resources needlessly only to generate heat to keep metabolism high. Capitalism is warm blooded and its metabolism is very high. Sometimes being cold blooded could be a good thing. Energy needs of cold blooded creatures are significantly less. To each according to their need but that is not possible with cells committed to endless growth and endless need. Becoming cold blooded could be possible if cell needs were re-prioritized.

  5. Nate Hagens lecture is awesome. I might say that because some might say that I live in my own filter bubbel and feel very much affirmed by this lecture. Nate Hagens lecture is probably the most complete summary of all the arguments I ever brought forth in the comments section of this blog and I believe he is right on the spot in all the points me makes. I also believe his science is as sound as it can be.

    But again, his final summary slide says "Global market based human society is functioning lika dissipative structure - and will continue to until it cannot". Why "global market" and not "capitalism"? We will have a global market long after the real dissipative structure "capitalism", whioh is the driving force behind the growth paradigm, will have collapsed.

    He is talking about capitalism in his whole lecture all the time without EVER using the word once. His whole lecture even is in essence based on marxist theory, without him ever admitting to it. His main points are essentially a summary of the (Marxist) Marvin Harris theory of cultural materialism, I have quite often refered to and is the central theme of my own blog.

    He uses marxist arguments in his analysis of capitalism, the global monetary system or the meaning of debt and he even implicitely talks about the alienating and dislocating effects of capitalism on the (working) people, just like Marx does.

    Some of his points like "who is buying the products if workers wages become too low to afford them" are quasi quotes from "Das Kapital", which is in essence the basis of any demand side modern economic theory.

    Why are we finally talking about the elephant in the room and shy away from calling it an elephant? I realy do not get it.

    1. hi. thanks for kind words. (i think).
      Humans are animals - we have optimal foraging algorithms in our brains the same as a walruses or wolves. When our species came across a large bolus of fossil sunlight we 'self-organized' into what we now refer to as 'capitalism'. It's not good or bad it just was the socio-political structure that allowed us to widen the energy spigot for the longest period and ultimately (via complexity and increasing # of nodes, and population) the biggest.

      Because as individuals we seek 'brain experiences' and these are correlated with energy, after a 'collapse' we will self-organize again to provide the most of these services, with whatever energy we can muster - and yes - we'll begin to grow again from some lower level. Anticipating this we might be able to construct a system more linked to intelligent foresight. The longer we stay obsessed with kicking the last one or two cans the less likely intelligent foresight will be the response.

      Imo, marxism is as much a failure as capitalism. It just fails sooner with less ecological damage on long term horizons. Humans evolved -like other animals- with hierarchy and differing levels of status. But -importantly -most of our ancestral conditions (~300,000 years in Africa as hunter/gatherers), our CONSUMPTION was equal - because a) we made sure everyone in the tribe had enough and b) we didn't carry around any tokens/markers of 'wealth'. So we had a biological imperative for status/differentiation, but for most of our history this wasn't correlated with resources/stuff because 99% of our consumption was endosomatic.

      Much different situation today. I don't think any human enterprise with such a ginormous fossil sunlight bonanza could be 'wise'. Wiser, less destructive systems will only emerge under smaller surplus situations. I think.

    2. Dear Nate H,
      Thanks for your answer and I totally aggree that the system we will have in the future will look like nothing we have seen in the past.

      But in your argument there is this strange notion that is very wide spread in western countries and wich I'd like to see overcome and the reason I wrote the comment above.

      "Marxism" by many, is only seen as the system that was implemented after the events of the october revolution in Russia, so everything "marxists" do is must be related to bringing that back.

      In social theory, many philosophers and scientists are called "marxist", and some of them probably where or are also politically invested into a socialist movement. But their political opinion is not the reason for social sciences calling them marxist, they are marxist because they follow a school of thought based on Karl Marx scientific work, which is, as we know, a fundamental critique of capitalism, not a political manifest (he wrote that later and called it a manifest). The fact that his work changed our World like probably no other academic work should be enough to ber interested in it. Marxism as a "System" might have been a "failure", marxist theory was probably the most successfull and influencial academic work in all history.

      Marx critical questioning of the current system led him to join revolutionary movements and search for a "better" system. Many in the post fossile or post growth community do the same thing, they would benefit from the work that has been done in the past by social philosophers and theorists, be they marxist or not.

      Critically questioning the subject of our enquiry, the failings of the current "system", is what they all have in common.

      I am not a communist or a socialist, I do not promote that we implement some sort of USSR like system. I feel that my political stand point is not represented by any party in germany right now.

      I actually am rather fond of Post-Modern theories critical of marxist theories, (like Michel Foucault), but to get there some understanding of Marxist theoretical work is needed. Like Foucault, I would rather be considered an anarchist than a socialist.

      All I'm saying is that if we want to free ourself we need to overcome the walls that inhibit our thinking. To free us from "anticommunist" or "anticapitalist" dead ends, we need to overcome ALL that we think we know for granted.

      I guess its very probable that when you started with your work you never heard of Marvin Harris, the US-Anthropologist. Ask your self, "Why is that?". If you had, you would have realized that much of what you had to produce in formulating your theories was already there, published in the seventies.

      Tad Patzek (a very anti-communist person) hosted the event at KAUST where your talk takes place. In this Interview ( ), at the very end he says:

      "The only people who can actually imagine our future and have a holistic view of it, are the people who deal with reality every day. I hate to tell you but most (natural) scientists do not deal with reality every day. they deal with tiny slices of how we partition reality ...
      ... its very crucial that we involve doctors (...), sociologists, philosophers, You know people who can imagine the unimaginable and can actually synthesize from bits and pieces a larger picture. "

  6. Hi Ugo. Both my girlfriend and mom commented on that handsome italian guy in the movie - so it must be true. ;-)

    As you know I believe that viewing the global human economy as an energy dissipative structure is much more than an academic question. Because, while it may be depressing, it also suggests completely different ways of mitigating and adapting to what's ahead.

    Organisms and ecosystems self-organize to better access an energy gradient - this links back to Lotka stating that those organisms having higher access to 'power' (cet par.) also have higher access to survival.

    The difference in human systems is we use (lots of) exosomatic energy - so the direct link between calories and survival is broken but the link between energy and 'brain experiences' is not. We choose (elect) leaders who promise to deliver a steady/larger stream of 'brain services' to larger numbers of people/voters. In poor countries this might be access to food/water/sanitation, in richer countries it might be more broadband, lower taxes (so more $ to spend on 'other'), or lower gas prices.

    In the modern economy, we self-organize in small businesses, large corporations, nation states, and even the whole global economic system to increase our GDP, which biophysically, at least historically**, has been access to power (energy burned per unit time). In total, human systems eat power like an animal eats food. Viewed globally, this is what we are maximizing - GDP as a marker for power. It is why we do everything possible (adding renewables, printing money, central banks at 100:1 leverage, changing rules to lower debt/GDP ratio so we can continue getting funding from ECB, etc.)

    From this vantage it is clear we will continue to kick the can until we cannot (and that moment is within 10 years, maybe within 5). Then, because of previous 40 years of can kicking, we have a 30%+ drop in size of economy as financial claims recalibrate. So we have 2 distinct time periods: 1) the global 'hungry superorganism' stage (now), where it seems like we are in a race to add low carbon energy to replace fossil. And a 'great simplification' stage where we actually have too much energy for what societies can afford. Almost everyone is busy on XYZ expecting Stage 1 to continue indefinitely. But Stage 2 - smaller, simpler (less globalized connections), poorer economies is where the work is going to really need to get done. But we aren't getting that emotional signal yet, so we continue to work under false future assumptions. In effect, most of the 'we need to solve climate by shifting to renewable energy crowd' are arguing with a forest fire. The only way to 'save' climate is a much smaller economy, which is around the corner - how to 'save' lots of things will depend how we respond to that situation, what sorts of ideas, plans and combined FF/RE technologies are lying around. And what sorts of stories and leadership.

    @K-dog - yes there is math behind the superorganism and some people are working on it. "Becoming cold blooded could be possible if cell needs were re-prioritized." Kind of. The only political structure that is ‘cold blooded’ (thermodynamically) would be a (benevolent) dictator, which is pretty much impossible in todays world. So we want to get to a point -after the Simplification, where we do smart things for longer term: e.g. tax resources instead of labor, tax dopamine churning devices that produce nothing, reduce discount rates, subsidize practices that use excess low carbon electricity to create heavy fuels once obtained from fossil sources etc. All of this is way too costly to do today, and if introduced would crash the system. But can be thought about and planned and hoped for.


  7. forgot my ** after decoupling.
    ** globally energy was ~99% correlated with economic growth until around 2010. Since then there has seemingly been a decoupling, but there are non-recurring (and confusing) factors which are giving people confidence we can grow the economy without increasing energy. The reasons are:
    1) a shift of primary resources with different conversion efficiency (shift from coal to NG)
    2) slightly more direct electricity in aggregate (from more renewables)
    3) a big part is increase in GDP without resource appropriation (capital gains not yet converte into brain services requiring energy)
    4) statistical chicanery (overstating of output, understating of inflation, new hedonic measures of basic needs (ie. Replacing steak in a budget with hamburger)
    5) improved efficiency (very small, <0.1% per annum
    In aggregate, I think this decoupling last ~5-6 years is mostly phantom/temporary, but its hard to prove when about ½ of it is because of increasingly suspect GDP/inflation #s.

  8. alien observer- p.s. I have never read Marx nor have studied his theories so can't profess to being a marxist. Philosophically I am more aligned with 'buddhist economics' but a social system based on that (reducing desires etc) would have to start bottom up not top down. And unlikely to happen any time soon. Long term? who knows.

    In any case, when there is ample surplus, human (social animals) will use technology (e.g. fracking, or solar panels), money (beads, wampum or digital electrons) and ideology (capitalism, or..after the lower 1/2 of society has been bled dry, socialism) to continue access to more energy. With this lens, one can envision what the next 20-30 years might look like...

    Finally, my guess is that dolphins and elephants and hummingbirds would prefer that humans were Marxists.

    1. By the way, I think that many marxist theories share a flaw with capitalist idiology. I think that Marx and his contemporaries had the same "modernist" notion that led in the end to our disregard of the living world.

      This modernist thinking is why we felt entitled to exhaust our planet.

      Also I do think that the both political sides of the medal "right" and "left" are suffering from the same unsustainable ideas about growth, work and empoyment. Both sides see full employment as a main goal of all politics and growth as the way to get there. There is no possible future that I can see where "full employment" for all of earths inhabitants is a realistic goal.

      But there are many social (marxist) thinkers who challenge us to overcome these deep rooted believes. I have mentioned Immanuel Wallerstein, and I would suggest David Graeber (Bullshit Jobs) on that subject.

      In your comments here i sense that you are imprinted by your upbringing to some believes that you do not question enough. What I find fascinating is that both, western philosophy and eastern philosophy have converged on one essential argument about wisdom.

      Wisdom is to able to question and overcome all the barriers that society has build up (in our thinking) to prevent our enlightenment. (see i.e Foucault about emancipation of self).

      We are social beings, we as subjects are very much the product of our upbringing (our social class). THIS is the basic understanding of how human society operates that Marx has given us.

      In contrast, in capitalist idiology (See Ayn Rand etc.), the (ostensibly free) subject is in the center of all arguments. Its the poor people's fault that they are poor, and the rich are rich because they deserve to be. If you want to get to the root of exploitation, be it people or ressources, there it is.

      There is no social theory that follows that capitalöist train of thought, ALL social theories (and all of psychology, anthropology, psychoanalysis, neuroscuience amd even physics, medicine or biology), see the subject as a product of its psychosocial interactions. Economic theory is THE ONLY "sciene" that sees the subject not as a product of society but as a "free agent" the homo economicus.

      The whole subject of what collapse really means can not be understood if we do not go there, to the roots how societies organise them selfs.

  9. AO - Nate knows exactly what is going on but like everyone else he will do nothing that threatens his ability to make money. The US has a long history of drumming out anti-capitalist. Interestingly even the victims of capitalism will not stand for criticism of their best chance of rising above the insecurity and horror that it causes.

    You want to know why people are behaving badly? Why they are not responding to the injustice and inequality all around them and getting worse? Its because they have to go to work the next day and there is nothing more important than that...nothing!

    1. I let this message pass as an exception to the rule that insults are not normally allowed in the comments. Please moderate your tones, otherwise I'll have to ban you.

    2. Hi Jef - I do feel what you are describing and generally feel it to be true. I've been working on these issues for very little pay for 15 years and sometimes I *feel* like just going back to wall street and trading to make dopamine and dollars. I couldn't live with myself if I did that though, its taken me 50 years to learn this story I so gotta keep trying on this current path, because we can never know, right?. College adjunct professors are way down the social respect/compensation scale - which, as readers of Ugos blog are aware, is completely inverted as far as longer term priorities for our culture are concerned.

      Who is charged with 'future surplus'? There is no entity currently. And pursuing 'current surplus' (via profits and GDP) will likely mean very little future surplus. There should be some Foresight Committee that understands all the ways that humans evolved to be wrong and are currently functioning as a dissipative structure to offer some pathways forward of least damage. But such a committee by definition has no place in a dissipative structure.

      I continue to have hope that us being the first generation of our species to know all these things may create some social emergence that we can't yet see or predict.

    3. Of course I am sorry, I meant no insult to Nate. I simply state that we all have those same pressures and that pressure is primary in human behavior.

    4. Jef the man has taken a 90% pay cut in order to spread the message of seeing the big picture. Nothing much can be done if you follow his line of thinking, except prepare for the coming simplification.

    5. PS
      "alien observer- p.s. I have never read Marx nor have studied his theories "

      All im saying is, maybe you should.
      (I suggest treading summaries or watching some lectures by David Harvey though).

    6. I suppose "pay cut" is relevant. An adjunct Prof is payed much better than national average, then there is usually a "golden parachute" attached, and in a room full of people Prof is going to be held up there as well above average, unless that room is full of Goldman Sachs exects.

      Point is very few people who write about all of this collapse stuff have much of an understanding of the thinking and therefor behavior of the other 90%.

  10. To illustrate my point;

    "Seniors Are More Conservative Because the Poor Don’t Survive to Become Seniors"

  11. Superorganism or single cell organism all are slaves to the MPP.

    "The maximum power principle(MPP) in ecology states that self-­organizing systems, especially biological systems, capture and use available energy to develop network designs that maximize the energy fluxes through them, which are compatible with the constraints of the environment, and that those systems that maximize the throughput will endure. Thus, the MPP governs expediencies or efficiency in both the ecosystems functional and structural development. In this way, MPP can be used as a macro-level alternative model to interpreting evolution as a process whereby elements within an ecosystem are selected based upon their contribution to the processing of energy through the ecosystem, thus working to maximize the overall energy throughput"

    It's not a morality tale. It's not a choice. Even if the humans were on their best behaviour, it would only extend the experiment by an additional 50-100 years.

    1. Unknown, If you mean 'the experiment of growth', then I agree. If you mean: life, humans, civilization, etc. then I disagree.

      MPP is a useful generalization, not a hard rule (many examples in nature e.g. better nesting sites, show that everything other than energy is not always equal)

      The difference between humans and macro level ecological systems is we have exosomatic wands - they typically don't. If you look at the power vs efficiency of a pride of lions living by a herd of wildebeests, the maximum 'power' is obtained at like 1-2 wildebeests per day - to kill them all at once would be very inefficient because the lions can only eat so much wildebeest rump before their esophagus is backed up. To kill them one per month would starve the pride. Their 'power' (under MPP) is tethered to their metabolism -how many calories their bodies can intake per day/week.

      Ours not so much - at least at the peak of the carbon pulse. Ave american 'consumes' 100x the calories his body needs. Because our institutions have become compelled to grow because they are based on growth a wider smorgasboard has become available. Which means some flavor of Seneca in the future. On the downslope though, that dynamic will be the default, but doesn't have to by any ecological law. What about (after a reset, not before) taxing resources instead of labor, and other such negative feedback loops. It's why understanding this dynamic is potentially so important. We - at least in theory -have the ability to craft firewalls (an apt term) around it.

      Honestly, I think MORE options for a more sustainable trajectory will be available when we have LESS surplus (assuming the nukes don't fly). We kind of had to take this route - to experience it - to understand it - and to look the monster in the face as it were.

      Going back upthread re Marxism. As long as we have large exo surplus, there will be a perpetual tradeoff between freedom and equality. More equality will mean less freedom, and vice versa. And those at the bottom half will constantly strive for more equality while those at the top will strive for more freedom (less rules etc). But interesting things can happen when people from the bottom move to the top and vice versa.

      Lastly, I'll point out I haven't yet seen the movie on big screen, but watching the brake lights on a traffic stream in a city going one way, and the headlights in the traffic going the other, then reversing the footage, made it clear to the viewer the superorganism nature of our current culture -it looked so much like blood going through arteries. My guess is people following/understanding the Supeorganism dynamic will fall into 3 camps:
      1) depressed (theres nothing we can do)
      2) resigned (theres nothing we can do, might as well enjoy my life!)
      3) motivated (the things I've been working on don't make sense - I'm going to envision the Great Simplification and work on steering that)

      I am hopeful we increase the #s of people - around the world, in that 3rd camp, but maintaining uncertainty in ones mind for other than short periods, is not easy. Other than a recalibration of our financial claims vs our physical claims, I don't think the future is remotely set.


    2. "Ave american [and many others, worldwide] 'consumes' 100x the calories his body needs. Because our institutions have become compelled to grow because they are based on growth a wider smorgasboard has become available."

      - If fossil fuels were traded, since 1700's, not on the supply-and-demand economics but on the basis of they are finite, a centralised 'Growth' doctrine, such as the one we live in, wouldn't have had any place between us.

      - Not doing so has suspended a profound instinct humans hold in their DNA, which guides them in assessing scarcity as the biggest danger.

      - Naturally, humans make mistakes. The mistake of burning almost all fossil fuels but having their world going into tatters the more they consume energy, is far the biggest of humans mistakes.

      - All what humans have produced of economics, science and technology, literature and arts - will default in the future to one fact in physics: humans can not manufacture energy, as energy always comes from the past into the future.

      The suspension of that portion of humans consciousness, capable of understanding energy IS scarce on Earth, by physics, has played and playing havoc with our civilisation. It is now 'damage done', and it seems we are unable to stopping it!

  12. Dear Nate,

    I decided to do a little self promotion and point out an article I wrote about "What is mainstreamm economics?"
    You can find it here:

    In this article I try to make heterodox economists , like yourself, understand why social theory is especially important today (in this case Michel Foucault, again).

  13. I have mentioned Marvin Harris quite a lot in recent comments. There is a little video about cultural materialism as a scientific method:


    1. Dear Alien - thanks for your helpful comments. I have not read Marvin Harris directly but do assign this article by Richard H to my students each Fall.
      (Fall as in autumn not 'FALL' ;-)

      Yes, seems like integrating some of this thinking might be useful. If only I had the time.

      My biggest worry (and I've completed that sentence 10+ different ways this week), is that growth is a physical phenomenon, (and lots of us are focused on the energy and related infrastructure that will be available in future), it is also the psychological organizing principle for populations in developed world. People wake up in morning and 'earning a higher wage' is what motivates them. Vast amounts of people becoming aware that growth is no longer possible may remove a social glue that might....hold other things together. (I expect we'll just continue to grow from a lower starting point, but....)


    2. Hello Nate,
      Thanks for the link. Richard Heinbergs article is such a great text.
      I admit I wish I had written it (or was able to write it, I am well aware of my limitations as a writer).

      He writes:
      "Plenty of people have sensed the direction of global change and come to their own sensible conclusions about what to do, without any awareness of Harris’s cultural materialism. But such awareness could help at the margins by reducing wasted effort."

      Yeah, thats my point, we can save so much effort by not to figure it all out by our selfs if we realize that there are scholars out there who did great work in the past and not get sidetracked by some prejudices we inherited.

      Concerning your "biggest worry"
      I did this before, but maybe this notion I have of future developments based on some empiric evidence will give you a new perspective. What happens if "the glue" vanishes?

      As Infrastructure and Superstructure erodes (Nation states, economic systems, idiologies) and the legitimacy of our power structures vanishes, we will see nation states more and more resembling "failed states" in some regions of their territory.

      The hegemony withdraws into the industrial and political centers and retreats from areas that just become to bothersome or expensive to control or support.

      Empirical examples that exist today are Mexico, Greece or Syria and to some extent even the USA. They fail because they fail to provide the population in certain regions with the basic needs (clean water, food, stability, housing, peace ...).

      Under these circumstances local populations (have to) organize to fill all those gaps. We see that in Greece, as health systems and hospitals became dysfunctional, people just organized their own hospitals. We can see it in Detroit, where in the abandoned areas of the city people now grow their own food and start their own alternative neighborhood economy.

      More down the slope we see the Syrian Kurdish revolution or the Mexican indigenous people of Chiapas organising them selfs locally, self governed, bottom up, horizontaly in the boundaries of their still existing but dysfunctional nation states.

      Syria and the Islamic State is an example that teaches us that some areas might also revert into some fascist barbarism, but I do not think that this is will happen as much as people fear.

      There are some deep rooted prejudices about what happens after a collapse or catastrophy. If we look at the real history of post Katrina New Orleans most of the reports about looting and violence turned out to have been wildly exaggerated. People actually organized horizontally and helped each other, which I think is the norm, not the exception.

      So thats what I am suggesting. Our system will collapse not in a big bang, but in pieces, regions will break away and start doing things very differently. We will see all kinds of experiments of how "different", will look like and they will probably surprise us.

    3. Alien - Your scenario requires the "glue" to slowly soften as society steps in and instigates alternatives. You realize you are on a Seneca collapse blog? The point is that there is no "historical precedence" for what we are facing. There might be examples you can point to for this or that but nothing for the converging catastrophic conditions that are happening right now.

      This is why I get frustrated by the discussions of one tiny element of collapse, its as if only we could understand that element we could then do something that would stop it.

    4. What is "fast" and what is "slow"? I took us about 150 years to get to where we are now. Since we started exploiting fossil fuels we ascended on an exponential curve, was that fast or slow?

      How "fast" will the downslope be? Probably it will not be a slope, but steps, and it will happen much faster than 150 years of the ascend. But what is fast? Most answers that I have found to that question is "several decades".

      Events are allready happening in an tremendous pace, bu in relation to our own life these events play out quite slowly.

      Yes, there will be another financial crash, and it could happen any moment now or in 5 Years, but that next crash will not get rid of the power structures and the elites that hold firm to their priveliges and it will definitely not get rid of their idieology..

      Real change happens only if the underlying ideology is deconstructed, and as Einstein said, real change happens one death at a time. Donella Meadows work on systems theory has this great list on leverage points. I argue it also is a checklist of what has to go to change a system.


      (in increasing order of effectiveness)

      9. Constants, parameters, numbers (subsidies, taxes, standards).
      8. Regulating negative feedback loops.
      7. Driving positive feedback loops.
      6. Material flows and nodes of material intersection.
      5. Information flows.
      4. The rules of the system (incentives, punishments, constraints).
      3. The distribution of power over the rules of the system.
      2. The goals of the system.
      1. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system — its goals, power structure, rules, its culture — arises.

      Changing the underlying mindset of the system takes time. Revolutions of that size are an intergenerational process. To believe that a seneca cliff means that there will be some cathargic moment that will change everything is unrealistic.

      It will also not happen for everybody at the same speed. There are still old nazis in germany who believe that Hitler was the best thing that ever happened. When my grandfather died in 1992 at the age of 96 he still was utterly loyal to the German Kaiser Willhelm II.

      Looking at greece, we saw basically a whole people standing up in protest against our global capitalist system, and utterly fail in changing anything. In a country of 8 million people, up to 1 million joined the protests. Imagine 50 million people rising up in the USA or 10 Million in germany, and nothing changing.

      Did I say that we still can do something about the collapse of the system? No, watching the events in Greece, where people now just turn their backs on the System that they could not change with the means that representative democracy gave them, makes me believe that there is a lesson to be learned on how our collapse could happen.

    5. Another take on this comment:

      Even though many of the post-fossil and post-growth community understand the problems we face, some are STILL unable to accept Donella Meadows 1st leverage point.

      Even those who understand the destructive path have trouble to question "The mindset or paradigm out of which the system — its goals, power structure, rules, its culture — arises." meaning capitalism.

      This is even more true for the broader public. If we take the phenomenal work of Donella Meadows seriously, we must accept that there is still a long way to go, but on a historical timescale it might happen very fast.

    6. I have to add that Donella Meadows revisited the list and added some more points to it:


      (in increasing order of effectiveness)

      12. Constants, parameters, numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, standards).
      11. The sizes of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows.
      10. The structure of material stocks and flows (such as transport networks, population age structures).
      9. The lengths of delays, relative to the rate of system change.
      8. The strength of negative feedback loops, relative to the impacts they are trying to correct against.
      7. The gain around driving positive feedback loops.
      6. The structure of information flows (who does and does not have access to information).
      5. The rules of the system (such as incentives, punishments, constraints).
      4. The power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure.
      3. The goals of the system.
      2. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system — its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters — arises.
      1. The power to transcend paradigms.

      In an earlier comment I was referring to point 1. on her list, the power to transcend paradigms. The power to transcend paradigms is "Wisdom". Wisdom is the emancipation of the expectations, role models, thought patterns and blind spots that society has imprinted on us and eastern and western philosophy both came to this conclusion.

      There is a full circle I want to get across.

      - Our paradigms are socially imprinted (and Karl Marx was the first to point that out.)
      - Paradigms are reproduced in our society by the Ideology of the ruling elite (See Marx and Gramsci)
      - This System and its paradigms /Idiology we call Capitalism.
      - Capitalism as a System is in a state of overshoot and faces collapse. (Club of Rome)
      - As capitalism reaches its material boundaries it enforces a feedback on the superstructure and issues a crisis of its paradigms. (Harris)
      - We will have to overcome capitalism and transcend the paradigms we have been imprinted with as the system collapses. (Foucault, Meadows)

      But this process will not happen over night and not over a couple of years. Even 20 years will be very fast.

  14. Carlos de CastroJune 6, 2018 at 1:53 AM

    Ant hill, termite mould:
    - Control their population
    - control temperature, CO2 an other global parameters
    - ants and termites are completly directed to the hill or mould (their purposeful lifes)
    - Recycled matter is high (probably more than 50%)
    -Growth only in de development phase, after that, stop growth

    Human (un)civilization:
    - Do not control population
    - do not control temperature, CO2 etc.
    - Humans direct their purposeful lifes for themshelves or little communities
    - Recycled matter is 6%
    - Wants ever growth

    In fact and by far, THIS Human (un)civilization (not necesarily humans) is analogous to a cancer inside an organism called Gaia. Is it a joke to call a cancer "superorganism"?

  15. The second part of the introduction into cultural materialism can be found here:

    Energy as driving factor of social evolutiion comes is explained here.

  16. I would call it a Superparasite. The Planet is littered with the ruins of smaller parasites that consumed their surrounding environment and died. Can an optimal balance be found between parasite and host? Would it not be better to kill the parasite instead?

  17. Wikipedia
    "Evolutionary suicide is an evolutionary phenomenon in which the process of adaptation causes the population to become extinct. For example, individuals might be selected to switch from eating mature plants to seedlings, and thereby deplete their food plant's population. Selection on individuals can theoretically produce adaptations that threaten the survival of the population.

    Much of the research on evolutionary suicide has used the mathematical modeling technique adaptive dynamics, in which genetic changes are studied together with population dynamics. This allows the model to predict how population density will change as a given trait invades the population.

    Evolutionary suicide has also been referred to as "Darwinian extinction", "runaway selection to self-extinction", and "evolutionary collapse". The idea is similar in concept to the tragedy of the commons and the Tendency of the rate of profit to fall, namely that they are all examples of an accumulation of individual changes leading to a collective disaster such that it negates those individual changes.

    Many adaptations have apparently negative effects on population dynamics, for example infanticide by male lions, or the production of toxins by bacteria. However, empirically establishing that an extinction event was unambiguously caused by the process of adaptation is not a trivial task."



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)