Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Education of a Scientist

h/t Azimuth. See also my previous post on this subject. This clip is lovely when the little bear compares scientific editors to the Sopranos. I signed the petition to boycott Elsevier and I already sent back to them the request for a review that they asked me to do for one of their journals with a note saying "sorry, will not do this because I am boycotting you". I don't know how happy they were about that. I was.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The tin miners

Tin Miners in England. A 1939 painting by Harold Harvey (1874-1941). Image from Bonhams art auctions

There are very few paintings of miners at work. The dark and cramped world of mines was not accessible to painters and probably it wasn't even interesting for them. There are just a few exceptions; one is the painting above, made by Harold Harwey, a painter from Cornwall who was interested in the local life and the local characters.

The two miners in the painting have names: Sidney Angrove (left) and Nicholas Grenfell (right) (as reported by Bohhams). The painter shows the miners in a moment of relax; while one of the two smokes a pipe. There is no hint of the hard work in the tunnels, below, but the image is nevertheless permeated of a certain melancholy. It was a world that was already in decline when the painting was made, in 1939.

It is in Southern England that we can find the earliest mines in the world. 10,000 years ago there were already mines where ancient miners laboriously broke the fine limestone that we call chalk with deer antlers to seek for ochre and flint. Today, the ancient tunnels dug at that time still exist, we can still see the smoke left by the miners' oil lamps and find the tools left by them. In some tunnels, we can find human skeletons; perhaps miners surprised by a collapse or, maybe, sacrifices to the divinities of the depth.

Mining tin in Cornwall is somewhat more recent, but it still goes back to about 2000 BCE. It continued for millennia, throughout the 20th century. The last tin mine in Cornwall (also the last working tin mine in Europe), was closed in 1998. There is an old Cornish ballad, reported in wikipedia that goes "Cornish lads are fishermen and Cornish lads are miners too. / But when the fish and tin are gone, what are the Cornish boys to do?"

Slowly, we are emptying the Earth of its mineral treasures. Then, what will we do?

h/t to my wife Grazia for the image of the tin miners

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Peak? What peak? King coal is coming back!

King Coal may be coming back to save us from peak oil, but condemning us to a worse fate in terms of global warming (image from the National Media Museum

Recently, Rembrandt Koppelaar has published on the Oil Drum a summary of the world's trends in energy production. The report tells us that the oil industry is struggling to maintain the present levels of production. It may not have peaked yet, but clearly it can't resume the past trends of increase. That's not surprising, it had been foreseen already in 1998 by Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrere (link). What's striking, instead, is the leap forward of coal. The world's total energy production is not peaking and that's because of the rapid growth of coal, as you can see here, from Koppelaar's report:

Coal seemed to have peaked in 1990, but it was an illusion. The growth of coal production during the first decade of the 21st century has been impressive; never seen before in history. So, King Coal is coming back and he may soon reclaim the title of ruler of the energy world that it had lost to crude oil in the 1960s.

We are not seeing anything like a tendency to peak for coal and that, unfortunately, is not good for climate. We can see that from the "other side" of the chemical reaction that sees fossil fuels transformed into carbon dioxide, CO2, whose concentration in the atmosphere is increasing faster in recent times. (the figure below is from "think progress," see also this previous post).

We cannot say that the burst of carbon dioxide that we are seeing is due to coal alone, but it corresponds well to the spike in coal production and it is surely related to it. The global climate situation seems to be rapidly going out of control and this rapid increase in CO2 concentrations doesn't bode well for the future. Bowing down our heads again to King Coal may turn out to be the worst choice we ever made in history.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Defending good science: Michael Mann speaks out

Michael Mann is the author of the "hockey stick" reconstruction that shows how the past decades have been anomalously hot as the result of global warming. In this video, he tells us of his experience, of the ordeal he has gone through, and that he is still experiencing, attacked by professionals of public relations who have unleashed a full propaganda campaign against him. Mann has been harassed and denigrated in all possible ways, including death threats to him and to his family. We need to resist against the forces who are trying to destroy climate science and science in general. Michael Mann, defined "Battle Hardened" in this clip, is doing that, and he is succeeding, but he needs all the help and support we can give to him. We all need to speak out against the forces of anti-science!

(See also a previous post of mine: "long live the hockey stick!"). 

Thursday, February 16, 2012

"Peak Research:" Italian researchers do it doggy style, in a tunnel

Copy of an announcement in "Nature Jobs," as it appeared yesterday, for a research project managed by the University of Florence. This page has been subsequently removed, but the stain on the reputation of Italian research remains.

This story is doing the rounds in the Italian web. Our Ministry of research (MIUR) had published on their site the translation of the title of a European Research project dedicated to cheese. The cheese they study is called "pecorino" (literally "sheep-cheese") which has a certain assonance with the term used in Italian ("pecorina") for what in English is called "doggy style". Now, some idiot translated it exactly that way: "doggy style"! For a while, that translation was featured also on the "Nature" web site. Later on, it was removed from both pages, but you can still read it for your amusement in the picture above (see also below and here)

All that is on a par with the story of the "neutrino tunnel", also from our ministry of research where, among other idiocies, it was said that neutrinos generated in Switzerland would travel in a tunnel all the way to Italy. You can read about this story here.

This epic fail of MIUR may be a little off topic for the "Cassandra" blog, but perhaps not so much. If nothing else, it shows how rapidly a university system can decay when it is left with no attention and no money. Maybe Italy is on the forefront in the world in terms of decadence, but I am sure that all countries have the same problem: how to sustain their research and university teaching systems with declining resources. It is, in the end, another symptom of the effects of having overexploited our resources. We passed the peak in many areas, we should not be surprised to be seeing also "Peak Research"

Here is also, conserved for posterity, the announcement as it appeared on the Italian ministry of research (MIUR) web site

And also here on the site of the European Commission


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The seekers effect: why we keep seeking growth at all costs

Already in 1972, the classic study "The Limits to Growth" had shown that economic growth could not last forever (above: the "base case" scenario from the study). Even without complex calculations, it should be clear from simple physics that infinite growth is not possible in a finite world. Yet, politicians, leaders, economists, decision makers and the like are all pushing for growth, growth, and more growth. In an earlier post, I tried to find rational reasons for this attitude, but I tend to think that it can be better explained in terms of the "Seekers effect." The term comes from the name of an esoteric sect, the "Seekers" active in the 1950s who believed to have been alerted by aliens of the incoming end of the world.

If you are trained in science or engineering, you probably think that your views should be based on the available data and that, if better data become available, then you should change your views. You may think that this is the obvious way to behave, but think twice. Most likely, you are part of a minority; possibly a tiny minority. By far, most people seem to act on a different set of principles. They will normally stick to their opinion no matter what the data say. And if new data contradict a previous held opinion, the hell with the new data. It is something that we could call the "Seekers effect."

The Seekers were an esoteric sect active in the 1950s. A summary of their story is told by Chris Money in an article titled "The science of why we don't believe in science." In short, the Seekers had gathered around a lady named Dorothy Martin who was claiming  to be receiving telepathic messages from aliens. She had been told that a major cataclysmic event would take place on a specific date: December 21, 1954. Most of humankind would be destroyed; but the Seekers themselves would be taken to safety on an alien spaceship landing on that day.

The special element that makes the Seekers a paradigm in human behavior is that they had been infiltrated by a group of social psychologists, led by Leon Festinger, who watched them until and after the fated date when, obviously, no catastrophe occurred. In Festinger's 1956 book "When Prophecy Fails" we can read how the seekers reacted to the failure of their leader's prophecy. Their first reaction, of course, was of dismay. But that didn't last long. In a few days, the Seekers had closed ranks and restructured their beliefs: their prophet, ms. Martin had not been wrong at all; the aliens had decided to spare humankind as the result of the faith of the Seekers! The most interesting twist in this story is that not only the seekers didn't accept that their prophecies were wrong; they stepped up efforts to recruit new followers and to convince everyone of their ideas. Eventually, the were ridiculed so much that they disappeared, but that took a few years.

The story of the Seekers is one of the best studied of what is called "motivated reasoning"; that is the tendency of twisting facts and logic in order keep one's beloved worldview. Money says that:

We're not driven only by emotions, of course—we also reason, deliberate. But reasoning comes later, works slower—and even then, it doesn't take place in an emotional vacuum. Rather, our quick-fire emotions can set us on a course of thinking that's highly biased, especially on topics we care a great deal about... we have other important goals besides accuracy—including identity affirmation and protecting one's sense of self—and often those make us highly resistant to changing our beliefs when the facts say we should.

Motivated reasoning is very common. Today, you don't need to infiltrate any esoteric sect to see it at work: you can see dramas similar to the one of the Seekers unfolding on discussion sites and on Facebook. A recent case in point is that of the "E-Cat", the fabulous nuclear device that should have brought us eternal prosperity. Give a look to some of the sites of the believers and you'll see that, despite the accumulation of proof that the E-Cat is nothing but a glorified teapot, the believers are unmoved in their stance. Not just that, but are also doubling up their efforts to convince everyone that their teapot is, really, a nuclear reactor.

Most of the discussions that take place on the Web, say, on climate, energy, peak oil and the like, are not based on data or logic; have you ever seen anyone changing his/her opinion in one of these discussions? Maybe it happens, sometimes, but it is almost a miraculous event.

The same motivated reasoning seems to be at work on economic growth. It takes place mostly on the media, rather than on the web, but the psychological factors at play seem to be the same. So, it is growth, growth and more growth; it is always the same concept, repeated over and over in the media. Yet, there is no rational reason (even though I tried to find one) for choosing growth over every other possible strategy. It is our tendency to stick to our previous beliefs. In the past, we put so much effort in the belief that growth can cure all ills, that now we cannot back up without losing face. It is the Seekers effect.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Long live the hockey stick! Climate science fights back.

The new book by Michael Mann tells the story of the reconstruction of past temperatures called "the hockey stick" because of its characteristic shape. Despite the propaganda campaign against climate science, climate scientists are standing their ground and fighting back.

Repeat something a sufficient number of times and, eventually, people will believe it, no matter whether it is true or not. It is one of the most effective tricks of propaganda and it has been used more than once against science, for instance in the demonization of the "Limits to Growth" study. During the past few years, it has been applied repeatedly, even obsessively, against the "hockey stick," the reconstruction of past temperatures on which Michael Mann and coworkers had been working from the 1990s.

It is rare in the history of science that a single piece of experimental evidence has been the object of so many attempts of demolition. Yet, all the serious reviews of the original data have basically confirmed the initial results. Being unsuccessful in demolishing the science, the attacks have moved against the scientist, Michael Mann himself, who has been subjected to an unbelievable denigration campaign, defamed, insulted, and even physically threatened. Recently, the campaign against Mann has targeted his new book, "The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars", with a large number of negative reviews and derogatory remarks which appeared in the reviews of the book on the Amazon site. Most of these seem to be the work of web identities created expressly for this purpose, i.e. "sock puppets".

What is amazing in this story is how people are fighting back! If you look at the comments on the Amazon site, you see how the derogatory comments have been overwhelmed by favorable comments written by real people who signed with their names. Climate science is still under heavy attack but, clearly, there is a core of concerned people who care about the future. Science is standing its ground and refuses to be overwhelmed by propaganda. It is a difficult battle but we need to fight it for everybody's future.

At this point, it seems appropriate to me to publish on this blog the interview that Michael Mann had granted to Italian version of the "Cassandra" blog in 2010. Here it is, in English.

From "Effetto Cassandra", Sep 05, 2010

1. First of all, can you tell us something of your scientific career? How did you arrive to study tree rings and paleoclimate?

It was a long and circuitous route. I started out as a physicist and had passed my exams and was ready to go on and do Ph.D. research in theoretical physics. But my heart was elsewhere. I wanted to work on something that had more obvious world-world implications. I saw that there were other faculty at the university I was studying at (Yale University) who worked on applications of physics to the geosciences. In particular, there was a professor (Barry Saltzman) who was working on the problem of modeling Earth's climate. that sounded fascinating to me. I went and talked with him, and he agreed to take my on as a student for the summer. That worked out well, and I ended up doing my Ph.D. with him, in the department of geology & geophysics. My Ph.D. involved studying the natural variability of the climate system (i.e. the natural long-term oscillations of the climate) using theoretical climate models and analysis of available observations. The historical record wasn't long enough to study possible century-scale oscillations. That's what originally led me to turn to climate proxy data, such as tree-rings, corals, ice cores, etc. they could provide a longer-term, if more uncertain, perspective on the evolution of Earth's climate over the centuries. Ironically, my original foray into climate proxy data had nothing to do with climate change per se!

2. At some point, you must have realized that the discussion about the validity of the paleoclimate studies had turned from a scientific one to a political one. Can you tell us how and when you discovered that the dispute had stepped outside the limits of the scientific debate?

Well, after our temperature reconstruction (the so-called "Hockey Stick") was featured in the very prominent IPCC summary for policy makers in 2001, we suspected we would be subject to attack by climate change deniers. And they haven't disappointed. Their strategy has always been to attack the messenger, discredit the science and scientists, and fool the public. We've seen this for decades. Its the same playbook that for example the tobacco industry, the chemical industry, and the pharmaceutical industry have all used to try to discredit science demonstrating potential adverse effects from the use of their product. The fossil fuel industry has taken it to a whole other level however. We literally have the most powerful industry that ever existed on earth using much of their resources to smear the science and confuse the public about the adverse effects to our world of fossil fuel burning. History will look back most unkindly on industry-funded individuals and groups  who sought to intentionally mislead the public about the reality and threat of human-caused climate change.

3. With the great noise about the "hockey stick" and about "Climategate", many people became convinced - in many cases, I think, in good faith - that you are a liar, a criminal and worse. How does that affect your everyday life? For instance, how about your students?

Well, I like to think that individuals engaged in good faith would think no such thing, as even a cursory examination of the facts demonstrates otherwise. But I do think that there has been such a concerted, well-funded smear campaign against climate science and climate scientists by  industry front groups and the far right, that even some reasonable people may be rather confused now about the facts. That of course is the intent of the industry-funded disinformation campaign. Fortunately, I have had much support from my students and colleagues at the University, and scientists around the world, who recognize the smear campaign against me and other climate scientists, for what it is. Of course, there are some ill-informed individuals out there who have engaged in some rather nasty activities, including hateful note and emails, and the like. Unfortunately, its now a fact of life if you're a prominent climate change researcher that you will be subject to these tactics.

4. I think that we - as scientists - must have made some serious mistakes in our communication strategy if deniers have been so successful in attacking climate science. Of course, one of the reasons is that they are led by professional PR people, very good at this kind of campaigns. Yet, I think that the scientific community has neglected communication - would you agree with me on this point? And what do you think we should do in the future to improve our strategy of communication and avoid seeing again such things as Climategate?

Well, I do agree that the scientific community at times has been slow to recognize the concerted, well-funded smear campaign against us and to do something to fight back. In the wake of the manufactured 'climategate' campaign and the attacks against the IPCC, many of my colleagues have now awakened to what we're up against. So perhaps that is the silver lining in all of this. I think in the future you will see far more resources devoted to outreach and communication, including a rapid response strategy to concerted efforts to smear our science and scientists.

5. Scientists often tend to seek public anonymity. They seem to believe that "facts should speak for themselves". Instead, deniers promote themselves as public figures. They may not be nice people, but they know that the message and the messenger cannot be separated and this tactic has been successful. Personally, I believe that this is one of the (very few) things we should learn from them. Do you agree with me? Do you think we should all acquire a better personal visibility?

I do agree. I think we need to humanize the image of the scientist to the public. Too often, scientists are viewed as cold, disconnected, antisocial beings. There are always a few bad apples. But in the vast majority of cases, nothing could be further from the truth. The professional climate change denial campaign has recruited and trained a cadre of charismatic individuals who, though thorough charlatans, are versed in presenting a public face of affability and are quite skilled rhetorically. Scientists are often out-matched when going up against them in debates and other public forums, even though we have objective reality and truthfulness on our side. This problem is now well recognized, and there are many individuals and groups that are trying to deal with it. So I expect much serious efforts to address this problem in the months ahead.

6. Paleoclimatology is a fascinating subject, too bad that it has been so clouded by silly controversies about the "hockey stick". Apart from that; paleoclimatology goes to explore a fundamental point: the relation of human beings with their environment. So, climate change affects humans but also humans change climate. We have plenty of examples in which the collapse of a civilization has been linked to climate change; from the Maya to the Romans, but we still are not able to establish a relation of cause and effect. According to Ruddiman, humans have been affecting climate from the starting of agriculture, but it is also possible that external factors have been at play as well, for instance small changes in the solar output. Of course, this is a field that is still in its infancy, but you are at the forefront of these studies and you could tell us - perhaps - your opinion: do we find a relation between human activity and climate change in the past? Are civilizations brought down by climate change, or do civilizations create the change that destroys them?

Great questions, and I wish I had all of the answers. I think Jared Diamond has perhaps addressed best some of the larger questions here in his book "Collapse". There are many examples we can look to in the past where human's had the ability to exploit and degrade their environment to the point of unsustainability. The destruction of Easter Island through uncontrolled deforestation is one of the great cautionary tales to humanity in this regard. Bill Ruddiman has made a compelling argument that human activity (e.g. rice cultivation and deforestation) might have begun to influence the concentrations of greenhouse gases to the point of having some climate impact several thousand years back. The claim remains rather controversial. What is not controversial is that only within the past century to we have the means at our disposal to change global climate in a dramatic fashion over such a short timescale. It is really the rate at which humans are influencing the climate which poses the greatest threat. Humans and natural ecosystems can adapt to slow change in climate. There is no analog we know of in the past where global climate has been altered as rapidly as we are changing it today. So we are in unchartered waters, engaged in an uncontrolled experiment with the future of civilization and the environment potentially hanging in the balance.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The fate of new truths: peak oil appears on "Nature"

"It is the customary fate of new truths to begin as heresies and to end as superstitions" (Thomas Henry Huxley, 1880) Above: a figure from the article by James Murray and David King published on Nature, 26 Jan 2012, vol 481, p. 435

With the publication of a prominent article on "Nature" in January 2012, the concept of "Peak Oil" has made another step forward in the debate on resource depletion. This article has made me rethink of the past ten years of work that I did as a member of ASPO, the association for the study of peak oil. Were we right with our prediction of impending peak oil? In a sense, yes, but the crystal ball is always foggy and it cannot be otherwise. The ASPO predictions were basically right but, as all predictions, they were approximate.

Working with a simplified model based on Hubbert's early work of the 1950s, the founders of ASPO, Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrere, proposed in 1998 that the future of oil production would have followed a curve that was to peak at some moment between 2005 and 2010, to decline afterwards. Embedded within the Hubbert model was the concept that the gradually increasing costs of extraction would reduce the profits of the industry and force it to reduce investments.  

As a "first order" model, the Hubbert one is not bad and the ASPO models caught very well the problems that the oil industry was going to face. From 2004 onward, prices have shot up a levels that have changed forever the oil market. But oil production, intended as "all liquids" (that is, including oil from tar sands, biofuels, etc) didn't show a well defined peak, nor the decline that the Hubbert model predicted. Stubbornly, production has refused to decline and it may even be showing a modest increase in recent times. That doesn't make the model wrong: as all models, it is an approximation of reality. 

The "peak oil" concept has been often criticized on the basis of a classic idea in economic science: that prices mediate between demand and offer. Hence, oil prices should define what should be counted as "reserves", intended as something that can, and will be, extracted. High prices should lead to more reserves and we would never run out of anything. It turns out that this criticism was not wrong, although not right, either, and its consequences were perhaps unexpected even for those who proposed it. When scarcity started to be felt in the oil market, the price correction mechanism kicked in. Prices rose and, according to the standard economic theory, that should have stimulated production. It did, in part, but with crude oil the mechanism has become a rat race. The more high prices made production profitable, the more production costs rose. That's where we hit the ceiling. 

This mechanism is very nicely caught by Murray and King in their article in Nature. The figure reported at the beginning of this post shows it very clearly. Over a certain price, production doesn't respond any more. It becomes "inelastic". The graph has to be read taking into account the temporal evolution of both prices and production: very high prices are a recent phenomenon and what we see is what I called the rat race. Even with increasing oil prices, the best that the industry can do is to keep constant the production of combustible liquids. 

So, we are seeing that the price mechanism may slow down the expected production decline, but at the price of causing all sorts of problems. With high prices, the world's economy must allocate more and more resources to oil extraction and these resources must come from somewhere. Since the economy doesn't grow any more, keeping oil production constant means that some sectors must shrink and that is not without pain. Much of the present political turmoil in poor countries, for instance, is due to the high prices of food, in turn related to the high cost of oil. And, with prices so high, we see the perverse effect that producers can afford to consume more but, as a result, less oil is left for importers. In a sense, many importing countries have already passed their peak oil.

As Thomas Huxley said long ago, it is the customary fate of new truths to begin as heresies and to end as superstitions. Peak oil surely began as a superstition and it is still considered as such in some circles. But, with the events of the past few years, it is also attaining the status of truth, as shown by the article by Murray and King, who have clearly understood what lies at the basis of the idea. In some sense, however, peak oil is also taking some elements of a superstition, since it fails to take into account the price mechanism. In the end, reality might be better described by something like the "Seneca model" which takes into account second order effects and that predicts a production plateau followed by a sharp decline. Also this model may be a heresy, right now, but one day may become truth and later on a superstition. As always, the future is never what it used to be. 


The paper by Murray and King on Nature is here (behind a paywall)
A summary can be found on Scientific American here
A comment on the New York Times is here
A criticism by Michael Levi can be found here
And a defense by Mason Inman, here


Note 1. I completely agree with the approach of Murray and King regarding the relation of peak oil and climate change. It is true that the two problems are strictly related and that they should be tackled together. However, I also think that the authors should have been more careful in the way they presented this issue. At the start of the article, they say,  "....continuing debates about the quality of climate-change science and doubts about the scale of negative environmental impacts have held back political action against rising greenhouse gas emissions. But there is a potentially more persuasive argument for lowering global emissions: the impact of dwindling oil supplies on the economy." Consider the number of conspiracy theorists around, this paragraph will surely be seen it as "proof" that peak oil is a hoax created by the evil oil companies in order to force customers to pay higher prices for gasoline. Besides, it makes no sense in my opinion to say that scarcity is a good argument to convince people to consume less. It would be, if people behaved rationally, but most people don't. It reminds me of an experience I had some time ago, when I presented the peak oil case to a rich financial tycoon. He answered to me with something like, "I think you are right. So, I guess I should buy myself a new Ferrari and consume as much as I can, while I can."

Note 2. Italian readers of this blog may be interested in this paragraph from Murray and King's paper. It think it is right on target.  "Another powerful example of the effect of increasing oil prices can be seen in Italy. In 1999, when Italy adopted the euro, the country’s annual trade surplus was $22 billion. Since then, Italy’s trade balance has altered dramatically and the country now has a deficit of $36 billion. Although this shift has many causes, including the rise of imports from China, the increase in oil price was the most important. Despite a decrease in imports of 388,000 barrels per day compared with 1999, Italy now spends about $55 billion a year on imported oil, up from $12 billion in 1999. That difference is close to the current annual trade deficit. The price of oil is likely to have been a large contributor to the euro crisis in southern Europe, where countries are completely dependent on foreign oil."

Note 3. David King is an old acquaintance of mine and for many years we have been working in parallel in surface science studies. I am not sure if there are deep reasons that make people engaged in surface science to move to peak oil studies but, at least, there are at least two cases! 


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Methane hydrates: the next communication bomb in the climate change debate

Methane released from ice is a spectacular and dangerous phenomenon. It is not so just because methane can catch fire, but because, on a large scale, the release it could generate a rapid and devastating global warming. We cannot say much about the time scale of such an event and not even if it could take place at all, but the perception of the possible danger ahead could be a true communication bomb in the climate debate. (the video shows Katey Walter from University of Alaska at Fairbanks experimenting with this methane trapped in ice)

As greenhouse gas, methane is more powerful than carbon dioxide, but there is a much more important difference between these two gases. Carbon dioxide emissions are something that we create and that we can control, at least in principle. If we stop burning fossil fuels, then we stop generating CO2. But, with methane, it is another matter. We have no direct control on the huge amounts of methane buried in ice in the permafrost and at the bottom of oceans in the form of "hydrates" or "clathrates."

Methane hydrates are a true climate bomb that could go off by itself as the result of a relatively small trigger in the form of a global warming. Sufficient warming would cause the decomposition of some hydrates to release methane to the atmosphere. This methane would create more warming and that would generate more decomposition of the hydrates. The process would go on by itself at increasing rates until the reservoirs run out of methane. That means pumping in the atmosphere truly a lot of methane. There are different estimates of the amount stored in hydrates, but it is surely large - most likely larger than the total amount of carbon present today in the atmosphere as CO2. The effects of the rapid release of so much methane would be devastating: an abrupt climate change that could bring a true planetary catastrophe. It is a scenario aptly called the "clathrate gun" and the target is us.

Now, there are plenty of uncertainties about this scenario, and we cannot say much about its timescale or even whether it would happen at all. But uncertainty is something that may make the scenario even more worrisome. People are scared of things they don't completely understand and that they know they can't control. That's surely the case of methane hydrates. We don't know how likely the worst scenarios are, we only know that methane is being released from hydrates right now and that the concentration of methane in the atmosphere is going up. We can't say if that's the start of the clathrate gun going off, but it is enough to be scared. I don't know about you, but I can tell you that I am scared.

The timescale of the clathrate gun may be long enough that we don't have to be worried in the short term. But another explosion seems to be going off much faster, this one in the media. The trend has started with scientific papers. Before 1999, there was not a single paper on the subject in the "sciencedirect" database. In 2011, 49 papers were published and the trend may be exponential. On the Web, Google Trends still doesn't generate a significant increase in the number of searches for terms such as "hydrate" or "clathrate". But we find about 40,000 pages dealing with the combination "climate change", "methane release" and hydrates. Even the mainstream press is starting to report about the subject. So far, the problem of methane hydrates has been largely absent from the debate on climate change. But that may be rapidly changing.

The methane release scenario has all the characteristics needed to catch the public's attention. It is spectacular, gigantic, biblical, and also rapid. It even has an evil sounding name: the "clathrate gun." It is nothing like the tame scenarios of the IPCC that plod on, slowly, up to the end of the 21st century. The IPCC scenario are not meant to be scary: nobody cares about slowly boiling frogs. But do you remember the 2004 movie "The day after tomorrow"? What scares us, mostly, are sudden catastrophic events. Now, think of a blockbuster movie from Hollywood about the clathrate gun. We would see giant hurricanes, biblical droughts, deadly heat waves, devastating floods..... No matter how the story is told, it is a true communication bomb.

Before continuing, let me hasten with a disclaimer. Let me state that I am NOT saying that we (scientists, activists, journalists or whoever) should exaggerate the dangers ahead in order to scare people with the methane story. Absolutely NOT - on the contrary, my point is that a scared public is NOT a good thing for reasons that I will explain in a moment. Let me also state that this post is NOT meant to claim that the clathrate gun is going off, it is meant to discuss how the public would react to the perception that it may be going off. This said, let me go on.

So, let's assume that the clathrate story becomes widely known, how's the public going to react? According to James Schlesinger, "People have only two modes of operation: complacency and panic". The clathrate communication bomb may well lead to a paradigm shift about climate and push the public opinion all of a sudden to the other side of the Goldilock dilemma: from complacency to panic.

Some people could see that as a welcome event: we would finally see an effort to do something to avoid climate change. But it is not obvious at all that this outcome would be positive. Things done in haste are not necessarily done well. Likely, we would see a frantic effort to "do something," no matter what, no matter how. If the past experience with the energy crisis is a guide, the chances to pick up the best solutions are small (see, for instance, the hype on biofuels). It is probable that we would seek for miracle solutions in large scale geoengineering. Carbon sequestration, sulphate particles in the upper atmosphere, mirrors in space, painting roofs white, what you have.

Would those actions work? Perhaps yes, but we would be moving into a totally uncharted territory. We don't know which could be the best solutions and we can't be sure of the side effects of most of them. Then, wouldn't the energy needed for geoengineering lead to more fossil fuels being consumed and, consequently, more greenhouse gases produced? And, then, suppose that geoengineering works in cooling the planet, wouldn't people revert to complacency and declare that the clathrate gun was a hoax from the beginning? As we move into the future, the problems we have created seem to become bigger just as it becomes evident that we, as a species, are just not equipped with the tools needed to solve them.

Things would have been much simpler if we had been able to find an agreement to tackle the climate problem at its roots, reducing greenhouse emissions. That would have provided a clear target to achieve and little room for wild swings in public perception. But it may well be too late for a strategy based on gradual changes. Things keep changing, and the only sure thing is that we can't stay idle in front of changes. So, get ready for the next big change: the clathrate communication bomb going off!


Some recent articles and posts about methane release from hydrates. This list is not meant to be complete or representative, it is here just to give some idea of how the debate is heating up (a very appropriate metaphor, in this case)

Saturday, February 4, 2012

What is a Smart Species Like Us Doing in a Predicament Like This?

This post by George Mobus, published on "Question Everything", goes to the heart of the problem; correctly defined as "predicament". We are simply not equipped to cope with the complexity we have created. Now, it seems that we can do little but watch the banquet of consequences.

Too Smart for Our Own Good by Craig Dilworth

Reviewed by George Mobus

A Paradox

Many years ago I believed, as do most people today, that intelligence was the key to solving all of mankind's problems (read: innovation, assumed by technocornucopians to overcome all problems). I spent no small amount of my life pursuing understanding of what intelligence is, and how the brain produces the abilities to solve complex problems. My childhood was spent watching the unfolding explosion in science and technology that culminated in, for example, the landing of humans on the moon. I grew up knowing there were these wondrous electronic brains called computers. Later at a still impressionable age, once the size and prices of computers came down, I got my chance to play with them. I fell instantly in love with a machine that I could program to rapidly solve problems that would have taken me days to accomplish. And I came across the works of Alan Turing regarding the idea that a computing device might be able to emulate human intelligence, dubbed “Artificial Intelligence” (AI). The “Turing Test” posited that we should accord intelligence to machines if in a blind conversation with a real human, the latter could not detect that s/he was talking to a machine. I set out to see how such a wonder might be accomplished.

Many years later I managed to earn a PhD in computer science by programming a computer to emulate not human intelligence, but the intelligence of a neuron with its adaptive synaptic connections. These, I assembled into a computational model of a snail brain, an admittedly moronic one, and showed how such a brain could control behavior and, more importantly, emulate animal-like (biomimic) learning through Pavlovian-style conditioning. Putting this brain into a computer controlling a small Braitenberg robot, I could show how the brain learned features of its experienced environment and adjusted its behavior to conform to the stimuli of that environment (run from pain-causing stimuli and approach rewarding stimuli). That academic exercise started me digging deeper into how biological neural networks in real brains work. I read every book I could get ahold of and many journal articles on various aspects of neuroscience trying to understand how it worked. The obvious goal of AI was to produce human-like intelligence in a machine. The strong version of this program even contemplated producing a conscious machine (e.g. HAL 9000 in A Space Odyssey). The field of AI has evolved from the earliest days and it has produced some useful computational products. And even though Deep Blue (IBM) beat world chess master Garry Kasporov and Watson (also IBM) beat the all-time Jeopardy champs at that game, the fact is that computers still only simulate some aspects of intelligence, and then only in limited expertise domains.

Throughout the evolution of the field, the idea of a machine intelligence spawned considerable interest among psychologists, neurobiologists, and philosophers. Debates about just what intelligence was in the first place were generated each time AI seemed to make progress. Perhaps one of the most important contributions of the field was to show just how different real brains were from the way computers process data. And with each new accomplishment of computers, trying to master tasks that had previously been thought to require intelligence, it became clearer that the human kind of intelligence was far more complex and nuanced than our earlier models accounted for. My own claim that my robot emulated a “moronic” snail might have been valid for a very low level of intelligence, but it only served to underscore how far our computational approaches were from the real thing as far as human-level intelligence.

In any case my initial forays into AI via trying to simulate learning phenomena in neuron-like structures got me hooked on the notion of understanding the real deal. Both psychology and neurobiology had made such important strides toward grasping the nature of human intelligence and consciousness that I essentially ceased worrying about AI and turned my attentions more fully to the pursuit of real human intelligence as an object of study.

As much as has been elucidated, especially over the last few decades, about human intelligence, most of the world still holds that intelligence is our greatest mental achievement. Coupled with its twin mental capacity for creativity, intelligence is seen as the epitome of cognition; a genius is one who has ample portions of both compared with ordinary humans. The human brain is held to provide cleverness in solving complex problems. We often equate intelligence with rational thinking (e.g. deductive logic) and hold accomplishments in mathematics or science as evidence that we are an incredibly smart species. The mere fact of the existence of our technological prowes proves that we are smarter than any mere ape.

But there is a fly in the ointment of this palliative thought. If you try to objectively account for the state of the world today as the result of our being so smart you have to ask a very important question: If we are so smart, why do we humans find ourselves in such a terrible predicament today? Our species is facing a constellation of extraordinary and complex problems for which no one can suggest feasible solutions (see below). The irony is that these problems exist because our cleverness, our being so smart, created them. Our activities, clever as we have thought them to be, are the causes of the problems, which, collectively, threaten the very existence of humanity! This seems a paradox. We were smart enough to create the problems, but we're not smart enough to fix them. My own conclusion was that maybe smartness wasn't enough. Maybe something even more important to cognition had been missing that allowed this predicament to develop. That has been the thought that has been motivating my own search for an answer.

Craig Dilworth, Reader in Theoretical Philosophy at Uppsala University in Sweden, has asked this same question from a slightly different perspective, but comes to a similar conclusion regarding the role of intelligence in creating the predicament. In Too Smart for Our Own Good Dilworth masterfully pieces together the story of how humans, being so clever, but still motivated by our animal instincts and drives, have made a real mess of things. Put simply, he concludes that the evolutionary experiment called Homo sapiens is intrinsically unsustainable. He builds the evidence carefully and skillfully, though I have a few concerns regarding some possibly nitpicking details (to be discussed later). His arguments are both complete and consistent with observed reality. And he pulls no punches.

The Predicament and Proximal Causes

A good deal of Dilworth's book deals with the evolution of the current human species and, in particular, the residual components of human behavior inherited from our animal predecessors. In short, he elucidates the various instinctive drives that underlay all human activities and that demonstrate just how much of a biological creature humans really are. He carefully derives a set of principles from physics, chemistry, and biology that explain the evolutionary trajectory that leads quite naturally to clever apes. And then he claims that a threshold was passed. Along the line of genera Australopithecus and Homo cleverness produced behaviors that no previous animals had been able to perform, at least to the extent these clever apes were able to. In particular early humans (the term covering several species) learned to control fire, to become more efficient hunters and gatherers with tools that they manufactured, to protect themselves from the climate vagaries with manufactured shelters and clothing. That capability to invent and construct put them in a new biological relation with the rest of the biophysical world. It set them going on what Dilworth describes as the “vicious circle.” Humans can extract resources, both non-renewable and renewable, from the environment at a growing rate, both per capita and as the population grows, in absolute terms. We also consume these resources after turning them into usable forms, like clothing. Our consumption, plus the ravages of entropy, means that we are producing waste products at increasing rates in the same dynamical framework as the extraction rates. And we can't help ourselves. We are driven by biological mandates to consume as individuals and to procreate.

The part about us not being able to help ourselves is really the distal, root cause of all of our misdeeds and subsequent problems. More proximal to our current conundrum is a set of immediate causes and their consequences.

The global-scale threats are legion. Here is just a partial list of some of the more threatening problems, the human role in causing them, and their possible consequences. Any one of these could be incredibly troubling for mankind, but taken together, because they are all interrelated and feeding upon one another, I am convinced, as are a growing number of scientists, they spell certain disaster.

Population Overshoot

In all but a handful of cultures, and those are generally hunter-gatherer societies, and certainly among the so-called civilizations throughout history, the general sentiment of: “Be fruitful and multiply,” seems to have prevailed. Humans, like many animals, have a few, albeit weak, built-in mechanisms for checking the size of populations relative to the carrying capacity of the local environment. Many cultures have practiced various forms of population control and some still do today with varying degrees of success. These practices may be generally seen as part of the culture and have only more recently been seen as coming from some underlying biological drives. Some of these practices are considered barbaric and immoral to civilized sentiments. But, when they work they seem to work well.

Dilworth argues, however, that these internal checks are easily subverted by the more expansive driving biological instincts when the population perceives that 1) the environment can support more bodies, and 2) more bodies are needed to do the work needed to facilitate the extraction of resources. The turning point in human prehistory was probably the invention of agriculture. The latter, ironically, doesn't actually substantially increase the net energy per capita gain as compared with hunting and gathering, at least where the latter is done in environs that provide renewable abundance in game and food plants. Rather, it tends to decrease the uncertainty of food resource availability, which we humans seem to appreciate. Also ironically, agriculture takes more work per unit time to achieve reliable results, hence an actual reduction in net energy gain per unit of time spent in food production, per capita.

In other words, Dilworth appears to be arguing that the population increases that have been attributed to agriculture came not from an increased availability of food, per se, but from a diminishing of the strength of signals that would have triggered internal natural checks on population expansion enabled by the use of food production technologies. The working classes were allowed to just barely subsist and procreate sufficiently to assure a continuing or even expanding working class to support the higher classes. And, the taller the class hierarchy, the broader the base working class needed. But such expansion also included bringing more land into cultivation in order to support the growing population and still provide a steady flow of goods up to the higher reaches of the hierarchy. Growth of population and “economic” activity — originally farming — thus became a necessity and not just a consequence.

Diminishing Net Energy Per Capita

Of course, the problem is that there is just so much land that can be cultivated. We live on a finite world. Resources, including land, are finite. As growth consumes more and more of the area around the centers of the civilization hierarchies it eventually comes up against either competing hierarchies or marginal land that eventually cannot sustain a production quantity needed. There is an additional interesting phenomenon that occurs as expansion continues, even when the land might be productive. Under the conditions of travel by animal-drawn carts, it turns out that there is a natural distance from the center beyond which the net energy returns begin to diminish geometrically with linear (arithmetic) increase in distance. Horses and oxen need to be fed and can only carry so much weight. The strategy of growth as a way to keep the enterprise going may have seemed like a good idea to the overseers, but in fact there came a time when each unit of growth produced diminishing, and eventually negative benefits. This is related to the idea first advanced by Joseph Tainter regarding the collapse of civilizations due to increased complexity[1].

The phenomenon of a population exceeding its environment's carrying capacity, defined as the capacity of the environment to replenish levels of required resources at a rate that can sustain an average number of individuals (or more correctly the amount of biomass represented in a given species) and to absorb the waste products of that population without toxic overload, has been documented many times in ecological studies. The world works primarily on a steady but limited flow of energy from the sun. In the end, that flow of energy determines the rate of biological resource replenishment (all other factors being equal). All other animals are restricted to a relatively fixed carrying capacity, at least over normal life cycle times. But humans, in their ability to harness exosomatic (outside their own bodies) sources of energy, and their capacity for invention, found a workaround to this basic limit. They developed ways to appropriate more resources for themselves, leaving the sub-human species less for their needs. Agriculture, after all, requires taking over large tracts of land for the purpose of growing just a few crops of interest to humans, generally in mono culture. Too often this results in loss of habitat for many other species.

Once humans discovered and started dipping into the bank account of fossil sunlight known as fossil fuels, the explosion of population was inevitable. For the last several centuries, thanks to the high energy content of hydrocarbon fuels, the net energy per capita used to extract other natural resources and support greater consumption has been increasing. The energy return on energy invested in extracting fossil fuels started out so high that human ingenuity for finding ways to consume more were seemingly released from any natural constraints. The modern technological society emerged as a result.

Unfortunately, fossil fuels are exactly the kind of finite non-renewable resource that constitutes an upper bound on the extent of the population. No, actually it is worse than that. Because we have reached a point in which those fuels are diminishing in toto, and what we are extracting now takes more energy to do it, we have the equivalent of what earlier civilizations faced when they reached the geographical limits for net energy gain. We are approaching the point of zero gains (if we haven't already passed it) and from here on out every human being on the planet will be facing a decline in net energy available to stay alive. Income inequities make the variances cause increasing starvation at the low ends while the higher classes keep trying to appropriate wealth for themselves.

The human species, like other species under similar conditions, has gone into overshoot. The very typical outcome of such a condition, primarily because the dynamics are nonlinear, is a crash, a wipe out of the majority of the population[2]. Dilworth, in his conclusion, is in agreement with a growing number of researchers that this is the most likely outcome for humanity. We are animals after all.

Derivative Problems

Overpopulation, i.e., overshoot, and diminishing net energy per capita lead to a large number of secondary problems that will also play a role in an unsustainable future for humanity. We are running out of potable water in many regions. This is in part because of overshoot but also in part due to climate changes that, in turn, are aggravated, if not directly caused by, the burning of fossil fuels adding carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, to the atmosphere and oceans at unprecedented rates. The globe is warming and this leads to the climate chaos we are starting to witness. It also leads to ocean level rises that will inundate many inhabited regions of the globe in the not-too-distant future.

From the time of early agriculture and the reorganization of societies, humans needed some convenient method for abstractly representing wealth. At first they needed some way to account for stored grains and other commodities that would be traded. Later they needed a convenient way to carry around representations of the wealth they controlled and trade those representations rather than carry around the wealth itself. Money was invented to accomplish this task. Not long thereafter a form of lending was invented to act as investment in new enterprises. Derived most likely from the dispensing of saved grains as seed to be used by new young farmers to get started, the idea of lending wealth to generate more wealth in the future took hold. Today we have debt financing of everything from homes to bets (Wall Street). This idea of using debt-based money to invest in a future increase in wealth production was workable, even when abused as has become clear in recent years. As long as the supply of net energy was increasing there was always an expectation that the economy would expand and that would allow the pay down of debt. This was the case for the industrial revolution and well into the 1950s the expansion of oil and other fossil fuel supplies was supporting the capacity to do more physical work in the future. That meant there could be more wealth produced in the future, enough to pay back both principal and interest (the rental cost of the money for the risk taken) as well as make a profit. But now that the net energy supply is starting to diminish the strategy of growth and debt-based financing (as opposed to savings-based, as was the case in lending excess grain to a farmer for seed) is failing. And because society went so far into a debt buildup in expectation that growth would just go on forever, the resulting bubble burst that has ensued (and is still in progress) has had devastating effects on global economies. And it will only get worse.

We humans have been incredibly smart in devising machines, methodologies, and abstractions that have exploited the availability of natural resources and especially exosomatic energy sources. Too smart.

But not, it seems, smart enough to think ahead about the consequences of consumption of finite resources. We were and are extremely clever. But we are not wise.

What Does It Mean to Be Smart?

All of the above problems might have solutions if we can just invent the right technologies and apply them in time to avoid pain and suffering. We should be able to do this because we are smart apes, right?

This is precisely where the argument turns. We are smart. Smart enough to create technologies like agriculture and machinery that seem to solve certain immediate problems. We seek more certainty in our food supply so we plant and tend crops. We have to settle down in one place to do this but that, at first, seems a side benefit. We want to get places fast, and do harder work faster so we invent machine-based tools that require external sources of energy to run. We solve a problem, the problem of increasing demand for the products, by making those products more rapidly. At every turn, the smart ape has solved a problem of immediacy and done so with extraordinary results.
What this ape has also done is ignore a meta-problem. Every problem solution carries with it the seeds of another problem of greater scope. Dilworth sees the pattern clearly. It turns out that the entropy version of the Second Law of Thermodynamics explains this situation[3].

In the process of humans inventing ways to do what is to them useful work (and solve problems) they are effectively decreasing the local entropy in their vicinity. That is, they are increasing the order (e.g. building functional structures and equipment) for themselves. But the Second Law tells us that every gain in order in a system can come only at the expense of an even greater increase in disorder (entropy) of the larger, embedding system — the environment. So even as humans increased the “value” of their human-built world, they did so at the greater expense of the environment. Order and organization on the Earth have decreased overall (think, for example, about biodiversity - a measure of organization/complexity), as the Second Law demands, but at a rate accelerated by the activities of humanity. The Earth system had been operating close to a dynamic equilibrium (Dilworth's first chapter provides insights into the meaning of this) prior to the evolution of humans. This is because the solar influx of energy had stabilized and even though the Earth was experiencing cycles (e.g. the ice ages) of ups and downs, on the whole, the biosphere was adaptively able to maintain its activities precisely because the rate of fluctuation was matched by the rate of evolutionary change in species. After humans got started, that dynamic state was forever disrupted, with greater energy dissipation and rejiggering of many of the large scale, long time geochemical cycles such as the carbon and hydrological cycles. All of this is now witnessed at a global scale. And it is very much the proximal cause of all of our other problems.

So here is the crux of the matter. We are smart enough to have created this situation by virtue of our capacity to increase the rate of entropy increase for the whole Earth system. But we are not smart enough to fix it. That is because of a simple fact. Smartness is for invention and solving local problems. Intelligence and creativity are great for finding new ways to increase entropy. In a perverse twist, this is exactly what biological evolution was all about! And we smart humans were simply fulfilling our biological mandates. Unfortunately, from my own perspective, that also means the greatest natural check of all, a negative feedback control, whereby humans destroy the very life support systems they need to exist, will correct the situation. Any time any system gets out of control it breaks apart. Why should the human-built system be any different?

The Vicious Circle Principle

Thus we come to Dilworth's vicious circle principle (VCP). Man gets smart enough to become inventive. He invents things that allow him to survive and through increased fitness produce more offspring. But as often as not he creates something like a surplus and nature abhors both vacuums and concentrations, so man begets more men to work off the surplus. Or he invents some variation on a need fulfilling tool that produces something men might want, even though it isn't strictly speaking in support of survival. After a while, those wants being fulfilled, man gets used to having whatever it is and it effectively becomes a new need. But then population overshoot reduces the availability of the whatever and a new problem exists. So back to the drawing board, invent something else that will fulfill the new need. And around we go again. I have not done justice to Dilworth's explication here. I only wanted to give the reader a sense of the direction the author is taking. Of course you should read his work to fill in the details. And there are many more details that he covers superbly.

This VCP, according to Dilworth's thesis, is the penultimate root cause of all problems that we are experiencing. It is the process where intervention would be needed to stop and reverse the predicament. But therein lay the greatest problem of all. The VCP exists because of our human nature and nothing short of changing that is going to allow an intervention that could halt the vicious circle dynamic.

I think that Dilworth has truly put his finger on the central problem for human kind. We are caught on a circle of activity that is ‘vicious’ in terms of creating and worsening all of the problems we face. But I have reservations about this way of putting it.

‘Vicious’ is a value laden term. This circle, which increases the Earth's overall entropy, appears vicious precisely because we are the victims, and we cannot help having an anthropocentric perspective. But looked at from the perspective of evolution there is nothing vicious about it at all. In fact the term vicious has no meaning at all in evolution. Would we have thought of the comet that ploughed into Earth 65 million years ago and appears to have been instrumental in killing off the dinosaurs as vicious? Were the climate changes associated with ancient ice ages that appear to have been instrumental in the evolution of the genus Homo vicious because they also created the conditions that made other species of primitive humans go extinct?

I have preferred to think of the phenomenon of man's cleverness as the emergence of a new phenomenon in exactly the same way we now think of the emergence of life from pre biological chemistry. Of course, taking this perspective means that the destruction of civilization and the potential bottleneck event for humanity[4] are fundamentally necessary. And that is the hard part to swallow. As a human no one could ‘want’ the demise of our species, certainly. On the other hand, if we are really so smart as to understand the full implications of evolution itself, perhaps we could come to accept the inevitability of this outcome.


Overall, I think Dilworth's book has added an important perspective to understanding humanity's predicament. That is to say, once one has acknowledged that humans are facing a predicament that may not have any resolution but one of collapse and demise, then at least Dilworth provides an explanation for how it came about.

I have just one technical issue with the work, and one philosophical difference. The technical issue has to do with the author's heavy reliance on the concept of karyotypology to explain speciation. He uses the karyotype as if equating it to the singular marker of speciation, i.e., two different species within a single genus would have differing karyotypes. The evolutionists and geneticists I've spoken to about this express puzzlement at this usage. Karyotypes refer to the structural forms of chromosomes, especially as they appear in metaphase of mitotic cell division. It is the case that different species within a given genera may have different numbers and shapes of chromosomes that are thought to interfere with hybridization (at least viable) but this isn't always the case. Species differentiation is most generally thought to be genetic based. Some genetic differences could, of course, be the cause of differences in karyotypes, but that is a side effect of speciation, not the cause. Even with this possible misinterpretation of cause and effect in speciation, Dilworth's overall narrative of evolution is functionally correct, so the heavy reliance on karyotypology doesn't materially detract from the story.

I am with the author insofar as the pathway by which we reached this crossroads point. I agree we are too smart for our own good. But, my own take is that this is not an indictment of intelligence and creativity so much as a recognition of an inadequacy, to date, for the evolution of a mentality that might be more fit to manage its own smartness. We are smart, but not adequately wise. And we are not adequately wise because our brain structures that handle higher-order judgment have not yet evolved sufficiently to manage our smartness. You have heard the old saw: “Just because we can do a thing doesn't mean we should do that thing.” Just because we figured out how to split the atom to generate unimagined energies didn't necessarily mean that we should build atom bombs or nuclear reactors. We did it because we could and there was no higher-order judgment providing intuitions about the dangers of progressing down that road.

The brain basis for higher-order judgment and intuitive, unbiased guidance for decision making is what I have called sapience. It is the newest brain capacity in evolutionary terms and is deeply related to the capacity of humans to form abstract representations, especially language. It co-evolved with intelligence but started ‘later’ in evolutionary history, so is out of phase with the former. It has to catch up. My story ends a bit differently from Dilworth's. I see the impending impasse as the evolutionary opportunity for this to occur. In other words, rather than just writing off the genus Homo as failed because it was too smart, I prefer to imagine that the bottleneck is an opportunity for sapience to expand and come to provide an adequate management mental capacity for our cleverness. I have developed a scenario for the further evolution of the brain structures involved in sapience that require surprisingly little additional brain matter — more an issue of slight reorganization and wiring. Of course this is highly speculative. But it is based on known neuroscience and evolution theory. It is not idle speculation.

Whether Dilworth is right, that the end is upon us due to being too smart for our own good, or I am right that this is just a stepping stone toward an improved sentience on Earth, is something none of us will ever know. Where we deeply agree is what the near consequences for Homo sapiens sapiens will be. And the value in attending to the consequences is in anything we can conjure to lessen the pain and suffering — to be forewarned is to be prepared. The real value of Dilworth's work is to at least find some intellectually satisfying (even if disturbing) explanation for why we are where we are.


[1] Tainter, J. (1988). The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge University Press.
[2] Catton, William (1982). Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, University of Illinois Press.
[3] See: Schneider, E. D. & Sagan, D. (2006). Into the Cool: Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life, University of Chicago Press.
[4] See: Catton, William (2009). Bottleneck: Humanity's Impending Impasse, Xlibris.

Also see my review of this book: Question Everything: Humanity's Impending Impasse.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)