bottled up

When I first started getting glum about the future, I thought that maybe I was just getting old and grumpy. But now I’ve noticed that an increasing number of people are concerned about the direction we’re all heading. In fact, it seems that the younger you are, the more likely you are to have some pessimism about the planet, at least to a point. And that point depends on your understanding of basic ideas from biology and sociology. This understanding doesn’t have to be so great: a little knowledge is a sufficiently dangerous thing, as I will surely demonstrate here. It’s not climate science that’s depressing – it’s the science of people.

This book review recounts an analogy that provides a good starting point: Imagine a bottle containing a population of bacteria that doubles every minute. The population growth starts at 11am, and the bottle is filled to capacity with bacteria by noon.

First question: What time was the bottle half full?

The math is not hard on this one. Since the population doubles every minute, the bottle was half full at 11:59am. In the next minute, the bottle was totally full, and without another bottle to expand into, all the bacteria died soon after noon, as the bottle was a constrained and exhausted resource. Even if another bottle miraculously became available, that bottle would be full in one minute, and two more bottles would be required just to survive the following minute.

Next question: Assuming the bacteria were as smart as humans, what time did they all realize that the bottle was going to fill to capacity?

No matter how highly you rate human intelligence, it would be a stretch to think that they would realize the overcrowding before the last 10 minutes, at earliest. With 10 doublings to go, the bottle still has 99.9% of its space available. Even with only 3 minutes left, the bottle still has 87.5% of its space remaining.

Next question: Do you see the obvious analogy?

This analogy purports to explain climate change denial, and as far as it goes, it’s not terrible. It’s often noted that 200,000 years passed from the beginnings of humanity to a population of 1 billion people, and only another 200 years to reach 7 billion. To me, it’s striking that there’s been a doubling in my lifetime – when I was born, there were barely 4 billion people on the planet. Now the world population is almost 8 billion. Whatever room there is left in this bottle is going to disappear very fast.

I’d like to extend the analogy with another question, which speaks to the structure of our society today and in the future. There’s no math in this question, but there’s a lot of underlying sociobiology, which is a word that I don’t really even understand – I had to look it up a second ago just to feel confident enough to use it here. It seems like the right word for someone who’s flinging analogies about social structure and natural selection.

New question: What if there’s more than one type of bacteria?

Let’s assume that Population A consists of bacteria that are, with respect to their relationship with each other and the bottle, a kind of ideal that many of us aspire to as humans with respect to each other and our planet. They are peaceful, cooperative, inclined towards equality, and harmonious with the natural resources they consume within the bottle. They’re never going to fill the bottle – they trend towards an equilibrium where they don’t compete with each other, and they tend to move on to a different section of the bottle when they’ve lightly used the resources in the place they were in.

Population B are bacteria that are highly competitive, to the point you would call them warlike if they were people. But they are also organized, disciplined, communicative, and inclined towards freedom. These bacteria might be kinda assholes, but they’re not going to fill the bottle either. When their population grows past a certain point, they tend to split into groups so they can maximize freedom for each member of the groups, which then go to war against each other. This trends towards population equilibrium as well.

Now imagine a Population C as a nightmare evolution with the worst characteristics of A and B. They are highly competitive and organized, they’ll grant equality only to their own kind, and they express their freedom through the exploitation of others, which both enables and requires the use of continually more resources. They’ll subjugate A and use the resulting superior resources to defeat B. These are the assholes that end up doubling the population every second.

I am stretching this analogy to its breaking point, but this is basically the story told in books like Sapiens and Against the Grain. The earliest organized human societies lived as hunter-gatherers, roaming wherever they wanted to explore the gifts of nature, working only as much as they needed to eat, which was about half their daylight hours, and playing around all the rest of the day. When humans ended up settling down in agrarian societies, they didn’t do so because they were tired of all the travel and leisure, they did so because of the inexorable logic of exploitation and population growth. Farms were more successful with more children, and eventually more scalable with trade, finance, serfdom and slavery. Agrarian societies could leverage their advantages through exploitation – underpaid labor and outright slavery allowed a smaller and smaller proportion of the population to reap more and more gains. Eventually Population C (agrarian society) absorbs Population A (hunter-gatherers) and kills Population B (let’s say Neanderthals).

The Agrarian Era gave way to the Industrial Age which then gave way to our current Information Economy. But these all enable and require the same social structure – they are a continual evolution that naturally entails a smaller and smaller proportion of society having more and more of the wealth, while at the same time crowding out any possible other form of social structure. Now that human society has reached global scale, it’s laughably egotistical for us to think that we ever had a choice to organize our global society any other way. Exploitation of the masses by the elite isn’t a choice, but an evolutionary outcome from which there is no escape. Not until the bottle explodes. Or until the elites replace the masses with robots. I would say “pick your poison” but you’re not really going to have a choice.

Speaking of ego, this fantastical conjecture would also explain one of the enduring mysteries of humanity: the existence of consciousness. So far, we have no conclusive explanation for why humans are conscious of their own experience in a way that no other animal seems to be. Even if we could explain exactly how it works (we can’t yet), we don’t know exactly why it exists. I believe that consciousness is an evolutionary adaptation – not for any individual human, but for the propagation of ever larger human societies. Without a sense of ego, which requires consciousness, no human would be able to live in a vastly exploitative society.

Humans aren’t like ants or bees, living in societies where the masses can mindlessly support the evolutionary imperatives of a single queen. Humans have the intelligence and tools to live a life of freedom. On an individual level, there’s no reason for any of us to accept a social structure where we’re not all equals. It’s only the fact of ego allows people to conceive of themselves as members of a great society, and the disorienting thing is that ego doesn’t necessarily mean you think a lot of yourself. The ego of a very few might compel them to strive for status among the elites. But that effect of the ego is far less important than its much more pervasive opposite effect, the ego that convinces people that there’s a reason to go on living under conditions of outrageous and inescapable exploitation. There would be no oppression without consciousness, and there would be no global scale without oppression. We were always doomed by our egos to fill the bottle to bursting.

If in recent times, you’ve found yourself struggling with the creeping feeling that there’s something about our species that means everything will only get worse until the end of our time, which doesn’t seem very far away … well, at least you can congratulate yourself on your instinctive awareness of sociobiology. If nothing else, it’ll help your ego.

over easy

Although being a visionary seems fruitful, you never want to be too far ahead of the times. When you can predict the future very far ahead about something that’s very important, the more fervently you behave in accord with that prediction, the more of a lunatic you will seem. An clear example is that all of our best knowledge about cosmology indicates that the universe will end at some point in the very distant future; however, if you’d spent your whole life screaming that the world is coming to an end, you’d seem like a nutter. If you’ve only been whimpering about it in the last couple of years, you seem … almost rational? Timing is everything.

Resurrecting an old idea at the right time looks like genius. In 1993, Apple introduced a personal handheld device that would be your constant companion, storing all sorts of your useful information and contacts so that you could always carry your digital world with you. When Steve Jobs returned as CEO of Apple in 1997, he killed the project. In 2007 he introduced the iPhone and changed the world. Steve Jobs wasn’t a better visionary than John Sculley; he just had better timing.

So really what you want to be is slightly ahead of the times. What does that look like? You’d know it when you see it, and then see it again. See, you can only be sure that you’ve seen a prescient idea after you have looked at it at least twice. The first time you look at it, it looks like the work of a lunatic. The last time you look at it, it seems utterly sensible, though you may still have your doubts.

Yesterday I came across The Easiest Person To Fool, but realized that I’d come across him years ago – and at that time, I’d dismissed him as a nutter. Irv Mills may describe himself as a “collapsenik” rather than a prepper or a survivalist, the latter terms sometimes having the tinge of overzealousness to them – I don’t think that the distinction between any of those terms is important for my purposes, as the mental image for all of them is basically the same to the uninitiated. The point is, when I read Irv’s website a few years ago, he sounded a bit crazy to me. He seemed to be living an isolated life in the woods, obsessively preparing for a disaster that might never come.

But yesterday I took a closer look at his autobiographical notes. He’s just a normal guy, nothing nutty about him. He worked in the energy industry for years, developing a detailed understanding of the limits and consequences of carbon-based fuel sources. As he aged into retirement from his first career, he noticed the fragility of our financial system and the precarious consequences for his children, and he thought longer and harder about the state of the world. By 2006, he concluded that it makes sense to start preparing for the collapse of civilization. That sounds dramatic, but when he lays out his thoughts on “business as usual” and hippies and magical thinking, he comes across as a very deliberate and rational thinker. He comes across as almost trendy, actually.

Apocalyptic thinking is very much on trend now. The world seems to be on the verge of a breaking point. Climate change, structural economic instability, tech disruption, authoritarian politics, trade wars, shadow digital wars, real “hot” wars … we seem to be in a constant bath of troubles that’s about to boil the frog. Apocalypse, zombies, and dystopia are such common features of our mainstream entertainment that they’re beyond cliche now. People who once seemed like hermetic nutjobs now seem … entirely rational?

In politics, the mainstream viability of an idea exists in the “Overton window” of formally supported policies, popular behavior, and sensible choices. The range of acceptable political discussion moves with the times, ascending through various degrees of public acceptance. Here’s an example on the topic of human sexuality.

1965:

  • Policy: heterosexual marriage
  • Popular: premarital sex
  • Sensible: premarital cohabitation
  • Acceptable: contraception
  • Radical: abortion
  • Unthinkable: same-sex marriage

To be clear, the Overton window is just a description of what is currently considered sensible (and above) in mainstream political discourse; it’s not a value judgment on whether that sensibility is right or wrong. Even with that caveat, your mileage may vary depending on where you live and who you associate with. I would roughly say the window on these issues moved like this:

1975:

  • Policy: premarital sex
  • Popular: premarital cohabitation
  • Sensible: contraception
  • Acceptable: abortion
  • Radical: same-sex marriage

1995:

  • Policy: premarital cohabitation
  • Popular: contraception
  • Sensible: abortion
  • Acceptable: same-sex marriage

2015:

  • Policy: contraception
  • Popular: abortion
  • Sensible: same-sex marriage

Moving from sex back to the end times: Now, everyone should have some degree of preparation for disaster, but there’s sort of an Overton window for disaster prep as well. If you live in a stable society with no special history of natural disaster, maybe your Overton window for prepping for disasters looks like this:

  • Policy: fire alarm
  • Popular: fire extinguisher
  • Sensible: earthquake kit
  • Acceptable: power generator for a day or two
  • Radical: a year’s supply of food and water
  • Unthinkable: bomb-proof shelter

It’s possible that I’ve inadvertently joined the Tinfoil Hat Of The Month Club, but I’ve come to believe that there’s almost nothing outside of the Overton window for the collapse of civilization. At most, we could have a discussion about what’s on either side of the border between sensible and acceptable. Are you prepared to go a week without power from the grid? That’s totally sensible in most places, and it should be popular where I live in California. Have you stockpiled weapons because you’re concerned about the breakdown of civil order including the law enforcement response to that breakdown? That seems acceptable to me. Do you have a detailed escape plan covering you and your loved ones? Sensible. Growing food in a kitchen garden? Canning? Keeping backyard livestock? Popular. Put your life savings in Bitcoin? I mean … I still think that’s stupid, but it’s nevertheless totally acceptable.

You might think I’m crazy, or you might think you’ve been smelling what I’m cooking for a while now. Either way, it makes sense for you to consider the gifts of the collapseniks. After spending some time with Irv, I followed some links from his blog to Albert Bates, who charts other collapseniks, and Dave Pollard, who offers a map you can easily find yourself on and a great reading list. Go ahead and click around a bit. You might think I’m crazy, but I think that with the road we’re on, I’ll keep this going ’til the sun goes down forever.