Tag Archives: over-population

Robotics and Immigration

One of our most cherished myths is that America is a land of immigrants. In point of fact, we are—many millions of people migrated from the “Old World” to the “New” in the centuries following the first voyage of Columbus; what is now the United States became a favored destination of people from the British Isles, from Northern Europe (especially Germany), and later from Eastern and Southern Europe. These are the facts, the statistics. The mythic element, however, tells a story of people seeking freedom of various kinds—religious freedom, freedom from ethnic oppression, freedom from monarchs and oppressive class systems. No doubt these constituted the personal motives of many of the immigrants themselves.

Liberal and progressive arguments favoring continued unimpeded immigration are often couched in moral and mythic terms: that we have always been a nation of immigrants and should therefore continue to be (but: one definition of insanity is to repeat the same action over and over again despite not getting the hoped-for results); that we should forever continue to welcome “the huddled masses yearning to be free.”

What is not often considered are the motives of those already here (and of some who never stepped foot on American soil) in encouraging and enabling these mass migrations. From the very beginning, those motives have been all about profit: more specifically, about cheap labor as a means of exploiting the resources of this so-called “virgin land,” resources such as lumber, furs, gold and silver, and most especially agricultural commodities: tobacco, sugar (mostly on the Caribbean Islands), cotton, and wheat. With a few exceptions, early British colonies were chartered by London investors and were stocked with men and women from the desperate and criminal classes (people whom the British authorities were glad to be rid of), many of whom died shortly after arrival. As the colonies took hold, increasing numbers of the poor, the indebted, the jobless without prospects, the desperate, came here as indentured servants. Indenturement was little better than slavery, as many died before their term of service was up, others were cheated of their promised rewards. Then there was slavery itself, which brought millions of Africans here (and elsewhere in the New World) as chattel labor, valuable not only for free labor but as commodities in themselves.

Later, as the industrial revolution took hold, millions of Europe’s impoverished were allowed in to supply the labor for the factories as well as for the piecework that still occurred in crowded tenements and hazardous sweatshops (as exemplified by Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911). Cheap labor was also obtained from China, particularly in the building of the transcontinental railroads; migrant (usually Mexican) labor is still crucial for harvesting fruits and vegetables.

This thumbnail sketch illustrates that cheap labor is the primary reason that business and political leaders have favored mass immigration, and why, for the most part, most business leaders still do. Economists today argue that we need to continue mass immigration (despite the fact that we already have a population of over 320 million people) because an aging population needs an influx of young workers to support (through taxes) the retired elderly—though how immigrants who live below the poverty line and, if legal, receive more in government benefits than they will ever pay in taxes, could perform that function is never explained. And this despite the fact that behind the sunny employment figures of recent weeks are the huge numbers of potential workers who have given up looking for a job and who are therefore no longer counted as “unemployed.”

Now comes another reason why mass immigration may no longer be a good thing: Artificial Intelligence (AI) is rendering many jobs, especially those traditionally occupied by the less skilled worker, obsolete. Factories now use more robotics than human beings and will do so even more as time goes on; many lower-skilled white-collar jobs are being replaced by digital substitutes; retailing jobs are disappearing as more and more consumers purchase goods online (as is illustrated by the emptying out of shopping malls and the closure of brick-and-mortar department stores). In other words, in the near future (if not already), our economy will require far fewer human workers per unit of output than they once did, and therefore demand for human labor (with certain exceptions) will drop considerably. Starkly put, we will not need the labor of our current population, let alone the labor of new immigrants.

What we will need instead is a new way of distributing the wealth that AI will generate. While it is too early in this transformation to specify how the new wealth should be distributed, it is time to begin considering the problem. The profits from AI are now accruing to the corporations in the form of profits and to the corporate managing classes who run the companies and make the big decisions as to how AI will be used. Yet again, the people with no voice in the process are the working classes (including the middle class). In fact, the political system is set up in such a way as to divide and conquer working people (e.g., the breaking up of unions and collective bargaining, the federal trade agreements that ignore the consequences to working people, etc.). The election of Donald Trump, who defeated all the establishment contenders of the Republican party before going on to (barely) defeat Hillary Clinton, is symptomatic of the anger of many citizens—that anger is likely to grow as the very rich get richer and the rest get much poorer and more desperate.

See this article.

Is Brexit the End of the Postwar Era?

Most people with any sense of history know that the European Union came into existence as a consequence of the desire of Europeans to prevent a recurrence of the disputes and national rivalries that had led to the two great world wars, as well as to present a united front against the new threat to Europe, the Soviet Union.  With the fall of the Soviet Union, several countries of Eastern Europe joined the EU, eventually expanding the membership to 28 countries.  It is now 27 countries—and possibly on countdown, as other countries, exasperated by the lack of democracy and the failures of the EU governing classes, contemplate following the UK’s lead.

A faulty system will be tolerated so long as people believe that it is preferable to any other likely system; the EU has been tolerated largely because it was seen as preferable to the many wars that European nations had engaged in previously.  But the last great war ended seventy-one years ago; very few people who lived through that war are still alive and memory of it and its long aftermath of reconstruction and national reorganization is largely relegated, for most living Europeans, to history books.  This may be especially true for the British, whose island continues to keep it somewhat apart from events on the Continent.  The threat of Russia under Putin is one too close to, say, Poland and Germany, but a bit far for the UK.

Of course, the United States has not been a disinterested observer of the EU (as suggested by Obama’s remarks when he visited the UK earlier this year).  Having fought with the Allies in both World Wars, having financed the rebuilding of Western Europe through the Marshal Plan, and having been the prime mover behind NATO, one can argue that the US is as much a part of the EU as it would be if it were an actual member.  One might even argue that the EU is a continuation of empire by means other than outright warfare—perhaps we could even call the European project the “imperial project.”  Napoleon tried to unify Europe under the banner of France; the Austro-Hungarian Empire experienced some success in unifying parts of central and eastern Europe; and Prussia unified the disparate German states into Germany.  The rise of nation states themselves out of the motley assortment of duchies, kingdoms, free cities, and spheres of influence into the distinct nations we know today—France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, etc.—was itself a long imperial project (each of these examples was initially united under a national king who had defeated his feudal aristocratic competitors).  And of course, we know the efforts of the Nazis to impose a unified Europe by brutal force under the swastika flag.

One might say, then, that the EU is a bureaucratic rather than a military empire.  Almost by definition, empire attempts to unify national, ethnic, linguistic, and religious “tribes” under one government, but its Achilles’ heel, it’s genetic defect, is the persistence of those tribes despite the efforts of the imperium to eliminate their differences.  It happened to the Roman Empire, which was disassembled by the very tribes which it had incorporated into its borders.  It also happened to the British Empire, once the most extensive the world has ever seen but which now is reduced to the islands of Great Britain and a small part of Ireland—and which may be further reduced if Scotland and Wales, both long ago (but not forgotten) bloodily defeated and humiliated by the English.

The United States, too, has been an empire-that-will-not-speak-its-name (although the Founders were not chary in using the term when describing their continental ambitions).  We have seen in the last few decades a diminution in the global power and influence of the US as various historic threats have been removed, making others including Europe less reliant on our power, and previously backward countries have risen to the world stage, providing alternate centers of power for client states to orient to.  Our zenith of power was in the decades immediately following the end of WW2, but also for us with the passing of the “Greatest Generation,” memory of that triumph has faded, perhaps disastrously so.

So while it cannot yet be definitively confirmed, it does seem that the frustrations and resentments that built up to the Brexit vote could be a signal that the postwar era has come to an end.  If so, then the next question becomes:  Can globalization continue as planned and hoped for by the corporate, digital and government elites, or will tribalism and nationalism reassert themselves?  Will Europe (and the world) revert to its pre-WW1 national conflicts and warlike imperialist ambitions, or will it and the world evolve a totally new type of organization, one that no one has seen before or can as yet predict?  Or will things like global warming make all hope moot?

Stay tuned.

Joy Williams’ Ill Nature: A Review

First published in 2001, and now reissued in paperback by Lyons Paperback, Williams’ “rants and reflections on humanity and other animals” (per the subtitle), is a collection of essays on humanity’s destruction of nature and war against animals written in a tone of angry cynicism: anger at what we have done and are doing, cynicism that we will ever really do anything about it. These are powerful and disturbing essays on such topics as the destruction of the Everglades, the sterility of master planned developments, the cruelties of agribusiness and scientific research, the pseudo-philosophical blather that pretends to justify hunting (not a spiritual pursuit but an atavistic delight in slaughter), and over population. There is little of what passes for “reasonable” or “rational” in these essays, precisely because the reasonable and rational approaches to environmental issues and animal rights, among other topics, are Williams’ ultimate targets.

No reader can escape unscathed from these essays. As “consumers,” we are actively (definitely not passively) complicit in these crimes. Do you eat any kind of meat? Then you are an active supporter of agribusiness, which treats farm animals as units of production and commodities, not as living beings with hearts and minds that suffer in overcrowding, forced feeding, and production-line slaughter. Do you contribute money to the flagship environmental and animal protection organizations? Then you participate in the compromises and rational cost/benefit analyses that undermine the stated missions of these institutions. Do you want babies? Then you are contributing to over population. Do you visit nature preserves and national parks? Then you are endorsing the idea that Nature is something other than us, is something meant for sentimental recreation and resource management, that is, ours.

Williams does not let wildlife biologists off the hook. Snarky asides let us know that she has no patience with collaring and monitoring wild animals for the purpose of adding to human knowledge. She cites one admittedly astonishing and shocking experiment by Canadian scientists, in which they leased a number of pristine lakes and deliberately subjected them to pollutants of various kinds and concentrations in order to see what would happen. Not surprisingly, all life in the lakes died; the lakes themselves died. It will take decades if not generations for the lakes to recover. Why did the scientists do this? Everyone who wanted to know already knew what would happen, after all. Pollution is not a new phenomenon. Those who didn’t want to know paid no attention to the scientists’ experiments. They were pointless.

This experiment reminds me of one conducted by E. O. Wilson and Daniel S. Simberloff in the 1960’s, in which they “removed” the original fauna (mostly insect species) from small mangrove islands in Florida Bay by tenting and fumigating them with methyl bromide (in other words, they exterminated all the brutes) and then watched and waited to see how quickly they were repopulated. This is what passes for science these days. Wilson has been beatified not only by the scientific community (especially those who are temperamentally attracted to his theory of sociobiology) but by the public at large; he’s virtually the Pope Francis of naturalists. It’s too bad Williams, herself once a long-time resident of Florida, didn’t turn her attention to this experiment in her own back yard. Maybe she didn’t know about it.

There is, of course, a problem: Williams is a contemporary American woman, an owner and seller of land, a writer and a professor of writing. She owns dogs. The dog is the species which has been subjected to the most manipulation and disfigurement to suit human purposes and whims of all domestic creatures. Some breeds are so distorted that they can hardly breathe and can no long give birth naturally but have their pups routinely delivered by Caesarian section. None could survive for long in the wild, despite the fact that they are, genetically, wolves. All of which is to say that Williams, along with all the rest of us, cannot escape from the unnatural world we human beings have created—and continue to create: which is enough to infuriate anyone who cares to the extent that Williams obviously does. Of which there are too few to make any real difference to the big picture, in the long run.

What is happening on the scale of the big picture and the long run is the likely fact that we have already passed the tipping point on global warming (“climate change” is far too innocuous a term, meant to deflect the criticisms of deniers), that we already have far too many people on this planet and will have many more—too many for resource management schemes or renewable energy infrastructure to satisfy—, that wild elephants will probably be extinct within a decade or two, and that water and food shortages, along with the frustrations of crowded, poorly educated, and jobless young men, will lead to more and more deadly wars than we already have. Meanwhile, bioengineers cook up schemes for subjecting the forces of nature to human control, with results that are admittedly unpredictable. This fantasy is based on the false notion that Nature is a system; systems can be controlled, tinkered with, reset, understood.

Many years ago I read an article in some national magazine in which the author argued that, with Nature already gone or domesticated, we had no choice but to treat the earth as a great manmade garden. He seemed to think that we could, by means of our intelligence and technology, recreate Eden. that is, we could systematize nature. Apparently he had not noticed (most people don’t, although the writers of The Simpsons did), that Eden was a small paradise circumscribed by the rest of the world, that beyond the gates were death, disease, and hardship. After all, where else could God have cast them out to? God made or manmade, Paradise is a dream, a fantasy, in which all the untidiness and unpredictability of reality have been eliminated. Paradise, Eden, Utopia. Systems all. Rational. Reasonable. Impossible.

Can Humans Really Cause Climate Change?

I was listening to the Diane Rehm show today, on the topic of President Obama’s new proposals for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, when a man from Texas called in and stated, obviously in deep umbrage, that climate change is junk science. As proof, he pointed out that the last ice age ended with climate warming not caused by humans, so therefore climate change is natural—and only natural. He is not alone in asserting that climate change is junk science, and he is only one among many who point to the numerous instances of natural climate change, both cooling and warming, over the course of geological time.

It is true that the last ice age ended because of natural causes and was not caused by human activity. There weren’t enough humans back then to have much of an effect on climate, if any. But times have changed. Back then world population was less than one million. Today there are more than seven billion, and most of the geometric increase in population has occurred in the last 200 years (there were just barely one billion of us in 1800), and we have technologies that far exceed those that ice age man enjoyed, and almost all of our technologies are powered by fossil fuels: coal, oil, and natural gas. Because of our ability to re-shape the world in our own image, many scientists call the current era the anthropogenic age. Whereas in the past our impact on the climate was barely measurable, today it is enormous. That in the past, climate change was caused by volcanic eruptions or solar storms does not exclude other causes, including human activities. For that reason, comparisons to climate changes of the remote past are irrelevant to the situation we are facing today. Such comparisons are nothing more than red herrings, meant to distract us from the real evidence for global warming, and apparently for some people, such as that man from Texas, the fallacy is working.

Not that pre-industrial humans are completely off the hook. As documented by George Perkins Marsh in 1864 and by Jared Diamond more recently, human societies have degraded their environments through overuse since the beginnings of civilization. It is believed by archaeologists that human intrusion into the American continents by the ancestors of Native Americans led to the overhunting and extinction of many large mammals, including mammoths and several camel species. On New Zealand, Maoris slaughtered giant flightless birds, and it is believed that the original inhabitants of Australia killed off many species of large (and often dangerous) vertebrates.

Once Europeans clambered ashore in the Americas, we quickly reshaped the landscape and ecology of what became today’s United States—we felled forests, especially in the east, plowed under vast sweeps of grasslands for farmlands, dammed rivers and ruined estuaries, nearly extinguished the bison, and succeeded in wiping out the passenger pigeon, once the most numerous bird species in the world. (And note that, pointing out that extinctions in the remote past, such as the dinosaurs, were “natural” does not mean that the extinction of the passenger pigeon was not caused by humans.) The list of animal and plant species that have gone extinct because of human actions is pages long, and gets longer as more reach that sad fate every year (will the monarch butterfly be on that list soon?). Now that we are virtually in a global rather than many regional civilizations, our activities have global impacts.

The stance taken by the man from Texas, as well as those who agree with him, has behind it a disingenuous premise: That human activities are not great enough to have an effect on the global climate, and that therefore we can continue doing whatever we want without consequence. This premise is joined by another, that climate change is natural and therefore that human activity, which by (unstated) definition is not natural, has no effects. We can conquer nature because we are not-nature. But if human beings aren’t natural, what is? We are like all other vertebrate animals: We are bodies with many organs, we eat similar things to what other animals eat, we breathe, we reproduce, and we die. We are as natural, as biological, as any other organism. Therefore, we are included rather than excluded from the natural cycles of life and of the planet. We are not set apart. Even those of us who live in great cities and make our livings while seated in front of a computer screen have to eat animals and plants to survive, just like our hunter-gatherer ancestors and just like all other animals on this planet.

One of the most important atmospheric changes that ever occurred in the history of the planet was oxygenation. Nearly three billion years ago, certain bacteria, the cyanobacteria (blue-green algae), began producing oxygen, which was released into the atmosphere and made life, as we oxygen-breathing humans know it, possible. Cyanobacteria are living things (like us), and they remade the planet (like we are doing)—in a perfectly natural process. Everything that humans do is “natural”—we are incapable of doing anything unnatural. Even the burning of fossil fuels is “natural.” We didn’t invent fire, we simply found a way to use it for our own purposes. The byproducts of burning fossil fuels are also perfectly “natural”—and harmful. “Natural” does not mean benign; nor does it mean beyond human control, since “Nature” has given us the intellects and opposable thumbs to exercise control.

But there are “natural” limits to our control, limits built into our very bodies. We cannot survive and prosper without the natural environment that spawned us and sustains us. At some point the ecosystem on which we depend will snap under our pressure. Scientists warn that other species cannot evolve quickly enough to adapt to the rapid changes we have wrought. Neither can we.

Easter Island Island Earth

Easter Island/Island Earth
As Jared Diamond and others have argued, Easter Island offers some lessons in the effects of over-population and excessive exploitation of natural resources on a civilization’s fate. But there is one lesson by analogy which they don’t mention, that denial of the signs of that fate leads to some peculiar social expressions.

Whatever it may have been that led to the collapse of the Easter Island civilization, depredation by rats, over population, deforestation, etc., it appears that prior to the collapse the Easter Islanders indulged in large scale production of the now world-famous statues, the moai, set up along the seaside by the different clans. That the production of the statues ended abruptly rather than gradually is indicated by the many partially finished statues still remaining in the quarries, as well as others apparently abandoned en route to the sea. If it had been a cultural evolution that had led to the cessation of statue making, it seems unlikely that the stone carvers would not have been notified of the change and told not to start work on still more.

This abruptness suggests some intriguing scenarios. If the people, and particularly the rival clan leaders, were aware that something was amiss, that for example deforestation was making it impossible to construct water craft, which in turn made it difficult to fish, why would they have not changed their policies, urging the people to protect what trees were left and take other measures to preserve and enhance their island, rather than continue in the wasteful building of statues? Or was statue carving a way to occupy the surplus labor of overpopulation, men who might otherwise conspire against the powers of the clan leaders?

Besides the industrial process of carving the statues, transporting them to the coast, and setting them up, there was also very likely an elaborate ritual system centered around the statues once they were in place. It is unlikely that so much effort would have gone into the merely decorative, and again the rituals may have had several uses: diverting the population, solidifying clan identity and rivalries, legitimizing the power of the elite, and (hopefully) soliciting the intervention of the gods or ancestors to solve the growing problems of the island. This latter would suggest that the people were aware of being under threat, and some researchers have suggested that measures were taken to try and increase agricultural productivity to feed a population that exceeded the natural carrying capacity of the island.

None of these measures, industrial, ritual, or agricultural, could ultimately solve the problems the islanders faced, and at some point the population collapsed, from an estimated high point of about 15,000 to a low of a few thousand. There is evidence of intense warfare that toppled the statues and may have contributed to population collapse. Even today, despite centuries of contact with the outside world (and in part even because of it), the native population remains small, and economically dependent on tourism, and the island remains barren of trees.
But is there a legitimate analogy between the fate of Easter Island and the prospective fate of the planet? A small island is not the world, after all. But Island Earth is more isolated in the expanses of space than Easter Island is in the expanse of the Pacific Ocean; we are far less capable of escaping our cosmic island than the people of Easter Island were of theirs.

We are receiving plenty of warnings. The effects of climate change are now too well documented to be credibly denied, nor can it be denied that human activity, i.e., the wholesale gluttonous burning of fossil fuels, is the primary cause of the changes. Invocations of natural cycles, sunspots, or whatever else are no more than appeals to a higher power as a way of avoiding self-blame and the unpleasant consequences of taking practical action. As for over-population, it is a mystery why anyone would take comfort in the prospect of the human population “stabilizing” later in the century at 9 billion or 10 billion when it is so evident that the present population of 7+ billion is already too many. Even as the so-called “green revolution” is running out of steam, arable land, and the water to irrigate it, is declining. Some say that we have plenty of food, that it is only a matter of equitable distribution that leaves so many people undernourished or outright starving, and this may be true—but distribution itself is an intractable problem, especially when agriculture is increasingly exclusively in the hands of large corporations whose operations and bottom lines are designed to exclude the small farmer from the system.

Meanwhile, corporate and political elites (increasingly the same people) are preoccupying themselves with grand construction projects that do no one any good and harm many. There is, for example, the Chinese project of constructing an ultra-mega city said to be eventually the size of Kansas and containing 130 million people—although necessities such as reliable transportation, schools, health clinics, and water supplies seem not to be part of the plans. Back in deforested Brazil, which will host the 2016 summer Olympics, the water in which many of the aquatic events will take place is so polluted with human feces that athletes are likely to get quite sick. This despite estimates that the total bill for the games will exceed the original estimate of $11.9 billion dollars by 50%–i.e., for a total of nearly $18.5 billion. Such cost overruns for sporting events and facilities are the norm, which by the way is why Boston recently declined the dubious privilege of hosting the 2024 games.

For elites, there is a great deal of prestige associated with grandiose sporting events; our universities are graced by state-of-the-art stadiums while their libraries crumble from lack of funds and attention. When not used for the “big game,” such stadiums provide venues for that other great contemporary ritual, the rock concert, complete with drugs that enhance the emotional experience of participating in something bigger than oneself—rather like religious rituals that make us feel good about ourselves while disparaging our rivals, even as our infrastructure collapses beneath our feet.

But we are promised, by gurus speaking ex cathedra from their antiseptic cloisters in Silicon Valley, in ways that are never quite specified, in terms that have the ring of magic incantations, that technology will solve all problems, whether of work, wealth, population, water, food, or climate change. There is something painfully shamanistic about proposals to seed the skies with salt water, or aluminum chips, or sulfate aerosols, or what have you, as there is about the prophesied wonders of more and faster Internet connections, even unto the remotest African or Tibetan village. Although I understand that as yet no one has figured out how to send food or water through fiber optic cables.

Silent Spring: The Reckoning

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a prophetic warning of the deleterious effects of pesticides such as DDT on the environment, was published in 1962. The book warned that the widespread use of pesticides was devastating bird populations, and that if such use was not eliminated or reduced, many species would become extinct. Carson detailed how DDT caused birds to lay eggs with shells so thin and fragile they broke before the embryos could develop into live chicks; birds of prey were especially affected because in their role as top predators, DDT became more concentrated in their bodies. At the time of publication, bald eagles had declined to near extinction because of the thin-shelled egg problem. Fortunately, despite heavy criticism by vested interests, Carson’s message was heard, DDT was banned, and the bald eagle has recovered, as have other raptors.

One would hope that the lesson had been learned and that similar mistakes would no longer be made. But nothing of the kind has in fact happened, despite all the earth days, demonstrations, supposed regulations, and lip service. A particularly striking and pertinent example of our failure to practice what we preach is the impending fate of the Monarch butterfly, that wonder of the insect world. This remarkable creature spends the summer months spread out in the northern United States (primarily in the upper Midwest) and southern Canada and winters concentrated in its millions in a small area of central Mexico. Even more amazing, this yearly migration covers multiple generations of the species, so that the butterflies that leave Mexico in the spring are not the same individuals who arrive in the north weeks later (they reproduce on the way), and a new generation leaves the north to return to Mexico in the fall. Yet they return to the same groves that their great-great-grandparents left months earlier!

Alas, the Monarch has one trait that has long served it well but which is now its Achilles’ heel: they lay their eggs on, and their caterpillars eat, only milkweed. They absorb the nasty taste of the milkweed, rendering them unpalatable to insect eating birds, which protects them from predation on their long, multigenerational migrations. Should the milkweed decline or disappear, so too will the Monarch.

Which is exactly what appears to be happening. Scientists and amateurs alike have noted a steady decline in the numbers of Monarchs gathering each year in Mexico (the best place to get a handle on their numbers), and this year (2013) the population has declined precipitously. According to a recent article in the New York Times, in 2012 the numbers of butterflies at the Mexico wintering site was approximately 60 million, itself a decline from previous years; but this year, only 2 million have showed up, and they showed up a week later (more on the implications of this fact later). Imagine if the human population had dropped from its current 7 billion to less than 300 million in just one year.

The most likely cause of this decline is the rapid disappearance of milkweed along the routes followed by the butterflies as they move north and south in their annual journeys. The American Midwest, that famous breadbasket to the world, is increasingly covered with corn and soybean fields, a large percentage of which are planted with so-called “Roundup ready” varieties, i.e., varieties that have been genetically engineered to resist glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup brand herbicide. Milkweed and other native species are not genetically engineered to resist that poison, so they die while the corn and soybeans prosper. With insufficient milkweed available on which to lay their eggs, Monarchs cannot renew their numbers, so they also die.

Likely compounding the problem is global warming. Canadian scientists have observed that many Monarchs are migrating further north than in the past, well past the natural range of the milkweed. While adults can feed on the flowers of other species, they can lay their eggs, and the caterpillars can dine, only on milkweed. Thus those Monarchs who went too far north (probably because of temperature) could not successfully reproduce. Warming may also explain why Monarchs arrived a week late in Mexico.

The phenomenon of crops genetically engineered to resist manmade herbicides is an example of System run amuck. System operates on the erroneous belief that a “problem” is singular and that its solution is also singular. So, if “weeds” are “invading” your crops, getting rid of them will take care of that problem. (Note: How can native species be invading on non-native, and artificial, varieties? Aren’t corn and soybeans invading on the native species? Aren’t corn and soybeans therefore the true weeds?) How very ironic that our capitalist system seems to be imitating a communist dictator: Chairman Mao once ordered that all sparrows be killed because they stole grain; consequently, crop-eating insects increased in numbers so sharply that he ordered widespread spraying of insecticides. Result: The elimination of pollinating species, particularly honeybees. If the Monarch is in such dire straits, are not other, likely beneficial species along its route also threatened? At the same time, some not so beneficial “weed” species are developing resistance to glyphosate, and it is likely that in the not so distant future, glyphosate herbicides will be rendered useless while some other pestilence will discover the vulnerabilities of genetically engineered crops. Thus the solution will turn out to be yet another of mankind’s many self-made problems.

See also this more recent article.

Energy and Diminishing Returns

In his book The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph A. Tainter identities a number of factors that contribute to the decline and fall of civilizations, i.e., complex societies.  Among the major reasons he cites is what economists call diminishing returns on investments.

Tainter argues that complex societies exist to solve problems, such as resource needs, and that as problems become more complex, often through population expansion, the society becomes more complex also, particularly in terms of administrative or managerial functions:  government bureaucracy, information processing, social organization, and so forth.  But complexity brings its own problems, one of which is that as more energy is invested in obtaining the increased resources necessary to sustain the society, the per unit benefit of those increases tends to decline.  He cites such examples as the conversion from wood to coal as a source of fuel in Europe in the late middle ages and early modern period.  As the population increased, more trees were cut down, resulting in deforestation over wide areas of Europe.  Eventually, there were not enough trees left to supply the people’s needs for fuel, so Europeans turned increasingly to coal; but coal is much harder and more costly to obtain that trees had been—coal sources were located at considerable distances from where the fuel was needed, it was buried underground, and as more of it was mined, people had to dig deeper to get at it, and so on.  The per unit cost of the energy obtained from the coal was higher than the per unit cost obtained from wood.

Fortunately, industrial technology discovered other sources of fuel, oil and natural gas being the two most important ones, and for over a century the industrial world has obtained its energy from these two new sources (although coal still remains important, particularly for industrial uses such as electric plants and steel mills); yet now we are entering a period when the return on investment in oil production is declining, as oil reserves become harder to discover and exploit and as the oil obtained from new finds tends to be heavier and require more refining before being usable as gasoline or diesel.  It is possible, even likely, that geologically speaking, the Earth will never run completely out of oil, but we may reach a point at which we simply cannot reach what remains or cannot afford the costs of obtaining it.  Big industries might be able to continue to afford the cost of oil to produce certain essential products such as plastics for limited uses, but the average citizen likely won’t be able to afford filling up the tank of an SUV with gasoline.  “Peak oil” may simply mean “way too expensive oil.”

Thus, the real question for modern industrial societies, the United States in particular, is not whether or not we will run out of oil, nor even when, but rather at what point oil will simply be too expensive to rely on to provide the energy our complex technological civilization requires.  Developing alternative energy sources is not, then, exclusively a matter of preserving the environment or reversing global warming.  It is not even a matter of so-called “energy independence” (a political rather than scientific or economic issue, at any rate, given the global extent of all markets today—many people would be astonished to learn that the United States exports a great deal of oil and oil products, as well as importing them).  It is rather a matter of civilizational survival.

Societies that fail to respond appropriately to the problems created by their own complexity tend to fragment into smaller, less complex units, as the Mayan civilization broke into small swidden villages scattered over a wider area.  But as sophisticated as the Mayan civilization was, in terms of population, it was relatively small compared to U.S. and world populations today.  World population in 1492 (several centuries after the Mayan collapse) was a mere 500 million, and economies and cultures were still largely local rather than national or global.  Today, world population exceeds 7 billion, with China alone having twice as many people as all the world in 1492, and our economies and cultures are irrevocably intertwined and interdependent.  We cannot feasibly fragment into small states or swidden cultures today.  Nor is it feasible to return to some imagined Golden Age of the 1950s or 1780s.  Our solutions can only apply to the future, not to the many pasts of human history.

Given the intrinsic importance of energy to our industrial, scientific, and technological societies, solving the problem of the increasing cost of oil is crucial to the entire world, not just the United States.  To prepare for “peak-cost oil,” we need to invest now in alternative energy sources, including nuclear power, and stop the political and partisan wrangling and one-upmanship that impedes our ability to save ourselves.

Is Immortality Feasible?

Is Immortality Feasible?: A Partial Review of David Deutsch’s
The Beginning of Infinity

David Deutsch’s new book The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World (Viking) is a fascinating blend of philosophy, science, and fantasy. Much of it is insightful and even true, but much also is questionable, and one of the pleasures of reading it is the mental exercise of distinguishing what to accept from what to doubt. Deutsch knows as much about physics and math as Stephen Hawking and, for the reader uninitiated in these disciplines, his book can be rough going at times; I for one take him at his word and go on to the next chapter when the math and physics get beyond my skill sets. He knows less about philosophy and biology, including neuroscience, but seems unaware of his limitations in these fields, which can make his ideas either fun and surprising or naïve.

There is too much of interest in the book to be adequately or fairly covered in a review or short essay, so I wish to limit myself to just one idea out of the many, with the recommendation that the book is worth its price and the time spent reading and pondering it.

Deutsch is exceptionally optimistic about our future; he believes that the rationalism of the Enlightenment will continue to solve human problems even as those problems multiply as a result of earlier solutions. In fact, he greets new problems as opportunities to generate new knowledge and better explanations. As far as he is concerned, the laws of physics guarantee that all problems are solvable and knowledge can grow infinitely (which is the kind of infinity referred to in the title of his book). He considers death to be a problem, and that as a problem it has a solution. Therefore he is certain that science will, rather soon, confer physical immortality on human beings, or barring that, digital immortality. Thus, despite his antireligious stance, he reiterates the long-standing religious ideas about immortality—among Christians, for example, there is both the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body in the last days (the latter accounting for the traditional objection to cremation). Certain Biblical figures were even said to have been wafted physically to heaven without having to pass through death. Deutsch’s dream is essentially religious in nature, though he would be shocked to hear that.

Deutsch calls death an “evil” (p. 213), as if it were somehow a moral failure rather than simply an inevitable fact of life, biologically speaking in the same class as birth, digestion, and reproduction, something that living things simply do as part of the process of living. Indeed, without death, there could be no evolution; natural selection would have nothing to select if there were no death. Ironically, William Paley, whom Deutsch calls the “finest exponent of the argument from design” (p. 84), knew that better than Deutsch does. In Natural Theology, Paley writes of “the system of destruction amongst animals” in a way that prefigures Darwin’s natural selection, though of course within a theological rather than materialist-evolutionary paradigm. From an evolutionary view, individual death is a good thing because it makes the development of new adaptations and species possible. “Creative destruction,” as Joseph Schumpeter termed it in a different context. The “evil” that Deutsch sees in death must be therefore an expression of his own personal fear of death rather than a rational judgment on the moral or other status of death per se.

Deutsch is confident that science will solve the problems of “illness and old age” through such things as gene manipulation and therapies for diseases, but in recognition that homicide and accidents will still cause deaths, he posits that we will create backups of our “states of brains, which could be uploaded into new, blank brains in identical bodies if a person should die . . . So there can only be one outcome: effective immortality for the whole human population, with the present generation being one of the last that will have short lives” (p. 455). Attention must be paid to the ambiguities of his language. What does he mean by “brain states”? What constitutes a “short life,” particularly if it has been fully lived? What qualifies as “illness”? Is old age an illness? What is “effective” immortality? Does it differ from actual immortality, and if so, who would want it? And is an “identical body” (presumably a lab-grown clone) really identical?

Besides his resort to ambiguity, there are numerous problems with Deutsch’s prophecy, not excluding that he is indulging in prophecy, which he explicitly abjures on the same page. For one thing, whatever he may mean by “brain states,” he assumes that they are equivalent to the person. But given that the brain is an extremely complex organ made up of many parts or suborgans (and perhaps we should think of the brain as in fact several organs working together), only some of which process conscious rational thought, while others process sensations, emotions, memories, and various unconscious bodily processes, and that much of what the person is and experiences is mediated by hormones, quite independently of rational thought, deciding what to “backup” would be potentially an intractable problem. Not to mention how one digitizes hormones and emotions, or what function they would serve in a digitally backed up version of oneself. Further, he assumes that the brain is a computer, thus falling into the trap of reifying a metaphor. Metaphors that compare living things or their parts, processes, or behaviors, to human artifacts are especially misleading.

Mortality is, of course, not just a matter of aging or defective genes. It is a universal condition of life (in the sense of “on the condition of”), and to eliminate death would necessarily entail a complete restructuring of the world. As Paley wisely wrote, “Death itself, as a mode of removal and of succession, is so connected to the whole order of our animal world, that almost everything in that world must be changed, to be able to do without it.”

All diseases would have to be eliminated—not just those associated with aging or programmed by one’s genes, but also all those caused by bacteria, viruses, and parasites, three large classes of living things over which human beings have either no or only provisional and temporary control. Animal diseases would have to be eliminated, in order to guarantee that none could mutate and jump to human beings, as has happened so many times already in the course of human history (e.g., smallpox, HIV, swine flu, etc.). Even if we successfully eliminated all genetic and contagious diseases, we would still have (as Deutsch hints) physical causes of death: suicide, homicide, fatal accidents, famine, thirst, and war (Deutsch does not mention that human immortality would require a concomitant change in human nature). There is no foreseeable technology that could reconstitute and revive a human being who had been thoroughly burned, for example.

The elimination of death would inevitably lead to a reshaping of our social world as well, for all great changes ripple out far beyond their initial and intended effects. There would be a near cessation of reproduction, for why add to the population if there is little or no subtraction, and why would immortals need or want children? (In this regard, it is instructive that as natural average lifespans have increased, reproductive rates have decreased.) At best, children would be rare, and who knows how well they would be taken care of or emotionally nourished if there were “effectively” no existential threat to their well being? There would also be no motive to get things done, as one could theoretically at least procrastinate forever, and there would be no need for research, for solving the problem of mortality would be psychologically equivalent to solving all human problems, and therefore production would end.

And what about the rest of the world, those non-human living things which vastly outnumber us and upon which we are dependent for our own lives? What would be the psychological impact on people of being immortal in a world in which all other creatures were still mortal? Would we become so callous towards inferior mortals that we would slaughter them wholesale just to pass the time? Or would we have to confer immortality on other animals, and if so, which animals would we choose to so bless? Everything from horses to beetles? Or would we limit the blessing only to favored domestic animals, such as cats and dogs (ferrets and guinea pigs, anyone?)? How would immortal human beings (those not yet digitized, anyway) feel about killing and eating a chicken or a cow? Would we at some point take pity on plants and confer immortality on them as well? If so, why would a rosebush bother to bloom (its flower being, in biological fact, its reproductive organs)? These admittedly rhetorical questions may strike one as ridiculous, but they underscore the fact that a world without death would end up being a world without life. Death would have the last laugh.

As noted earlier, backing up a person’s brain states would not confer immortality on the person. Whatever such a digital file might be, it would not be a person or a human being. A human being is a body and therefore more than merely his “thoughts” or whatever a “brain state” might be. Because of a linguistic trick, the conceptual problem engendered or at least reinforced by the possessive case, we seldom acknowledge that. By saying “my body” or “my brain” we reinforce the notion of dualism, that the person is separate from the body, that the body or the brain is something that we own rather than something that we are. This raises the problem of who the “my” is. Traditionally, it was the soul, while for Deutsch it appears to be some vague “brain state” analogous to a computer’s software and database. Nevertheless, Deutsch does not by this means escape the trap of dualism, and therefore he can really be said (again) to have a religious viewpoint, not a scientific one.

However, the mind is organic not digital, in that the brain evolved in a dialectic with the world, including other living things, and intelligence is the quality of our interaction with the rest of the world and also, very importantly, of the world’s interaction with us. Any paleoanthropologist can tell you that the brain, and thus human intelligence or mind, evolved, almost literally, hand in hand with the rest of the human body. As the dust jacket to David Abram’s book The Spell of the Senses so aptly puts it, “our most cherished human attributes—from the gift of language, to the awareness of past and present, to the rational intellect itself—all emerge in interaction with the animate natural world and remain wholly dependent upon that living world for their coherence.” Maybe this is why individuals who are deprived of bodily interaction with the world, for example through solitary confinement, lose their minds. A disembodied mind is no mind at all. It is merely a database, a memory bank with no function other than nightmare and hallucination.

Why This Recession? Part 1 World Population

Why This Recession (and Those Yet to Come)?

Part I:  World Population

          Do you believe you know why we are in this recession?  Do you fall in with conventional wisdom, which puts the blame on toxic mortgages, or fiscal irresponsibility in government (including the Bush tax cuts, or not), or the greedniks on Wall Street, or China’s unfair currency and trade policies, or consumers getting too far into debt?  Is income disparity to blame?  Are out-of-control health care and entitlement costs?  Any or all of these, and more, could be pointed to as the catalysts for the economic straits we are in.  But I have a hunch that the problem is deeper than it appears, that these factors are symptoms, not true causes.  To understand why this particular recession occurred, and was inevitable either now or a little later, one has to look at deeper systemic globalized problems. 

Go to the Why This Recession page for the full essay.