Plus ca change?

I love it when serendipity brings me the answer to a question that hasn’t even been asked yet. It happens to me all the time. Yesterday Vegard sent me a great video about our lack of intuition about exponential functions and how that relates to the energy crisis and the population explosion. Then this morning John asked me a question in connection with an apparently unrelated but deeply shocking thing I posted on Facebook about the Spanish Catholic church having stolen 300,000 newborn babies, telling the parents they had died and then selling them into adoption. Serendipitously, I think the former nicely illustrates part of the answer to John’s question, which was stimulated by the latter, so I decided to write a post on it.

I hope John doesn’t mind if I quote his (partially rhetorical) question in full, because it’s interesting:

I also bring attention to the recent London riots – the English government finding it necessary to offer free “parenting lessons…” What are the root causes of such going on? Why would the planet’s most intelligent inhabitants happily stray from time-honoured behaviour that is widely known and demonstrated to be “good and sensible”, building nations and bringing progress, safety and wealth? Why do humans derail themselves when they know better? From where come the flies in the ointment? I would be interested in YOUR take! best John

First some caveats: John is a conservative and I’m a liberal – we don’t see eye to eye on a number of things, most notably religion. But we argue fairly and earnestly (not to mention heatedly!) and we both try with honesty to get to the bottom of things. So it’s a bit unfair of me to stand up on my soapbox like this alone. If John violently disagrees with me and opts to comment then please look for that below. Fair’s fair.

The other thing is, my answer isn’t really an answer to John’s specific question, more an answer to why I think questions of this sort understandably seem to many people to be worth asking. Such questions lie at the very heart of conservatism. The crux of the whole conservative world view is, “why break with tradition?” To a conservative, the fabric of modern society is crumbling – the old, sure ways are being lost, and radical, revolutionary changes are wrecking everything. Conservatism is a counter-revolutionary philosophy. That may not be everyone’s conscious, deliberate view of what it’s all about, but nevertheless it’s fundamental to the psychology and philosophy of conservatism – hence the name.

And a lot of other very influential philosophies then hang from this one. The “old, sure ways” in question were once those of the monarchic, top-down, stratified society that existed before the French Revolution. That’s where the terms “left wing” and “right wing” originated and that’s the legacy of debate and division that fueled the development of the United States constitution. Today’s conservatism (and indeed liberalism, although from the opposite wing) inherits much of the ideology that stemmed from those revolutionary days, and as a consequence, conservatism isn’t just about conserving the old ways whatever they may be; it’s about conserving certain deeply held beliefs about what is right and good for society, especially the concept of hierarchy. It’s why conservatives tend to be religious (in an Old Testament sort of way); because they feel that we need a moral compass from on high. Conservatives believe in the need for the rule of law, including moral law, and see rebellion and “mob rule” as a breakdown of society. They also tend to see inequality as a necessary factor in society, for various and rather subtle reasons. Egalitarianism is the province of liberals, not conservatives, and what we see as fairness and compassion, conservatives tend to see as encouraging laziness, removing hard-working people’s right to a reward, and so on. The two sides look at the same things in radically different ways. These feelings we each have are deeply, deeply ingrained in our respective psyches.

I’ve written before about the possibility that this is something really innate to the human mind; that perhaps we inherited both the chimapanzee-like dominance hierarchy, and the bonobo lassez faire, make-love-not-war behaviours from our common ancestor. But John’s excellent question is not so much about “why this, not that?”; it’s more about “why now?”. And here’s my suggestion for part of the answer to that. I appreciate it’s not the whole answer by any means, but I think it’s relevant.

I think the assumption that is innate to conservatism – indeed essential to it – is that things worked okay in the past, so what’s all this nonsense about revolution? The conventional liberal response to that would be “it was never alright in the past; only alright for some.” But that’s not the point I want to make. The point I want to make is that things are very often “alright in the past” and then cease to be alright, yet nothing has to change for that to happen.

This is where the excellent lecture that Vegard sent me comes in. I recommend you watch it, because it’s beautifully presented and interesting from its own perspective as regards resources and population, but it’s an hour long, so here’s the meat of it:

The lecturer is Albert Bartlett, and his central thesis is that we humans are really, really crap at understanding exponential growth. He says, for example, that we don’t bat an eyelid at the news that something is growing by 7% per year – 7% seems like nothing. And then we read in the papers that “crime has doubled in a decade” and we freak out. But 7% per year is the same thing as doubling in a decade!

7% per year doesn’t mean something grows by 7% of the original value every year, of course; it means it grows by that much of the previous value. If you plot the curve of such steady growth, you find that it climbs really gently for ages but then starts to accelerate until it suddenly skyrockets heavenward. Face one way and it’s basically flat; face the other and you’re looking at a brick wall. And yet it’s just steady growth. A town that had 1,000 inhabitants in 1900 and grows at 7% per annum will have 2,000 inhabitants by 1910, 4,000 by 1920 and so on. By the year 2010 the population will be over a million. By 2050 it would be 16 million.

Bartlett then goes on to give us the shocking bottom line: during each doubling time (each decade, for 7% per annum growth), the change in any single decade is larger than all of the decades up to that point added together. You can see how counterintuitive that makes things when you think about a situation like this: Suppose we’ve been using coal for 150 years, at a growth rate of 7%. By the year 2010 we find we’ve only used up half of all the coal that exists. Half the coal is gone after 150 years but the other half remains, so we’re doing okay, right? The rest probably won’t last another 150 years but we needn’t worry for ages yet, surely? Except it will all be gone by 2020! It took us 150 years to use up half of it, but only ten more to use up the other half. That just doesn’t feel right, and so we don’t notice, or don’t believe what the figures tell us. By the time it starts to dawn on us, it’s one minute to midnight and we’re screwed. Who would have thought that starting to worry about energy conservation when we still have half of our resources left is potentially too late for us to do anything about it? But it’s true. Even if we find out there’s twice as much coal under the ground as we thought, it makes damn all difference.

And this, I think, has something to do with John’s question. At two levels.

If we’re tracking up an exponential curve, then sticking to our “good old ways” really doesn’t seem like a problem. Until the curve starts to skyrocket. When we look backwards we see everything has continued pretty much as normal and stayed pretty stable, but when we look forwards we see an explosion just ahead of us. I can see how that looks frightening (as it should) and why it seems like things were going great but now they’re going wrong. Yet nothing actually has to alter for this to be the case; it’s just a natural consequence of steady change. I think society has now reached such a point on a number of axes at once. It’s not that the natural world order is being threatened by Bolshevic revolutionaries who want to screw up the happy times of the past, despite what people like Glen Beck believe. It’s that the “happy times of the past” have led, inexorably and inevitably, to a time where those practices and mores have ceased to work. Nay, caused a disaster. Nothing has to go wrong or be destabilized for that to happen – it’s just exponential growth.

But what, exactly, is growing? Well, as Professor Bartlett points out, population is a major factor in this. The ways we used to live worked just fine when the human population was low, but it has been growing steadily since forever, and it’s now one minute to midnight. Our population is skyrocketing and such a growth is completely and utterly unsustainable. It will not be sustained, whether we like it or not, and we’ve left it too late to put it right gently. The old ways simply cannot and will not work. Revolutions of many kinds – political, military, social and technological – are absolutely inevitable, and in very short order. We live in interesting times, and the only thing we can say with certainty is that the “good old days” are useless to us now. We can never recover them and we’re fools to try to hang onto them. Do the math.

But there’s also another sense in which conservatism versus liberalism hits up against exponential change, and that’s capitalism. Conservatives are pretty uniformly advocates of capitalism, especially the resistance to regulation. Liberals tend to have mixed views on capitalism in general, but tend to favor regulation as a means towards egalitarian ideals.

The thing about capitalism is that it doesn’t follow the central theory of economics, as elucidated in the steady growth days of the early twentieth century. Back in those days, when the curves were still fairly flat, it was hard to distinguish between two contradictory models for how economic systems work, and we picked the wrong one.

A fundamental assumption in many economic models is that of the law of decreasing returns. Things tend to balance themselves out. Negative feedback rules. If you own a mine and do really well at first, you’ll eventually mine out the lode and profits will start to fall again as extraction becomes more difficult and expensive. Decreasing returns. If people don’t like your product or your corporate practices, or workers don’t like their work environment, the customers will fade away and finding workers will get harder. Or so it was claimed.

But that was pretty naive, because the universe is stuffed full of both negative AND positive feedback. Indeed the universe IS the effects of combining negative and positive feedback (but that’s a long story!). Positive feedback follows the law of increasing returns: To he that hath is given more. And the law of increasing returns is fundamental to capitalism, whether we like it or not.

Back in the days when people went west in search of gold, diminishing returns tended to hold sway. You’d stake your claim, work hard, extract your glinting reward and feel good. But gradually the cost and effort of extraction would make that reward smaller and smaller, and eventually the claim would be worked out. Those who didn’t see that coming often ended up destitute. But although that seems like negative feedback – a resistance to change that brings things back towards the status quo – it’s actually positive feedback. And like all positive feedback loops, there’s a null point. If you remain below the null point, all the forces pull you down and down. If you don’t have enough gold to make ends meet, you can’t hire labor or buy decent tools and your ability to capitalize on your claim falters and fades. But you just have to be lucky enough to get over the hump; over the null point; to find things change very rapidly in the other direction. If your gold seam is just good enough, you can make a profit and invest that profit in workers to do the digging. And then maybe buy a second mine, which, if you’re still lucky, doubles your profits. So then you can buy a fourth, and an eighth, and a sixteenth…

The people who get rich in an unrestrained capitalist system need skill and hard work as well as luck, but the reward is not proportionate to skill or effort. A billionaire is not a million times more industrious than someone whose entire assets run to a thousand dollars. It’s simply that the billionaire managed to cross to the positive side of the null point, while the pauper didn’t make it. In such a system, all other factors being equal, two people who start out almost but not quite identically, can experience radically different outcomes. Capitalism, due to positive feedback, is a watershed. If I stand on a hill a few miles from here and pee towards the west, it’ll end up in the Pacific; if I pee to the right, it’ll end up in the Atlantic. Massive change from tiny differences.

Unrestrained capitalism is inherently like this. Those that hath, get given more, while those that hath not, lose everything. There’s actually a well of negative feedback in the middle of the curve, which keeps many of us relatively stable and stuck in the middle, but that’s getting too complex for this post. The thing is, everyone is entitled to a reward for their hard work and diligence, but because of positive feedback both the reward and the punishment tend to be way out of proportion. In fact it’s very, very easy, due to nothing more than random noise, for someone who’s more industrious and skilled, especially if they also happen to have scruples, decency and compassion for their fellows, to end up in the gutter through no fault of their own, while people who hardly deserve it go on to garner enormous wealth.

Without negative feedback, for instance in the form of a welfare safety net at the lower end and progressive taxation to damp out spiralling wealth at the higher end, such an explosion of inequity is ABSOLUTELY inevitable. But it won’t seem like a problem at first. Not even for a long time. The curve rises only gently for most of its history. But one day it will start to take off and skyrocket, and we passed that day some time ago. When over a third of the wealth belongs to only 1% of the population, and the bottom 40% of the people have to make do with less than 1% of the total wealth spread between them, we know we’ve stepped over the edge. At that point – the point we have reached now – massive change to the fundamental fabric is inevitable, because the present rate of change from “business as usual” is unsustainable.

Much the same is true when it comes to raping the earth of its resources. Capitalism is a system of increasing returns, but those increasing returns come at an increasing cost. The more successful a company becomes or the more successful an economy becomes, the faster it extracts resources. Yes, diminishing returns will set in eventually, when all the resources have gone or become too diffuse to extract. But the “to him that hath is given more” property of unregulated commerce ensures that this rate of change takes us by surprise. We might think we were doing great with the “old ways” up to now and with a bit of diligence we still have a long way to go, but in reality it’s one minute to midnight. Watch Albert Bartlett’s lecture to see how giant corporations (via naive journalists and crooked politicians) contrived to capitalize on their success by lobbying and marketing the idea that we have more than enough coal and oil to last us hundreds of years. And then remember that we only believe such things because we’re so easily fooled by exponential growth. 150 years to use up half the coal; 10 years to use up the other half…

So it seems to me that “the good old ways” that conservatives wish we could hang on to or return to are what created the coming revolution. It’s inevitable that looking backwards gives us the view that we were comfortable and doing just fine, while looking forwards fills us with fear. It’s a natural consequence of our human inability to understand exponential change. But when you add to this the fact that the rate of change itself is accelerating, in large part because of the positive feedback and spiralling of inequity inherent in the very worldview that seems to those of a reactionary bent to have worked so well for us up to now, then an explosion is not just inevitable but imminent.

How that explosion plays out is an unknown, but the reasons behind it are pretty clear. The kids occupying Wall Street and other cities seem to be pissed off about any number of different things and it’s easy to say they’re unfocused and just into rebellion and demonstrations for the hell of it. But it doesn’t really matter what they actually say; it doesn’t even help to feel smug if they lose their current admirable level of cool and end up being violent; the truth is, their existence was inevitable and the underlying reasons for their disenchantment with the good old days were an event just waiting to happen. It’s written in the curve. Disenchanted people do bad things sometimes, and revolutions do fracture society. But at the same time, there never was a golden age, and the “tried and trusted” ways of the past are at least in need of rethinking from the ground up. The rule of law can only go so far, so I hope people don’t rely on it for so long that it needs to hold back a tidal wave.

And the old ways caused this, albeit unintentionally; they cannot possibly be the solution to it. We have to have change in the fabric of society, and we can either opt for managed change or we can wait until one second to midnight and suffer the consequences (if that time has not already passed). It’s not only wrong that so much wealth is locked up in so few coffers while the number of poor and suffering is increasing exponentially; it’s totally unsustainable.

My thanks to John and Vegard for the stimulation!

About stevegrand
I'm an independent AI and artificial life researcher, interested in oodles and oodles of things but especially the brain. And chocolate. I like chocolate too.

15 Responses to Plus ca change?

  1. Ian says:

    This is a really fascinating article, and it’s helped crystallize a few things that have been bouncing around in the back of my head for a while. Thanks Steve!

  2. mmmmbacon says:

    Hey Steve, great post. The failure to come to grips with exponential growth is definitely at the root of our future suffering. We are all guilty of it, though, not just conservatives. I see this as somewhat inevitable, because there are really no tenable solutions to the problem.

    It’s like a population of deer in a lush forest. Eventually the population of the deer outgrow the carrying capacity of the forest, a bunch of deer starve, the forest grows back, and the cycle repeats (to oversimplify). Deer have no choice in this, lacking the awareness and tools to recognize and modify their role in the system they find themselves in. In theory, we do have a choice, and that concept is what drives any revolutionary to join the movement – the potential to change the system, the way we as a culture relate to one another (and recently, our environment).

    But if we are deer in a forest exponentially gobbling up a finite store of resources, what are the alternatives to the harsh population crashes that result from slamming into the wall?

    Most obviously, we have to limit population growth. Politically, this is a non-starter in any free nation. The only viable option I see here is a long-term plan of education and empowerment of women everywhere in the world, which has been demonstrated to cause birth rates to drop dramatically in areas where women were not previously empowered. But this isn’t really possible without also doing away with draconian political/cultural systems, not to mention abject poverty, a point I think is fairly obvious but would be happy to go into more detail about. I’m not sure how you force a culture that treats women as second-class citizens to change, from outside of that culture, without going to war. Eliminating poverty means growing the economy in a huge percentage of the world, which accelerates resource consumption.

    Then, we need a new economic system that does not depend on growth to sustain itself. This should be possible in theory, as biology seems to have solved the problem of maintaining a constant size and thriving. The problem is, how do you get there from an economic system whose health is measured in so many different ways by growth? Radical restructuring of the economy is also a political non-starter. The only viable option I see here is to begin colonizing space, increasing the size of the system and the resources to match the population growth. That however is many decades off, before we would begin to see the returns on the huge investments required.

    • stevegrand says:

      All good points. The lecture Vegard sent has a good slide on population. The guy lists a bunch of things we all agree are good things, like medicine and reduced warfare, and a bunch of things that we all agree are bad. Then he says that population growth simply cannot be sustained whether we like it or not, and all the things we think are good make it worse. If it has to crash then it surely crashes through causing the things we think are bad. That’s a pretty bleak outlook, and I don’t have an answer to it. I have read that empowering women in Third World countries is the single biggest influence on population growth, so I’m sure you’re right there and that’s on the good side as well as having the right effect.

      Yes, I was wondering about growth. At one level it seems like prudence, and maybe that’s the psychology behind our desire of it – not to grow richer but to negate the risk of growing poorer. Certainly many people couch it in terms of storing up resources in case of bad times. Of course the likelihood of bad times can increase the instant people start hoarding things to themselves, but the sentiment is sensible. I wonder how we develop a zero-growth economy without risking it? It seems to me like we’ve got ourselves into a barricade mentality at the moment, so as soon as we try to let down our guard we get “proven right” to have had that barricade in the first place. That’s what Bush’s 9/11 policy gave us, in another sphere – an escalation that’s going to be hard to stop. Some guy said something about turning the other cheek, once, but I doubt he was referring to global economics or terrorism at the time… 😉

      • stevegrand says:

        BTW, I agree that we’re all just as guilty of misunderstanding exponential change. The difference is, liberals don’t look backwards to a supposed golden age (which they too would see, if they chose to look back along the flat part of the curve). To be liberal is to be plural and embrace change; to be conservative is to be singular and resist change – by definition. So we see the same thing in different ways. We’re both just as guilty of not understanding the consequences, though.

    • benjamin says:

      as I said in an other comment, the population isn’t growing exponentialy.

      >But this isn’t really possible without also doing away with draconian political/cultural systems, not to mention abject poverty,[…].

      that a bit pessimistic, check on the education index, you will see that the level of education keep increasing in the world (I read somewhere that the world will be more or less completely alphabetised by 2050)

      >Then, we need a new economic system that does not depend on growth to sustain itself.

      this is of course greatly dependent of the population, but assuming that the world population stabilise, there will perhaps be no other choice.

  3. benjamin says:

    first, I’d like to say this is the best and clearest explanation of capitalism I ever read. thanks.

    secondly, I’d like to point out the the population growth doesn’t follow a exponential curve. it’s more of a sigmoid and the estimations point to a decrease soon (wich have already begun in europe and russia). if you are interested by the question, check (link to a PDF). the world population should stabilize around 9 billion and then decrease.

    I also like to point out an important thing that do follow an exponantial growth : education.

    finaly, I’d like to share a alternative view on left and rigth. the thing-of-the-past-are-good/change-is-necessary opposition only work so far and I always tought it was a bit condescending against the rigth. here my take:

    the rigth is the primary of freedom against egality and the left the primary of egality against freedom. the far rigth system are freedom by inequality (such as the royalty, freedom of the noble by inequality with the paysant, or the nazism, freedom of the german by the inequality against the jew) and the far left is egality by the alienation of freedom (such as the comunism is egality for all by the repression of all (some say by goulag for all)).

    there is another factor that you need if you want to describe ideologie and it’s authority. for exemple, both facism and comunism are autoritharian and both anarchy and deregulated liberalism are anti autoritharian.

    what’s interesting is that freedom and egality aren’t (thankfully) always opposed and overlap on numberous issue, so it’s my conviction that resonable people from rigth and left not only can compromise but actualy need each other if they want to optimise the egality and freedom (when you are on a side on the fence you tend to have a bit of a blind spot for the other side. I know I have).

    • stevegrand says:

      Yes, like you say, it’s a sigmoid. Or even a bell curve eventually. I think that’s the point, really. An exponential curve can never continue indefinitely because it approaches an infinite slope. So something has to flatten the curve again and we’re seeing that. But I think the problem with population is that it’s not flattening quickly enough to prevent the downturn from being really steep. When I was born, there were only about 2.5bn people, and that number has tripled in my lifetime. I hope we don’t see an escalation of wars and disease causing that downturn, but I agree that a flattening off is inevitable.

      Also, I agree that I simplified Left versus Right. Part of what you’re talking about there is the third axis of Libertarianism. Conservatives TEND to be libertarian but the two aren’t necessarily covariant. And I agree that totalitarianism exists at both ends of the spectrum, for different reasons. Nevertheless, authoritarianism (but not totalitarianism) is a fundamental component of conservatism – it was the King that conservatives originally wanted to conserve, and while modern conservatives don’t want a king, they show plenty of evidence of wanting a hierarchical distribution of power. Equally, I’m a liberal, not a socialist – there are two axes on the Left as well. I guess if it was simple we wouldn’t all need to keep arguing about it! 😉

      You may be right about moderates from both sides needing each other. That uneasy balance seems to have been one way in which our political system has coped with external change. Lots of systems in biology remain fluid by having two opposing forces. But at the same time, it seems to breed increased polarization and spiralling flip-flopping at each election.

      • mmmmbacon says:

        Well said Benjamin!

        To Steve, I think the increased polarization was hugely accelerated by the 24-hour news cycle and the internet – specifically the ability for people to choose the news that agrees with your views. That has led to less respect and empathy for people of differing viewpoints, because one’s assumptions are never challenged and it becomes inconceivable that intelligent people could come to different conclusions. That has always been there but the influences I mentioned have made it much, much worse. I don’t really see an end in sight.


  4. mmmmbacon says:

    Hey Benjamin,

    It is growing exponentially at present. The exponent in the equation may be decreasing, but it’s still exponential while it remains above zero. It’s a bit risky to argue on the basis of a projection. I think for the sake of discussion we are assuming the the growth rate remains above zero well past the point where critical resource contention becomes a global issue. To your point about education, I would consider the year 2050 to be well past that point, but who knows. Maybe it is pessimistic. Ordinarily I consider myself an optimistic person, but the facts of exponential growth are hard to reconcile optimistically.

    Thanks, Terren

    • benjamin says:

      well, actualy it’s not growing exponentially any more, If you look at the data. I like to point it out because ten year ago, it was widely believed that earth population would stabilise around 20 billion people, and now the estimation give us something around 9.

      but that doesn’t invalidate your worries, if we stayed blocked at the current 7 billion, the current rate of ressource comsumption would still be a problem. it’s just that the overcrowed earth scenario, with not enough ressource for everyone to eat, isn’t a high probability anymore as it was envisioned ten year ago (if there will be ressource for everyone to have a car or an iphone is a different problem).

      as for education, perhaps you will be surprise to learn that the arabs revolutions were predicted by a french historian, emanuel todd, using mainly the raising level of education. (alas I don’t know if the book “the meeting of civilisation” was translated to english.)

      there two other exponential growth that I’d like to point out, in the hope that they add to the conversation.

      the first one are the exponential growth in science ( I can’t stress enougth how the change are quick and how they potentialy bring earthquake like change to society. if there is any hope on ressources disparition, it will come from here, hopefully in time for a reasonably smooth change.

      the second one is more based on intuition than backed up by fact, and I gladly have your opinion (and everyone else) on it (and if someone DO have number to confirm or infirm it, please by any mean tell me). it seems to me that production capacity follow an exponential growth. that is to say that the number of man needed to produce, say, 1000 umbrella keep decreasing. or perhaps more acurately, the number of umbrella possibly created by 10 man in a month keep increasing.

      the chinese worker, by being an unprecedented combinaison of cheap and literate worker (you need to be literate to read manual and work with machine) tend to mask the evolution a bit but there will be a time when machine will be cheaper than even them.

      the number of jobs isn’t only dependent of demands, and catering for demands and rise of sevices can only take you so far. I think the ratio jobs/people keep decreasing and that will bring greater change to society than anything else.

      • mmmmbacon says:

        Hey Benjamin,

        I’d love to believe that population isn’t exponentially growing – that would definitely give me a bit more peace of mind. From a mathematical perspective, if P(n+1) = P(n) * r, where r, the growth rate is > 1, then P follows an exponential curve. You are basically claiming that the global population has already stopped growing, because if a population is growing, it is growing exponentially, and if it is declining, it is declining exponentially as well.

        You make a good point about education. The youth the world over is getting more and more exposed to the internet which can only make it harder for backwards and/or oppressive cultures to continue holding people down. However in places of poverty this is not happening. And there is a lot of history and inertia in some of these ancient places – or as Steve might say, a lot of negative feedback loops that make it hard for new ways of living to emerge.

        I would say the pace of technology appears to be exponential, science not so much. The progress of science is definitely non-linear but I think is better characterized as punctuated equilibrium, with lots of little discoveries and the occasional huge one (perhaps obeying a power law of ‘impact’).

        Production capacity, to the degree it increases, also increases resource consumption, so it’s good in that value creation per capita increases, but at the cost of resource consumption per capita… probably a wash in the end in the context we’re discussing.


      • stevegrand says:

        Whatever curve population growth is currently following, it CAN’T continue to grow exponentially. It’s certain to drop off eventually if it hasn’t already, but that’s never going to be a spontaneous change. Births are innately exponential things. Birth rate only drops off when external factors cause fewer babies to survive. On the good side we do seem to have an epigenetic mechanism that reduces birth rate when it seems that conditions don’t favor having too many infants. But that mechanism didn’t evolve in modern global circumstances, where survival rate can be artificially controlled by medicine and agriculture.

        On the bad side we have famine, disease and war. They put a ceiling on population growth but not a desirable one. Education, contraception, working women and a cultural shift away from our innate fear of not having someone to look after us when we get old are the best things we can do to limit the curve, and hopefully that can be made to do the trick. But it’s a sobering thought that of all the human beings who have ever existed, more than a third of them are alive right now.

  5. Vegard says:

    As late as a few days ago, I heard about a politician who claimed that we need more growth to solve the problems in Europe.

    Recently I’ve also started to believe that perhaps a big part of the problem is limited liability in the form of companies; bankers who run successful bank receive huge bonuses which should instead have been saved by the company to get through the bad times. Instead, governments supply bailout packages, perpetuating the bad practice. What if company owners were actually made personally responsible for any and all risks they take? Surely they would then take less risk and save profits. But this is bad for the economy. It doesn’t stimulate growth. Just like high interest rates.

    • stevegrand says:

      True. It would be a hell of a risk, though, if everything you own could be taken away from you just because your company failed. Being a director is already scarier than it seems (but not scary enough to justify 8 million a year). Directors are supposed to be responsible to their shareholders, but in the US people seem to think it’s really a GOOD idea if the CEO takes a huge bonus instead of giving them a dividend, for some reason, so I guess they don’t shout about it during shareholder meetings. I don’t really understand it. Maybe it’s something along the lines of “Hey, I have investments in a company where the CEO hase FIVE private jets. If he’s doing that great, I guess I must be too”?

  6. Simon Jewell says:
    Worryingly, some of the themes of the post are picked up in the game theory research reported in this New Scientist Opinion. It too concludes that violence is a likely consequence of waiting until the last minute before resources run out.

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