Tag: carrying capacity

May 11

Not the sucrose we ordered III

So, to my mind, here’s where we get down to the nitty gritty of animal intelligence.  Reflexes.  Built-in, hard-core reflexes.  You might think of them as the prototypical, monosynaptic “knee-jerk”, in which the doctor lightly hammers the tendon below your kneecap, which stretches specific muscular stretch receptors, which send a signal to the spine and back to “stiffen up,” mainly for automatic postural purposes outside of your cognitive grasp.  Hence the leg kick, outside of your normal cognitive grasp. The knee-jerk reflex is simply a way for you to keep upright without your having to think about it, an unexpected load occurs on one side, boom, you’re good.

Now, there are reflexes, and there are reflexes, depending on your definition, the knee-jerk being a fairly low-level event.  Then there are locomotor reflexes, involving multiple oscillators, for example, that aid walking, as opposed to just standing upright, even though both levels are integrated.  Within this level are neuronal circuits controlling ambles, trots, gallops, etc., whether in horse or turtle or man.  So-called “fictive locomotion” studies, wherein neuronal recordings from dismembered turtles on ice are made, demonstrate this.  

Then the coordination of reflexes occurs at the level of “fixed action pattern,” or what others preferred to call “modal action patterns,” because while reliable, the exact order of behavior is not engraved in stone.  Classic examples from Tinbergen and Lorenz include seagull egg-rolling-toward-the-nest and following behavior when, e.g., neonatal ducklings imprint upon any available moving object, even if that object is no more endearing than a dangling and moving tennis shoe, as if it were a parental device.

Next up in the hierarchy of reflexes from Tinbergen et al is Timberlake’s Behavior System, which is really a mash-up of Tinbergen and Pavlov, even tho’ Joe Steinmetz, one of the great bunny eye-blink researchers of all time, and a great chairperson, said with some admiration in his eyes that Timberlake was a “maverick.”  Ho, ho, ho, Joe.  I love you, but he’s only a maverick to you strict Pavlovians.  Not to me.  

In Timberlake’s system of reflexes, animals gravitate toward their central topics of needs:  Feeding, Flying, Fucking, Orientation/Migration, etc., and evocation of a system, Feeding, Parenting, Defense, e.g.,  results in some semi-orderly evocation of motivational states that orchestrate subsequent behavior sub-routines of reflexes, such as, food handling and ingestion, focal search for food, and more global searches.  

I studied the next level of reflex, what I now provisionally call the global action pattern, one reflex that functions over not instances, or minutes, or hours, but days.  And nothing will do but an example to describe it.

But this following description, I believe, goes a long way toward describing Monsieur Greer’s point.  

May 09

Not the sucrose we ordered II

(this my long-winded continuation of a “review” of JM Greer’s Not the Future We Ordered, from a personal perspective).

To Recap, around the year 2000 was a great time for me.  I was scoring grants, doing manic work, the female grad students were kicking me around like a soccer ball (scoring junk goals on me all day long), had fantastically intelligent buddies, and was finishing my dissertation, and headed toward my third long-term major mentor of my choosing (the flagship teaching hospital in my beloved region of SF was merely icing on the cake).  Life could not have seemed better, because I was a true believer in what JM Greer calls our “civic religion of progress.”  

Not only was it personal progress through long, hard work, but I felt basic research was the right thing to do.  For me.  For society.  I wasn’t out to make money.  To paraphrase Pavlov, the revolution was not “out there” in politics or guns in the streets, the revolution was “in here,” in the lab.  The real revolution was intellectual.  The real revolution was an introvert. Pavlov is no one to sneeze at unconditionally.  He’s in the Pantheon of Greatest Scientists Ever, because he saw and demonstrated experimentally anticipatory salivation as perhaps the most powerful mental event ever known, which is learning from experience, and how it occurs through sheer association by contiguity: neurons that fire together wire together, to quote Hebb.  And if any Skinnerian “learning by consequence” believers walk into this bar, I will kick their asses from here to next Tuesday, and from week to week, and year to year.  We never learn as a specific consequence of our victories and failures. Rather, what is noticed becomes a signal for what is being done, to quote Big Edwin Ray G.

(as a side note, I’ll add that a fellow named Twitmeyer preceded Pavlov at the 1901 APA meeting by three years, showing that people would exhibit an anticipatory knee-jerk to the sight of a hammer blow to the knee tendon; I’ve heard that William James was in attendance, and failed to see the significance, which is nearly impossible to believe, but if true, and had he noticed, we would have been stuck with “Twitmeyerian conditioning” as opposed to “Pavlovian,” which is the more mellifluous.

Anyway, despite my anti-Skinnerian religion, I remained a true believer in Progress.  Technology, civics, human rights, law, basic accounting; yep, all a long historical arc bending toward truth and justice.  It went against most of what I knew about learning, or about evolution for that matter, but this is just the kind of irrational thinking JM Greer is up against.  People like me.

Next time, we’ll talk about my sucrose experiments.

May 08

Not the sucrose we ordered (a review, sort of, JM Greer’s, Not the Future We Ordered)

(I apologize up front for putting this review in a serial format, but I am cacked-out, to the max.  It’s a wonder I’m here.)

First, lemme say that John Michael Greer is one gol’ darned level-headed son of a gun.  I’ve been reading his blog for years now and no one can cast a cold eye on everything you hold dear and move on with equanimity as he does.  Rock solid, he is.  Everyone has a “trick pony,” so to speak, and I do wonder how he trained his.

Anyway, he’s written another book, “not the future we ordered” on the topic of peak oil, and how we screwed things up, and moreover how unprepared we are for the consequences.  If you are accustomed to his blog, there are no huge surprises, because his writing style remains quite steady, and I would add “soothing,” to someone like me, who gets a bit emotional about these topics.

My personal peak oil revelation (and here’s where it’s “all about me”) began with Bush v. Gore.  I was writing my dissertation in experimental psychology when it all broke loose, when, by Jon Schwarz’s insight,  you can cut open the insider of DC insiders and out steps James Baker III to attend the lectern of troublemaking.  And so it was.  

Feb 20

Analyzing the blur (Part 2)

Part 1 described how humans face multiple ongoing, interlocking and spiraling crises of existential proportions, all of which can be conveniently subsumed under the theme of carrying capacity, the ability of an environment to support a population at the limit of sustainability, a limit we have exceeded.   The basic elements of the story are these: Through the exploitation of fossil fuels, humans have over-run the planet, cantilevering the entirety of complex industrial society on finite sources of fossil fuels, which we are using to extract itself other resources unsustainably to the point of collapse while altering the basic chemical and biophysical operating conditions of life.  Thus, the collapse of the physical environment threatens mass extinction on the order of five previous mass extinction events on Earth.  This is not exactly news, yet it’s tenaciously more controversial than it should be.  Today’s tour examines how we got locked into one particular death spiral, the “debt spiral,” that keeps us locked into the fossil fuel death spiral.

*     *     *

The very recent “success” of humans in economically advanced countries has culturally engendered a misleading assessment of human accomplishment, deranged notions of wealth, and conditioned unwarranted expectations for more of the same.  To borrow a phrase from Jim Hightower, industrial humans were “born on third base and thought they hit a triple.”  The baptismal font of fossil fuels has fostered a belief system in which the religion is growth and the supreme being is the Lord of More, an orthodoxy that is both irrational and nearly ubiquitous in industrialized nations, and probably far more damaging than any conventional dogma Richard Dawkins has railed against.  The irrationality of this system stems from the simple fact continual growth of any kind is impossible in a finite world.

Despite its root insanity, this belief system has been not merely elevated as a national narrative, but has been reified as the operating system of our physical economy in the form of debt-based financing.  Still worse, as the leading global power of “The American Century,” we have pushed to globalize this operating system on the rest of the world, to exert a kind of neocolonial control over resources and political systems through inventive regimes of debt and discipline, and largely succeeded.  

On the ascending limb of resource extraction, economic growth, and credit expansion, debt-based assets could be rolled over into the foreseeable future, and interest-laden fiat capital could function as a tradable substitute for actual resources, such as oil.  The belief in infinite resource extraction has allowed debt-based fiat economies to runaway from ecological reality.   As alluded to in part 1, we are hitting hard limits to physical capacity, leaving only imaginary exponential functions to vary to infinity.  The master resource of oil has by any reasonable estimate begun its terminal decline, which guarantees economic contraction, which in turn certifies the impossibility of rolling all the old debt into new debt.  Thus the viral proliferation of the operating system has also hit hard limits, and the ascending limb of inflationary credit expansion has transformed into its nasty alter ego of deflationary credit contraction.  The American wealth pump has begun to run in reverse.  How did we get here?

Feb 18

Analyzing the blur (Part 1)

Since the stolen election of 2000, a cyclonic lot of crazy stuff has been whirling above the surface that previously managed to stay largely submerged in public political consciousness.  Among the eye-openers beyond Bush v. Gore were, of course, the 9/11 anomaly, the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, and the seemingly arbitrary and endless global war on terror more generally; the looming national security state and the steady erosion of Constitutional and international law; the general feeling that enlightenment has given way to endarkenment; free-ranging corporate malfeasance and immunity; the bursting of various financial bubbles resulting in a generalized, global economic implosion, resulting in turn in massive corporate bailouts and profits, ballooning deficits, joblessness and austerity measures for the masses; an increase in global civil unrest and pushback, including the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, and anonymous cyber-resistance; rather massive ecological catastrophes and an increasingly alarming pace of numerous climate change indices, including Hurricane Katrina and multiple other extreme weather events; and such an abject failure of the media to report on these developments with any effort approaching due diligence that one not only suspects willful dereliction, but active collusion with various malefactors.  

It’s no wonder that 99% of political dialogue is distracted and cannot focus on the major critical factors of our spiraling crises, which happen to be more inter-related than your average kissing cousins.  Rather than getting deep into the weeds on any particular topic, it’s worthwhile to zoom out and look at the main populations of events and drivers of these spiraling crises as they are subsumed under a master narrative of carrying capacity, a subject that approaches the brink of taboo in political (but not biological) discussions, insofar as it challenges the main religious orthodoxy of our time, namely, unlimited growth.  Let’s see if we can begin by accurately describing our situation in broad, simple strokes.  Part 1 (this essay) aims to provide the relevant background narrative for subsequent discussion.          

*     *     *

These first two graphs, which are virtually identical, show human energy use (top graph) and human population growth (bottom graph) over the past 12 thousands years or so.  Several things should jump out immediately beyond their near identity.  First, they are both wildly anomalous spikes in the historical record, one-time, vertical explosions of activity happening simultaneously.  Before knowing anything else, the very shape of the functions are cause for serious doubts about the sustainability of these trajectories.    


When plotted against one another during the explosive phase, the nearly perfect identity between energy use and human population is confirmed.


Because “behaviorally modern” humans have been around for at least 70,000 years, it would seem this sudden vertical trajectory did not happen because of some sudden evolutionary innovation of the past several hundred years.  Rather, these two simultaneous trajectories are consistent with energy being perhaps “the” rate-limiting factor of reproductive success, and humans fell into the Mother Lode, leaving other large mammals in their proverbial dust.  

Alternatively, it is possible that an accumulation of post-agricultural/post-division of labor and expertise cultural knowledge reached a critical mass whereby civilization (and population) suddenly bifurcated into an entirely new mode that would have happened independently of energy use.  The arguments are not exclusive, but the key experiment would be to remove the energy (a “before-after-before” experiment) to see if the large-brained mammals could maintain anything resembling their current numbers and technological complexity in the absence of energy.

That natural experiment is, in fact, underway, and while the design is adventitious and imperfect, it should provide definitive results.

Nov 14

Fill ‘er up with The Holy Ghost!

…and check the dip-stick on my salvation!

Ilargi: I’m convinced it’s not so much that it’s hard to understand; instead, it’s hard to accept. Still, for most people that’s enough reason to not understand.

It might therefore be a good moment to reiterate what we’ve said often before at The Automatic Earth: the financial system as we know it can not be saved. It doesn’t matter whether “official institutions” nominate 30 banks as being too big to fail, or 300. It is inevitable that the enormous amounts of debt accumulated in a relatively and amazingly short period of time must be serviced. Pay offs, write downs, defaults, bankruptcies. They’re cast in stone. It’s too late, too big to fail or not.

Here’s another gob-smacker that’s easier to understand than God is dead, but is even harder to accept: Not only is the economy about to get its zombie head blown off, it won’t be reincarnated as anything we’d recognize as normal for the foreseeable future, because the peak oil debate is over.

Again, it’s easy to understand that global oil production has clearly plateaued over the past seven years (for the first time since WWII), and that year-on-year declines are imminent. After we drink the second half of our milkshake, there’s no more milkshake.


Read the ASPO-USA press release, in particular the letter to Dr. Steven Chu, here.  Check with Dr. James Schlesinger (former Sec Def, CIA director, Sec Energy, Atomic energy Chair, etc.,), or Dr. Robert Hirsch (former Sec Energy, author of the 2005 Hirsch Report), or drop in at Dave Cohen’s joint.  

If you still find acceptance difficult, you may prefer to join Daniel Yergin and Barack Obama in their Pulitzer- and Peace Prize-clutching quest for oil, money and power.  You can buy yourself some limited edition Justice Coins to fondle during our next regime change humanitarian operation in the oily regions of the world.


Oct 18

Comprehensive failure

Another three-ton object hurtles from its decaying orbit towards Earth, so today must be another day ending in “y”.  Dying in the brimstone of space junk, however, is not our most pressing matter by a long shot.  Not that space junk crashing into other space junk is a minor concern, given our dependence on global communications that the fragile “junk-o-sphere” makes possible.  A critical mass of fragment-generating collisions could be a real game changer, and is yet just another reminder of our seemingly infinite human ability to err on the side heedlessness.

May 21

Limits to growth: Implementing the crash program 39 years later

Thirty nine years ago (1972), the extremely prescient Limits to Growth was published, basically arguing that the Earth’s finite resources, e.g., food, water, air, etc., created a natural limit or “carrying capacity” to sustainable human populations.  At or near the limits of carrying capacity, population growth must cease, or any growth that occurred would have to depend on concomitant increases in efficiency of resource utilization, rather than in quantitative resource usage, in order for the population to be sustainable into the foreseeable future.  The consequences of exceeding carrying capacity were articulated long ago:

What most frequently meets our view (and occasions complaint), is our teeming population: our numbers are burdensome to the world, which can hardly supply us from its natural elements; our wants grow more and more keen, and our complaints more bitter in all mouths, whilst Nature fails in affording us her usual sustenance.  In very deed, pestilence, and famine, and wars, and earthquakes have to be regarded as a remedy for nations, as the means of pruning the luxuriance of the human race.

-Tertullian (De Anima)

I love that quote, not just for the Four Horsemen and the equation of “human luxuriance” with the relief of apocalypse, but also the acute observations about wants growing more keen and complaints more bitter, which aptly describes the effects of activating the endocrine stress axis.

Apr 28

Economist accurately perceives reality. Srsly.

Surely end-times are upon us when an economist and major investment fund manager accurately perceives and characterizes reality independent of his wish to make oodles of lucre based on a mark-to-fantasy “model” of reality.  To be fair, Wiki characterizes Jeremy Grantham thusly:

Grantham’s investment philosophy can be summarized by his commonly used phrase “reversion to the mean.” Essentially, he believes that all asset classes and markets will revert to mean historical levels from highs and lows. His firm seeks to understand historical changes in markets and predict results for seven years into the future. When there is deviation from historical means (averages), the firm may take an investment position based on a return to the mean. The firm allocates assets based on internal predictions of market direction.[4]

In his own words, Grantham is an anti-bubble investor:

“For the record, I wrote an article for Fortune published in September of 2007 that referred to three “near certainties”: profit margins would come down, the housing market would break, and the risk-premium all over the world would widen, each with severe consequences. You can perhaps only have that degree of confidence if you have been to the history books as much as we have and looked at every bubble and every bust. We have found that there are no exceptions. We are up to 34 completed bubbles. Every single one of them has broken all the way back to the trend that existed prior to the bubble forming, which is a very tough standard. So it’s simply illogical to give up the really high probabilities involved at the asset class level. All the data errors that frighten us all at the individual stock level are washed away at these great aggregations. It’s simply more reliable, higher-quality data.”[5]

Grantham’s latest newsletter (pdf) is absolutely chock-a-block with dire warnings about the Mother of All Bubbles (hydrocarbon-based human population growth) and what can only be referred to as extreme, anti-orthodox, economic heresy.

Nov 20

How many Billionaires can dance on a Pinnacle?

The GOP often dangles this dream, before its far too loyal followers:

You too, could one day be a Millionaire, or perhaps even a Billionaire, so don’t ruin it for everyone, by raising Taxes on the Wealthy. Afterall, someday it could be you.  In their America, anything’s possible.

Most everyone, wants to be rich someday.  It’s part of the American Dream — or at least it used to be.  But the way things have been going lately it seems the Dream has been downsized to:

I just hope I can find/keep my Job.

Despite the somber work-a-day reality most people face, far too many still take the Republican dream, at face value.  By following their lead, they hope to strike it rich someday, too.

Perhaps we Dems, should address this rouse, and dare to ask:

What would really happen if we ALL struck it rich?

Because obviously there is only SO much room “at the top” …

Dec 06

Would YOU work for $3000 a year?

Apparently many workers in China would — for how much longer though is not entirely clear.  You see the Chinese, want to make more, improve the Standard of Living for their families — just like Americans and Europeans do.


8-12% Raises in Minimum Wages across China, in 2005!?

Apparently, Workers around the World, AREN’T Working just for the Fun of it!

This new trend toward leveling the the Global playing field, doesn’t bode well for the Wal-Marts of the world, who rely on such “captured cheap labor markets” —

to remain quiet, dutiful, and

happy with a pittance.

Afterall Billions of Dollars (and Euros) are at stake — those Foreign Workers must not upset that Apple cart.

They should just be happy they have a Job!

Shouldn’t they?

May 16

Carrying Capacity Reexamined

This diary hopes to examine the applicability of the concept of “carrying capacity” to human society, and specifically the idea that the Earth has a carrying capacity, that it can stand only so much “economic growth” before the products of this growth, namely people and their machines, can no longer be sustained by the natural substrate for this growth, namely, the planetary retinue of “resources.”  Here I will suggest that the limits attributed to “carrying capacity” do not apply to human beings per se, because humans are versatile enough to manage ecosystems to their preference.  Rather, “carrying capacity” applies to capitalist economic systems, because said systems must “grow” compulsively.

(Crossposted at Big Orange)