by Arthur Noll
1. The first principle for society is science. We need to make decisions based on repeatable, observable understandings of how things work. Currently, this is frequently not done, is often not done by scientists. That might seem like a strange claim to make. But it is a simple matter. Whenever people say that scientists will find solutions to various problems facing humanity, they are expressing their faith in the existence of things that may or may not exist. We have no evidence either way, and to have faith in things without evidence is literally beyond reason and not scientific. There is no functional difference between believing in mystical forces for which there is no objective evidence, and believing that currently unknown technologies and understandings will be found to solve problems. Current culture has been largely built and run on this kind of religious faith in science. Many scientists accept this completely unscientific faith without question. They live their lives in objectively unsustainable ways, yet are unconcerned because of this faith that things will be found when needed. It is irrational.
2. The second principle for society is interdependence. Human beings are social creatures, who live by teamwork or die. This is an easily verifiable statement. If you wish to test this statement, you have the naked body to do the test. To be biologically successful as an independent organism, you must live and reproduce without any aid from a social group, and successfully compete with social groups as needed, as well. If you can do this you don’t need to be reading this essay and it is odd that you would be doing that. An independent hominoid would be a different species.
3. Since we need a social team to live, it follows that it is best that this social team be efficient and sustainable in how it functions. Scientific measures of value can be made for this. A fundamental measure of the value of behavior and people, is food EROEI. EROEI stands for Energy Returned over Energy Invested (eaten). Like all living creatures, human beings eat and they use some of that energy to move in ways that brings them more food. Tying in closely with that is movement to obtain shelter from excessive energy loss or gain. Organisms must also move in ways such that they reproduce sufficiently. Food EROEI defines life and death. The ratio over time must be at least one or above one. If it is below one for too long, the organism dies. For a social organism, the individual has a food EROEI, and the social body, social group, also has a food EROEI, and both need to be a ratio of one or above.
A ratio of one is living hand to mouth and is instinctively seen as unsafe, too close to the edge. People and other organisms are generally always looking for ways in which they can get more food and shelter for less food energy spent. They also store food energy from times when food EROEI is high, for times when it is low. Having a high food EROEI is generally an instinctive requirement for reproduction.
People have learned various ways to increase food EROEI and to better store food. Tools made from better materials, and machinery running on non food energy, for example. These things can amplify muscle movements and give better food EROEI. But at this point we must consider the sustainability of food EROEI as also a life and death situation. For the sustainability of a food EROEI, you need to look at the rates at which all the resources are used, and compare those rates with possible rates of renewal-replacement. If resources are used faster than they can regrow or be replaced, that can give an attractive food EROEI, but it may not last and can go below one in the end. Only if the resources used up can be replaced with something else, can it continue. Obviously, with that observation, we are often back to the matter of having faith in things that have no evidence. This situation is quite likely exacerbated by the fact that for eons as hunter gatherers, a common pattern was that people took all easily available resources in an area and moved on. I think we may have instinctive expectations that for all resources used up, you just have to go looking for more and if you look hard enough you will find them. But this instinct fails when it comes to using non renewable-non replaceable resources, and when we are able to look objectively at the whole planet and understand that a large enough population can use resources too fast.
When considering the future, the complexity of factors means it is impossible to predict it exactly. Future supplies of food and other resources can be seriously impacted by droughts, floods, and other similar events that are difficult to predict exactly. This is a problem, but not an insurmountable one. The simple concept of using a factor of safety, in the amounts of resources used, can do a great deal to mitigate this problem.
In addition to technology being able to increase food EROEI, there are other ways to increase food EROEI, and that is to have other people or animals do the work. Combinations of things have often been attractive. People can be made into slaves using the technology of weapons, for example, and forced to work for others. Slave masters can have a higher food EROEI than the slaves. Of course, they are also ignoring the basic principle of interdependence and the need for smoothly operating teams over time. Teams in which some members are forced, are inherently less efficient than teams in which behavior is voluntary. And if the weapons to control others were made by using resources at unsustainable rates, while the situation of one group dominating another might last for generations, it could easily come to a halt in the end.
Another way to have good food EROEI, is to be rich in a society operating with money-market systems. To be rich in such a system gives much better food EROEI than being poor. Being rich in such a system is very similar to being a slave master. Often, the two things have been combined, with outright slavery just another component of a monetary culture, and to be poor in such a culture is just one step above slavery.
Monetary systems have a veneer of being scientific and rational, but it takes only a brief scratch at the surface to reveal the many ways that monetary systems are irrational to the goal of continued existence. Let’s take a look.
People behave as independent agents with their money, which causes confusion and inefficiency about whether people are independent of each other or not. There tends to be endless argument about where individualism ends and social concerns take over. Monetary systems always go to situations of a few rich and many poor, and this is not an efficient use of resources. There tends to be constant friction of wage slaves revolting in either passive aggressive or overtly aggressive ways, which can be a serious waste of resources. While competition is a normal part of life, monetary systems often take this competition too far. Within a society, competition can sort out what person is best suited for particular jobs, and everyone benefits in the end to have this done properly. But if competition hurts potentially valuable people, everyone is hurt by this loss. When only a few people win huge amounts of control over resources with money, it is clear that statistically, such winner take all systems are likely to be hurting others with good abilities. In addition, winning this control can involve luck more than merit. It very often comes from exploiting resources unsustainably, including human resources. Being rich may also have nothing at all to do with merit in that the money is inherited. So it becomes clear that this method of finding the best in society is seriously flawed. Having incompetent people in charge of large amounts of resources can be a serious danger to everyone.
Another extremely serious flaw of monetary systems is that they inherently push unsustainable behavior. Abundant things are measured as cheap, and cheap things are not conserved in ways that would preserve the abundance. People often reproduce freely on “cheap” resources, and then find themselves trapped with overpopulation and resources no longer cheap. On the selling side of the money game, if someone conserves resources, they will not bring as much to the market, cannot sell as cheaply as someone who ignores conservation, and they are very likely to go out of business, lose everything, and end up working for people who don’t conserve. Conservationists are not rewarded in the money game. Blindness and ruthlessness are rewarded. This feature of money market systems makes it long term engine of destruction. It might take many generations to fully destroy some resources. Eventually, however, on a finite planet the system must find ways to expand off the planet, or self destruct. The rewards of blindness and ruthlessness, are temporary.
Monetary systems have other inefficiencies. They constantly struggle with counterfeiting. They struggle in vain to avoid inflation and deflation as the money supply does not match fluctuating resources. No way has been found to fairly put more money into circulation or take it out- and the rich people who get in control of this generally do not even try to be fair about it. Inflation is the general trend as resources are used up but the same amount of money, or more, is in circulation. There is an energy cost to simply making money. There is a large amount of energy spent accounting because the units are not stable.
All of this makes monetary systems inefficient, unstable, and unsustainable. But since people, both rich and poor, generally refuse to be scientific about it, the system continues. The poor often like the system even though they are exploited by it, because they have dreams of doing a little better, or a lot better. Also the production of things with unsustainable resource use can be just as attractive to the poor as to the rich. Mystical beliefs are common. Another thing that locks the system in place, is because just as conservative individuals fail inside the system, competitive conservative systems tend to be crushed by it as it grows. The only thing that seems likely to destroy it is itself. However, as I go over at the end, this might be given a psychological kick in the rear to help it along.
Often it is argued that while it is not a perfect system, there is no alternative. But this is not true, and I think this is more because most people don’t bother looking, than anything else. All that has to be done is notice these principles, that people must live by teamwork, that value can be scientifically measured with food EROEI and the sustainability of that ratio. And it can also be noticed that evolution has over and over selected a model for complex exchange systems, in how individual bodies are organized. Each specialized part of the body is basically trading its particular goods or services, to the whole rest of the body. There is no bartering solely between specialized organs. That would be far too cumbersome for a body to function, just as it is too cumbersome for specialized individuals to manage by bartering. But such awkwardness vanishes if specialized individuals barter their abilities to the team, which in turn has the ability to collect the variety of resources all the individuals need.
Nor does it have to end with small groups of people. Just as you have the teamwork of organelles in a cell, and cells in turn team together to make body organs, and groups of organs form an individual, and teams of individuals form social groups, yet another level is groups of individuals specializing like organs, and exchanging their goods or services with groups of other specialized groups.
Interestingly, monetary systems do the latter kinds of grouping. The problem is the system of values.
4. The fourth and last principle to be aware of with all this, is evolution. While a conservative system cannot be formed while the cancerous one is growing, as it fails a window of opportunity should arise to set up new systems in its declining moments. And in theory, once established, the conservative system might then prevent cancerous growth from happening again.
There is quite likely precedent for this sort of evolution to be seen in the existence of complex organisms. In the evolution of life, single celled organisms came first, and reproduced without any limits to growth. Growth is a fundamental part of life, it is simply adding one element to another via chemical attraction. Mechanisms to limit growth are necessarily secondary to this process. But how would cells with such limited growth mechanisms, ever compete? They could compete by linking up to make complex organisms that used resources more efficiently. A single cell that has good capability of moving around to find food, might team up with another cell that doesn’t have such good ability for movement but has better ability to efficiently digest and use food. Yet another cell might have good abilities to sense where food is, but limited abilities to move and to utilize it. Together, they work better than separately- but they must share resources fairly or the system falls apart, and mechanisms to limit cell growth are part of that appropriate sharing of resources. If mechanisms for limiting exist, however primitive they might have been at the beginning, the complex organism formed could compete, and especially could compete in situations of relative scarcity that would periodically come from the extreme up and down cycles of non limiting organisms. Efficiency in getting and using resources is not as important when resources are abundant, as they are when resources are scarce. While complex organisms have not completely abolished simple, cancerous growth models, and probably never will, immune systems are felt to generally be quite successful at recognizing it and destroying it within a body. It is only when the immune system fails at this job, that cancerously growing cells can overtake and kill a complex organism.
It is ironic that complex organisms can themselves become cancerous on the species level, but again, mechanisms for limits to growth would necessarily be a secondary feature added to a complex organism. Obviously, ecosystems have grown to provide limits to growth of the species that make them up. The problem is that humans have found ways around these limits. Logically we must limit ourselves or we face the real danger of extinction. If only a few have the emotional programming needed to limit themselves and thus make themselves more efficient working with others, they have greater odds of surviving the scarcity caused by relatively selfish behavior that creates the scarcity.
So there are the main three basic principles. Science, interdependence, and food EROEI and the sustainability of that ratio are the first basic principles. And finally evolution, as the way in which a society consciously based on these first principles, might logically come into existence.
Let’s go over some more details of how various things fit into this. How does reproduction fit into all this, with some more detail? Well, very simply, the same as everything else, couples barter with the group to have a child. The group says yes or no, and they might have problems with one particular couple but not another, with potential health issues involved. With interdependence, these things are logically an issue for the group.
The amount of reproduction the group and couples would logically want fits into maintaining favorable food EROEI for the group.
It should also be obvious, that population levels also fit into the understanding of using factors of safety. You want to maintain fewer people than average conditions can maintain. Our life cycle is too long to quickly and easily adjust population to rapidly changing conditions.
There are other angles to look at reproduction and evolution, that support all this. Selection for ways of reproduction that are more effective is very common. Animals that breed seasonally, for example, have been selected because they did not waste themselves trying to have babies during the middle of winter or the middle of a dry season. With animals, mechanisms of cues for when to mate, can involve things like light levels and moisture levels. But it does not matter what the mechanism is; only that it works. The mechanism I see working here, is the ability to use the neocortex to look ahead, and that the emotional strength to respect the neo cortex calculations is strong enough override, at need, older instincts about reproduction.
However, there is a problem here of timing. Knowing when the collapse is coming is very important in order to make rational decisions about this. Having the ability and desire to control reproduction, does not mean that one should not reproduce. But while the collapse of complex systems can be easy to predict in general terms, making exact predictions of timing can be virtually impossible. If a system is using vital resources at unsustainable rates, destroying carrying capacity at the same time that it grows, collapse is easy to predict. But to say precisely when it will collapse is a completely different matter. Yet it needs to be known if one is going to make rational reproductive decisions with regard to it. I intend to deal with this problem, as I feel there is a solution, but I will do so later on.
In a collapse of current society, common methods of birth control will not be available, and in times of stress like these, it would probably not be a good time to experiment with methods that use very little technology. While some people should be able to control their sexual impulses enough to stop having intercourse, it is far less likely, if they are healthy and fed enough, that they will be able to turn off sexual impulses entirely. People in this situation are going to masturbate. It isn’t the ideal solution with regards to energy use, but it seems doubtful to me that any bigger evolutionary step can be made at this time. Of course, in emergency situations where the adrenaline is flowing and food is scarce, sex not likely to be on anyone’s mind. But if a collapse took two or three years to be triggered, and then lasted another several years, there could well be fluctuations of food supply that have people feeling well enough for sex, though the situation is still not nearly stable enough to consider having children.
Another problem I’d like to address in a little more detail here with regards to these principles is agriculture. Human beings have some very serious problems with agriculture. People generally love annual crops. Annual crops have been easily selected to get rid of unpleasant tastes often found in wild plants. The feature of annual crops in having a life cycle where the plant dies and puts a great deal of its solar energy conversion into seeds and tubers, is also very attractive. The fundamental problem is that annual crops inherently do not have a large root system. It starts out at zero with a seed or tuber in bare soil, and at the peak of growth the root system is still small compared to perennial plants. Such small root systems are inherently bad at recycling plant nutrients, and are also poor at holding soil against erosion. Annual plants are also relatively smaller above ground, and so are poor at producing large amounts of dead vegetation that prevent impact erosion and create huge sponges to soak up rainfall. This slows runoff, slows erosion by gullies, and gives the much larger, denser root system even more time to recycle nutrients.
Many people talk about organic farming of annuals as being sustainable, but except in some relatively rare geographic circumstances, this makes no sense. Organic farming of annuals is merely taking nutrients from one plot of land to feed the cultivated plot of annuals. This generally has to be done, even with recycling as much as possible, because of the inherently poor ability of annuals to recycle. And while the manure and/or green manure may well be taken from land under perennials, perennials are not a magical source of nutrients. The soil they are living in gets depleted to continually take away nutrients.
There are ways in which nutrients can be naturally replaced, with breakdown of rocks, and ultimately tectonic forces are lifting sea beds up into mountains. Healthy ecosystems can also move nutrients up watersheds. But the rate at which soil nutrients can be replaced with these natural movements can easily be exceeded.
The emotional attraction to annual crops means that these problems are ignored or brushed over, vague beliefs that science will find a way, or that “God will provide”, are invoked. Dealing head on with this issue is something people have refused to do. Again, dealing with it on the basis of what we know to be true, not what we want to be true, would mean radical changes in behavior, in this case with diet. Annual crops would cease to be the mainstay of most diets. Annual plants left to themselves, have a relatively small niche in nature, and the amount of food obtained by them would go down to reflect that small niche.
Another problem driving many people crazy these days, is health care. How do we look at health care by these scientific principles? The first thing to consider is that it takes a large amount of food energy to grow a new person to be a functioning adult, to replace someone who has died. If health care can prevent premature deaths, they can save a lot of that replacement cost. Since the cost of replacement is so high, groups can spend a lot of food energy and other resources on saving someone, returning them to health, and have it a worthwhile activity. Of course, the care has to be successful in order to get this savings. Merely keeping someone alive but in state unable to be productive in any way, does no one any good. And while the cost of replacement is high, it is not infinite.
And no different than has been observed today, prevention of problems generally has even better returns than giving care to people after they have gotten hurt in some way
It also has to be noticed that some people are easier to replace than others. Education is resource expensive. To educate one person to fill a job, usually means educating several, because not all of them will go the distance. With education systems we are running a moderate level of competition to sort people out, which has an energy expense. So with health care, we notice that this scientific society is not completely egalitarian. Some people represent greater potential loss to the group than others, and are worth more protection. This should not be surprising when we consider the model of the individual body, where the different organs have similar ranges of value. The heart is a lot more important than fingers and toes, for example, and is better protected. People will instinctively throw up their hands to protect eyes and the brain, instinctively ready to sacrifice hands to keep these other organs intact. Particularly as human society gets more specialized, similar differences of value can pop up between people. But at the same time, no sane person treats his hands and feet as easily expendable. They are still highly valued and protected.
The least valuable of society, are worth more than to be set to living on and in garbage and trash, often starving, exposed to the elements and diseases. Only a very sick person treats their body with carelessness, and only a very sick society treats their least valuable members with such little care. There is an interesting parallel where addicts often seriously neglect their bodies, abuse them in the attraction to a drug. Addiction can easily be seen as basically any attraction that has grown to such levels that other vital things are neglected or even deliberately abused. Complex organisms have many different needs to be filled and focusing too strongly on one or more and neglecting others, always causes problems. Addiction perfectly describes a lot of current human behavior and social problems.
Another thing with measuring health care values this way, that is completely different from what happens in monetary systems, is that people gain in value as they grow from conception, and reach the height of value as adults who have mastered a job, and then they slowly lose value as they age and lose their ability to function. It makes little sense to pour resources into trying to heal someone who is old and is going to die soon regardless of the amount of care given them. In a monetary system, old people tend to have the most money, and get the most care, which is crazy from an energy standpoint. A society that wastes resources on the nearly dead is leaving itself vulnerable to being unable to take care of more objectively valuable people. Only a society that imagines itself to have infinite resources can behave as current industrial societies have with health care.
Something that people often ask about, is how artwork might be valued in this system. I put artwork in a more general category of entertainment. Entertainment can have value for people in a lot of situations. It helps people relax, rest, and come back ready for more work. However, the more stressed people are by their work, the more entertainment they are likely to want. Less stress means less need for entertainment. And even in highly stressed situations, entertainment can be very cheap in food energy. Jokes, singing, simple reenactments of history where much is left to the imagination of viewers, are things that do not cost much food energy.
So, this briefly covers some of the main problems with agriculture, reproduction, health care, entertainment. A lot more could be said about these things, of course, but space does not allow it. The big thing I want to go over next is the loose end with reproduction and timing. Timing is a serious problem. Knowing even roughly when a collapse is likely to start could be very helpful to surviving it, and people cannot put off reproduction for too long. A collapse that went very slowly, lasting decades, could destroy any advantage of putting reproduction off.
There is an answer to both of these problems, and it has to do with common human psychology. People generally hate to look unreasonable, they hate to look stupid. Leaders are especially vulnerable to this. But obviously instinctive drives push most very strongly to do objectively irrational, stupid things. When very simple, fundamental observations about reality are made, people can be put under terrific mental stress, their brains pushing two very contradictory behaviors. This state cannot generally last, it is unstable. It eventually breaks to one side or the other. The genetic potential for growing greater neural strength for one side or the other will prevail. A person will start acting more rationally, or they break the other way and start behaving even more irrationally, with greater fanaticism in their behavior. And the latter behavior is very apt to be self destructive, again, especially when it involves leaders and followers, much more quickly self destructive than would otherwise happen.
In a world with thousands of weapons of mass destruction, combined with a huge overpopulation that is vitally dependent on world trade in finite resources, wars launched in fanatical desperation, using weapons of mass destruction, pose a very serious danger. Cutting off or crippling world trade in food, fuel, fertilizer, metals, machine parts, could put many millions in danger of immediate starvation, and put billions in danger of starvation within a year. It does not seem unreasonable to expect waves of violence to propagate from initial large acts, given this situation
This looks extremely likely to happen whether fundamental arguments are made widely or not. But if the fundamental arguments are widely made, it can find the people who can hear, and push the rest over that edge of desperate fanaticism much quicker. It would be a trigger and would also get things over with much quicker, as well. And since there are an unlimited number of things to believe in if evidence is ignored, all these desperately crazy people are not unified enough to make large exchanges of weapons of mass destruction. Some are likely to be used, but mostly the end would be an implosion rather than an explosion.
So telling people the objective truth about fundamental things can potentially solve many problems simultaneously. It finds those with the potential for some rational self control, it makes the rest insane and divides them so they self destruct in the safest way possible. And it solves the problem of timing. Instead of waiting for something to trigger this growing instability, we trigger it. And at the same time, we shorten the days that the collapse is likely to last.
This is a very basic look at my understandings. Many more observations about all this can be made. One can go a lot more deeply into all of these issues and others. I have studied and thought about things more deeply and widely than I’ve written here, and I think others can take it much further than I have gone. But in the limited space here, this seems like a good start, will hopefully provoke some thought, discussion, and action.
Arthur Noll’s formal education culminated with a bachelor of mechanical engineering technology, from Northeastern University in Boston. A philosophical determinist, he has worked in fossil fuel-based industry and a wind turbine company. He’s been a framing carpenter and built a passive solar house, as well as a fabric-covered yurt in which he lived for three years in northern New England. He’s experimented with growing crops and tending animals, and he’s herded goats, worked with draft horses and donkeys, and helped with the chores and haymaking on a commercial dairy farm. He’s been a substitute teacher, maintenance man for an apartment complex, and home remodeler, and has been credited with several minor inventions related to appropriate technology, which may or may not have practical use in the end. He’s had relationships with women and has helped raise children, though none of his own.
Interspersed with these eclectic pursuits have come some very difficult challenges related to Arthur’s health. He was finally diagnosed with celiac disease, a process from which he learned a lot about health, wellness, and philosophy. He doesn’t recommend his parents’ approach (Christian Science) or many of the poorly thought-out failures of his own. Contemporary medical science was hardly a shining exemplar, either. His experiences with Christian Science taught him about the problems of fanatical religious belief, and the danger of trying to please people who you might love but are basically insane. But his own failures taught him very painfully about being sure your facts are lined up correctly. He explained a little about the health-care system above, in his essay.
Arthur has been fascinated with understanding how things work since a child. When things did not make sense, he’s pursued his propensity to gnaw on them, off and on, for decades. This was the case with most topics in the essay above. He started thinking about some of these problems as a child of 10 to 12, and did not get satisfactory understandings and solutions until his mid to late thirties.