by Jay Hanson - June 20, 2003
I can simplify over ten years’ work down to two sets of physical “laws”. These laws place harsh limits on what is possible for us: #1 ENERGY LAWS, and #2 BIOLOGICAL EVOLUTION LAWS. For purposes of sustainability, nothing else matters.
Once I was able to understand Odum’s “eMergy” metric (actually very simple, but difficult for old minds), I realized that there are only three relevant principles concerning energy: the First Law of thermodynamics (no creation), the Second Law (always a loss), and the “Net eMergy” principles (“net energy” converted for “quality”) .
Once one understands the three simple principles outlined in the paragraph above, then one understands that the only way our society could actually be “sustainable” would be to continuously reduce our aggregate energy footprint — less consumption AND fewer people — until the global population level is back to a couple-a-hundred-million people swinging through the trees. This is also Georgescu-Roegen’s conclusion . That’s the easy part…
Human nature is much more difficult to understand then energy laws for two main reasons: it’s not taught, and we are genetically biased against self-knowledge. In other words, teaching human nature to someone is like teaching a dog not to bark .
I will reduce several years’ research on human nature down to the essentials: A COMPUTER ANALOG and A SOCIAL PRINCIPLE. For purposes sustainability, everything else about human nature can be ignored — it simply doesn’t matter.
Computer software cannot function before it is enabled by the hardware. In other words, functioning hardware MUST precede functioning software.
Human thought is “algorithmic” (not mathematical) and analogous computer software. Any particular conscious thought (software) cannot precede the neurons, dendrites, neurotransmitters, etc. (hardware) that make that specific though possible. Like all computers, human hardware is the physical prerequisite to human software — but that’s where the similarity with everyday computers ends.
Human brains are much different than the stored-program, digital, binary, single-processor PCs we use every day. Instead, human brains are wired (not stored-program), analog (not digital, not binary), multiprocessor (not single processor) “state machines” (program logic may permanently modify itself depending upon the data). A human cannot have a specific thought unless it has been enabled by earlier brain “wiring” (e.g. pre-programmed, formal education, reflection, critical thinking). Moreover, older brains are much harder to “wire” than younger brains.
Brains are mostly hardwired by age 25. By middle age, people may need two or three years of hard work to understand something completely new (grow the brain hardware required to think the thought).
The human brain comes from the factory with a set of empirically designed pre-programs that have historically (over a billion years) tended to maximize “inclusive fitness”. One of these pre-programs was specifically designed to inhibit self-knowledge with respect to social issues. By remaining unaware of our true motives, we are much more effective at deceiving others. We evolved this was because the more convincing liar has the advantage in sexual competition (e.g., Bill Clinton).
In short, people cannot think a thought unless the brain has been previously “wired” to think it. This is why civilization after civilization runs out of energy and collapses . This is also why we are presently running out of energy and hell-bent for collapse.
a meat by-product: consciousness
Contrary to the received wisdom, people do not consciously reflect and then act. They act and then rationalize (literally!). [C.f. Gazzaniga, 1998]. Consciousness itself is a product of the hardware (somewhat like a movie) that appears, say 500 ms after it is produced. New data from the environment is routinely plugged into existing mental hardware (like entering a number into a spreadsheet), which is then followed by an appropriate thought. Since people have no wiring for “peak in oil and gas production”, news of the present energy crisis cannot generate the appropriate thought. Only prolonged reflection can grow the required mental hardware to place this critical piece of news in perspective. Unfortunately, few people can invest the thousands-and-thousands of hours necessary to see both the energy and evolutionary aspects of the human condition clearly.
Individuals come from the factory pre-programmed to seek inclusive fitness in ways that have actually worked in the past. In modern society, economic growth serves as a proxy for increasing fitness. This is why we “feel good” when we make money, buy a new SUV, and so on. Unfortunately, when our pre-program determines that inclusive fitness is best served by violating social norms, we will violate those norms and seek a fitness advantage. This explains the higher crime rates in our lower income populations and why nations go to war.
Societies can remain reasonably stable as long as their economies continue to grow — continue to serve inclusive fitness for the majority. But when economic growth becomes physically impossible — as it must — societies will disintegrate into anarchy and war while individuals and groups seek advantage over the rest.
Once one understands the three simple energy principles outlined in this paper, then one understands that the only way our society could actually be “sustainable” would be to continuously reduce our aggregate energy footprint. Put differently, energy laws will force us to continuously reduce our aggregate footprint whether we choose to or not.
Once one understands human nature as outlined in this paper, then one also understands that continued social stability requires us to continuously INCREASE energy use, which we now know is physically impossible! It should not come as a surprise that we have been pre-programmed to overshoot and crash just like other animals .
There are absolutely no humane solutions available to the ruling elite because it is impossible to solve the problem of human corruption (i.e. the genetic pre-program to violate the norms and seek advantage). Unfortunately, the best the poor can hope for is a painless death.
 See also Synopsis.
 Georgescu-Roegen was primarily concerned with the ever-declining supply of low-entropy “matter” (not energy). http://www.dieoff.org/page148.htm
 See also Complexity, Problem Solving, and Sustainable Societies