Monday, July 21, 2008

A twenty penny nail through my foot

Do you ever feel, when you are working on solving environmental or social issues, that your foot has been nailed to the floor and you just keep going around in circles? Ever wonder why, despite years of programs and piles of money, we are still working on the same problems? Why they get worse rather than solved? Somewhere in what we are doing there is a 20 penny nail holding us back.

Usually, when one observes a particular effect multiple times, a cause can be extrapolated. Sometimes when extrapolating the cause one can arrive at the wrong conclusion. This is often a result of the extrapolation being shaped and directed by incorrect assumptions and beliefs. So, when one runs an experiment aimed at changing the cause, and the end result is the same effect observed before the experiment, one can conclude that either the experiment was flawed and didn’t change the cause, or that the cause isn’t really the cause. We almost always conclude the former, but after multiple attempts perhaps we should consider the latter.

In my ramblings about paradigms and change I brought up the natural law describing how food and population growth are linked. This provoked some immediate responses. Humans, for reasons like compassion, community, evolution, intelligence, morality, etc, could not possibly be governed by natural law. We are above the tooth and claw, survival of the fittest, law of the jungle that reigns in Nature. It was immediately assumed that what I was talking about was a return to the caveman ways of kill or be killed, abandoning all that was great and fine about human civilization. Or that I was proposing starvation as a method of population control. Neither assumption could be further from the truth, but neither was surprising. Our cultural paradigm holds that Nature is a dark and violent place where life is snuffed out without reason. Only the strongest, fastest killer survives. That’s why we only have lions on the savanna, tigers in the jungle, and sharks in the ocean. They are the best. Except, it’s not true. Nature is full of creatures, living side by side in balance. Yes, things get eaten. Yes, it is sometimes violent. Very rarely is there mass starvation (except in areas where we have mucked up the system). The various creatures on the planet have managed to live together, sustainable, for millions of years. They do this without government, wars, committees, or programs. The real question is HOW. How can these dumb plants and animals manage to live with out destroying each other or the planet, while we, with our big brains, our ability to reason, use tools, communicate, etc., have brought about global crisis in less than 10000 years?

It’s simple (that doesn’t mean its going to be easy for us to do). At this point I am going to talk about a natural law. Please refrain from flailing about with your 20 penny nail until I am finished. There is a law that all of these creatures live by and we don’t. The law is this. Meet all basic life needs from the resources in your home range and return those resources to the resource pool when you are finished with them. Basic life needs are food, water, and energy. Everything is returned as “waste”, including the shell we call a body. This waste feeds the other members of the community who share your home range. It is cycled through myriad iterations of life in the community, eventually returning to you or your offspring as food. The wolf, the bison, and the grass (and the thousands of other creatures living in the prairie) are all built from the same resources. They are all different expressions of that community. The resource pool limits how much life can exist in that community. Food is the limiting factor. Food limits by suppressing conception, not by starvation. (There are lots of studies to show this, none of them done on humans, but many done on mammals.) Where we have crashed the system is we built a culture based on growth. We take all the resources in the area where we are and return nothing. If we need more to continue growing we take all the resources from somewhere else. And that brings us to where we are not. We dig deeper, reach further, and take more to continue our growth. (Reminds me a lot of cancer) If we were to start shifting to a natural model, where we met our basic needs from local resources and returned those resources to that local community to continue the cycle, we would be taking a giant step toward survival of our species on this planet. If we turned our creativity to that task, rather than to finding ways to keep digging deeper and reaching farther to fuel growth, we just might survive to see the best of human potential. To do it we are going to have to get that 20 penny nail out of our foot, changing our pair of dimes for a new way of thinking.


Sheria said...

I think that perhaps the reason that the solution is not so simple isn't that we as human beings are above natural law but that we have the ability to contemplate our actions and choose our paths. I think that this creates a complexity of existence that makes it difficult (note that I didn't say impossible) for the sort of live within your resources approach. It's not nature in its natural state that's violent and scary, it's us. Perhaps because we can contemplate our navels, we introduce emotions into the mix--love, hate, envy, desire, anger. We hold grudges, we forgive, we seek vengeance, we try to make peace. In my mind at least, it isn't about returning to a savage time, it's a difference in our evolutionary path that makes human beings unique. We are motivated by many things beyond the need for food, shelter, and energy. Human beings are capable of want; indeed, a lot of our issues are directly derived from want and not need. We want to build bigger, we want to control nature, we are convinced that we are of more importance than any other species on this planet.
I think that you hit on the crux of the matter when you write, "The various creatures on the planet have managed to live together, sustainable, for millions of years. They do this without government, wars, committees, or programs. The real question is HOW." Perhaps the how lies in focusing on need and not want. I don't think that human beings are superior to the rest of the animal kingdom but we certainly are more difficult to fathom. Why does someone who has more than enough wealth continue to seek additonal wealth? Desire, and not need. Human beings are motivated more by desire than need.
I agree that we have built a culture based on growth, but I suspect that we may part on the why. I think that it is because it is in our nature to do so. We are behaving in accordance with natural law for our species. Does that I mean that I think that we should continue on willy-nilly? No, I don't but I do think that change has to evolve from a recognition of our nature as human beings, and not from trying to impose a model of natural law that ignores the very essence of our nature. If you acept that other members of the animal kingdom are behaving in accordance to natural law, then unless the entire human species has somehow mutated, are we not also behaving in accordance with natural law as it applies to us?
I confess that I don't follow the food/population growth line of thought. How does that apply to exisiting populations? Over population is already a very real issue for the world, how does the food/population model apply to resolving overpopulation as it currently exists? Certainly the idea that conception decreases is a control on increasing population, but what do we do about the significant numbers already here who are depleting resources without replacing them? I don't disagree with your food/ growth population paradigm and I think that it has application in addressing over population as a long term solution, and as such has merit. But for me the confusion arises in seeing how it applies to address the existant problems raised by over population.

Alan said...


Ensuring the survival of the species is anything but simple. There are no easy answers. My main thought is that we have been bashing away at some of these problems for the whole of my lifetime (considerably longer on some of them) and we have had ZERO effect. Maybe our assumptions about why things are the way they are, our paradigms, are getting in the way of finding solutions.

We are very complex. Some of that complexity, or the expression of that complexity, comes from our cultural paradigms not from human nature. I’ve two thoughts on this.

One, humans who where at least as smart as we are now, as complex, as driven, have existed on the planet for several hundred thousand years. During this time they developed tools, languages, complex societies, art, music, and impressive engineering (take a look at Stonehenge or Manchu Picchu). Yet, in this time the population didn’t explode exponentially as it has in the last 6000 – 10000 years.

Two, if you have spent a lot of time working with other mammals (I do on a daily basis, and you could look at the work of Jane Goodall or others for more scientific confirmation) you would see that we are not the only ones with complex personalities, emotions, or motivations. So, I have to say that this growth at all costs paradigm is not the only possibility for humans. The thing that scares me is that from an evolutionary point of view, behaviors or adaptations that don’t work are eliminated. To find the preponderance of humans on the planet living out an expression of a paradigm that is leading us toward environmental collapse doesn’t bode well for the species. As to how we all adopted this way of living, I think if you read your history you will find that either the cultures who encountered this way of thinking saw some immediate benefit in adopting its techniques (and the supporting dogma) and converted, or they were eliminated. Go visit the last of the reservations and talk with the elders trying to preserve the remnants of their culture in the midst of our indoctrination and repression if you need an example. How many empires have been built on this idea of unrestricted growth fueled by resources from elsewhere and then gone on to collapse, Egypt, Greece, Rome, etc, and now it is a global institution. What happens when the system adjusts and the culture collapses? As to why we act this way, conditioning, and it works in the short term.

On population and food. Suppose you could cause that next year we only produced as much food as we did this year. Not a radical decrease, just the same level. Would more people starve? Probably not. If you did it for a few years, holding steady, fewer people would be born. Eventually the population would stabilize at close to its current number. If you decreased it by just a little it wouldn’t increase the incidence of starvation. But even fewer people would be born. Held at that level we would see a decrease in population. Could you do it? No. You would have to have a benevolent dictator ruling the world with the power of absolute enforcement to achieve such a thing. But, if you changed government programs to promote small social food, water, and energy programs with an eye toward building sustainable local systems that would go a long way. If the development help we exported pushed that idea instead of the agenda of big business, that would help. Slower, but achievable.

jack-of-all-thumbs said...

Wow......thank you both for a more intelligent discourse than I usually hear from talking heads paid large sums to 'educate' the viewers.

After one quick read of each, it seems that Alan's key point is that as a species we are violating key natural laws and that such violation can only lead to a nasty ending. Sheria's point seems to be that we don't exactly fit the typical pattern in that unlike other animals (in her opinion) many of our self-destructive behaviors seem to stem from desire rather than need.

Bravo. I agree with both views, but 'yikes!' where to start? I believe that Alan is correct in his initial point that an essentially self-contained ecosystem is preferable in that it is self-limiting and self-sustaining. Unfortunately, such a self-limiting concept isn't routine human behavior. I think that any civilizations that developed such behaviors were forced to by constraints on their resources that were apparent even to them, for example an island with limited water and forests. Unfortunately, on a globe with distant horizons, behaviors are rarely constrained given the possibility that more is just over the next hill or across the next stretch of water.

That said, we do have other control mechanisms, at least on reproduction. Given that children are historically a resource when grown and a burden until that time. the trick has been reproducing at the optimum level such that there's enough food for all in the early years and enough food left for grandmother in the declining ones. Cold but true. Given the naturally high mortality rates of childhood through most of human history due to a myriad of childhood diseases, then large numbers of kids made sense, resulting in enough survivors to care for the elderly. As all civilizations have moved into industrial/urban from rural/agricultural, their death rates fall. Eventually their birth rates follow, achieving an optimal and self-sustaining level. But (A) there is a significant lag time between the two declines. And (B) since not all cultures are at the same place at the same time, and yet we live in a world of global migration, the likelihood of achieving a 'soft landing' of overpopulation is remote.

Solution? Ahh! send a check and a self addressed envelope to

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your comments, but I can’t agree with some of what you posted, so here I am again. Population growth is a factor of fertility, mortality, initial population, and time. If you look at different areas of the globe, in Africa the average number of births per woman is 5 or more; in the US it is somewhere between 2-2.9; in Canada it is about 2 (World Resources Institute). Is the U.S. better at limiting food? I think Africa has had limited food availability for quite some time—certainly longer than your example. Yes, it is true that we, especially in the U.S., live beyond our natural means, and we need to do better, but to apply fertility rates of animals to humans is inappropriate. There are lots of other factors in people that don’t apply to other mammals. I am not saying that we are above natural selection or the natural order of the universe. However, if you want to control the increasing growth of the human population, you can’t do it with food, and you can’t expect everyone to live locally. You have to teach that we need to live in balance, but the balance of people and the environment is not just local. I don’t have a problem with getting my fish from the coast even though I don’t live anywhere near it. We need to learn that our local environment—that which we need to protect is global.

If you want people to have fewer children you have to teach them how to not have children and the children that are born have to have a reasonable expectation to grow into adulthood. Human fertility is driven in part by economics and human aspirations. The high fertility rates in underdeveloped countries can be explained in part by the need to have lots of hands to do low-tech agricultural jobs, and the uncertainty that the children will live. As other options for the family/children develop then it becomes more advantageous for families to be smaller. A classic example of this is in Thailand, where the families realized that their future economic status was better if their children went to secondary school, which is very expensive. The fertility rate dropped in Thailand from about 6 to 2 in a decade.

Additionally, for people, procreation is not the only reason to have sex. My female animals only copulate when they are fertile. If fertility rates in people were to decline as you say by limiting food, then I think we would also see a shift in the average age of human mothers to younger moms. I don’t have a scientific study to quote here, but I think it would happen. Not a good idea.

One final comment to your post: the human population did not achieve a J shaped curve until the last 2000 years. This was due in part to industrialization, but more importantly by reducing mortality, demonstrated even more dramatically in the last 200 years: the use of soap ~1800, improved sanitation in the 1850s, and most recently with antibiotics and modern medicine.

I know you aren’t talking about individuals, so feel free to throw one of your nails; I’ve got thick skin. Obesity decreases fertility, too.

Alan said...


I agree that there are other factors, mortality in particular which have added to our population growth. However, new life is not made from aspirations, sex, economics, or religious conviction, it is made from food. The stuff that comes together to form a new body, support its growth, and allow it to be born comes from food. Less food means less stuff to make new life with. I disagree that you can’t use animal studies to predict effects on human populations. We do it all the time. Most of the studies we do for medical reasons can’t be done on humans until the very end. To say they don’t apply is to say that we are not part of the natural world. (I think that is where this whole conversation started, our current paradigm getting in the way of change.) We have had years of contraception, education, and in some places government mandated quotas and still the population grows. The industrialized world does have lower population growth and an excess of food. What do we do with that food? We dump it on the developing world, and their population increases. I’m not saying we shouldn’t continue with programs aimed at slowing conception rates, but until we stop producing excess we will not see a slowing in the rate of population expansion.

As for living locally, population control is only a side benefit of such an action. Halting environmental degradation, improving health, increasing security, enhancing biodiversity are all reasons to shift to a local system for food, water, and energy.

Yes, the exponential explosion of the population has really happened in the last 2000 years with the past few hundred being really dramatic. Reducing mortality has had a part to play, but without a radical increase in the number of births, the change in infant mortality and the increase in longevity would only have produced a bump, not an exponential growth curve.

Thanks for commenting. Keeps me on my toes.

Anonymous said...

True, there has to be food in order to build a person (although contrary to what you see in the movies, it doesn't take much). However, we also use food for energy for recreational purposes. I think you would see fewer kickball games for the kids, fewer picnics at the lake, fewer trips to the gym, (and fewer kids in farm camp) before you would see any change in fertility. If you are going to work through all of that, then you are talking about a lot of food restriction. Maybe food coupons?
Personally, having seen a human model for decreasing population growth (see previous post), I would rather go with that.
[As an aside, scientists have to justify the use of animals in medical testing. If the animal model doesn't mimic the human situation/illness/drug metabolism, etc. then they can't test it on the animal.]

Alan said...


I agree, food reduction as a population control program would never work, despite the fundamental link between population growth and increased food supply. It would take too long, or be to violent. You would have to be king of the world with absolute power to enforce it, and that isn't ever going to happen. We are, however, talking about the same thing. Changing peoples fundamental beliefs about our place in the world. You want to do it by making people smarter when it comes to having kids. I want to do it by shifting to a more sustainable method of agriculture. Your way could work. There would still be an enormous potential for a population explosion if some group opted not to participate. My way could work as well, with the same possibility of failure. Pandora's box has been opened. The ability to amass power by producing excess food and using the increased population that accompanies the increase in food has been well demonstrated. We can't put that knowledge back in the box. We can work to change peoples paradigms and as a result changing their actions. It might work, if the whole system doesn't collapse first.

Anonymous said...



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