Saturday, August 09, 2008

The Human Overpopulation Crisis

The Human Overpopulation Crisis

Here is the web site that Prof. Eric Pianka put together for his freshman seminar on the human overpopulation crisis. Lots of good stuff here.

The only thing I would have liked to see in addition to what he's got there is a section on mental health - avoiding or dealing with despair and so on. I would think some in his audience of young people might be susceptible to an emotional crash of some sort when encouraged to think about how fucked we are.

I think my own experience over the years has been a grief process. I'm long past denial, still get angry at times, never did much bargaining, substituted a sort of nihilism for depression, and I've been deep into acceptance for quite a while.

This has been going on for many years in my case. It was a relatively gentle process compared to what I imagine some young people would experience when taken from youthful bliss to full-blown "we're fucked" over the course of a semester. My experience has been quite gentle compared to some of the accounts at Peak Oil Blues, a resource for people who've been shocked by the realization that peak oil is for real. (Prof. Pianka stops short of "we're fucked", but he's encouraging his students to think and some of them may come to the same conclusion I have.)

How to ease the pain? Dunno. Some people will manage OK on their own, but some might suffer mental health episodes. I'm no shrink, and I would not presume to instruct Prof. Pianka on anything, but there must be some way to help susceptible members of his young audience to be aware, and to deal with mental health issues should they arise. Introspection doesn't necessarily come naturally or progress usefully.

My two cents anyway.

One other thing... Maybe it's there in one form or another and I have missed it so far, but every student (every person) should assimilate the content of Prof. Albert Bartlett's lecture, "Arithmetic, Population and Energy".
[Never mind, the Google Video link to Prof. Bartlett's lecture is there. Good on Prof. Pianka.]


jj mollo said...

It looks like a fascinating course. The guy is brave, intelligent, and of course right. His problem, as I see it, is that he is still focused on the symptom, not the heart of the problem. You, otoh, have identified the true problem. We are incapable of reacting intelligently to any number of systemic social traps. The War on Drugs is a big social trap. The inability to control population growth is another. Our use of fossil fuels is such a trap that the Chinese couldn't avoid it even when starting from scratch. It is simply not within our present capacity to address these sorts of problems.

Pianka is preaching to the choir. All the people who are capable of understanding his message, already do. People who are still in denial are not going to be enrolled in his classes. Everything he says has already been said for decades now. He's just depressing us a little more eloquently than we are usually depressed.

The thing that Pianka should be studying is the cause of governmental inadequacy. What specifically makes governments incompetent and congenitally unable to enforce correct decisions? Why is it that Winston Churchill spent years in the wilderness preaching the obvious to no avail. Why does the War on Drugs continue when half the police chiefs in the country will tell you that it is a counter-productive failure, and the other half just think it. Why is Robert Mugabe still alive?

We are chained together by the deep logic of self-deceit and a competitive race to the bottom, the least common denominator of collective morality. I am certain that game theory could explain all this, but we need a prescription, not a description. The prescription starts with: Step 1 -- fix the government. The question that we should be studying is how do we do that.

Steve said...

I wonder what serious, and seriously influential, people might be studying the question of human incapacity in the face of all this? Who might be able to derive, and then implement, a successful prescription?

Probably I just lack imagination, but I can't envision any prescription that is not supremely "evil" - that doesn't eliminate rights we've enjoyed, ideals we've upheld, beliefs with which we've evolved and so on.

Could it be that the best prescription is to let events run their course?

jj mollo said...

Letting events run their course would be unconscionable. I guess I count myself as serious, and seriously trying to address the problems, but not necessary seriously influential. I have, for several years, been trying to put my own prescription into convincing words. I think I'm almost there. I don't think it's evil, btw, though some may think so. At least they have thought so in the past. One of my problems is that I just don't know enough to establish the historical validity of my ideas.

The Federalist shows that the founders of the US looked at all the democracies and republics of the past. They used a very sophisticated pursuit of philosophy to create a compromise algorithm that has actually worked pretty well when compared to the alternatives, but not nearly well enough when compared to the problems we face. They did some serious intellectual work and we have to do the same. The need is for a new algorithm, or at least a enhanced algorithm.

Algorithms happen to be my specialty, by the way. I spent most of my career as what we call today a "software engineer". I found ways to straighten out old computer programs that were poorly designed, extremely complicated, and standing in the way of progress. You can't just patch them. By the time I got them, there were patches on patches so thick that people had given up in despair. That's where we are with the modern instruments of government.

Take for instance the Bureau of Indian Affairs. They were so corrupt that the money in their budget hardly ever made it down to the appropriate recipients. I think they still may be that way. Yet bridges get built. Why the difference? All the decisions made in the antebellum South benefited the 3% white elite. Yet almost all white southerners defended the peculiar institution that may actually have been destructive to them. Why is that? And Robert Mugabe is still alive.

jj mollo said...

Here's a link to some more serious people studying the abstract workings of government. Or at least, they are looking at the purely logical consequences of law. Some of this stuff has been going on for a long time, but I just found out about it. That's another question. Why didn't I know about it? (It's a cop-out to point out my inadequacies.)