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Deep thought - June 27

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Why Do We Rape, Kill and Sleep Around?
(environmental psychology on the run)
Sharon Begley, NEWSWEEK

The fault, dear Darwin, lies not in our ancestors, but in ourselves.
... evolutionary psychology. Founded in the late 1980s in the ashes of sociobiology, this field asserts that behaviors that conferred a fitness advantage during the era when modern humans were evolving are the result of hundreds of genetically based cognitive "modules" preprogrammed in the brain. Since they are genetic, these modules and the behaviors they encode are heritable—passed down to future generations—and, together, constitute a universal human nature that describes how people think, feel and act, from the nightclubs of Manhattan to the farms of the Amish, from the huts of New Guinea aborigines to the madrassas of Karachi. Evolutionary psychologists do not have a time machine, of course. So to figure out which traits were adaptive during the Stone Age, and therefore bequeathed to us like a questionable family heirloom, they make logical guesses.

... Where, then, does the fall of evolutionary psychology leave the idea of human nature? Behavioral ecology replaces it with "it depends"—that is, the core of human nature is variability and flexibility, the capacity to mold behavior to the social and physical demands of the environment. As Buller says, human variation is not noise in the system; it is the system. To be sure, traits such as symbolic language, culture, tool use, emotions and emotional expression do indeed seem to be human universals. It's the behaviors that capture the public imagination—promiscuous men and monogamous women, stepchild-killing men and the like—that turn out not to be. And for a final nail in the coffin, geneticists have discovered that human genes evolve much more quickly than anyone imagined when evolutionary psychology was invented, when everyone assumed that "modern" humans had DNA almost identical to that of people 50,000 years ago. Some genes seem to be only 10,000 years old, and some may be even younger.

That has caught the attention of even the most ardent proponents of evo psych, because when the environment is changing rapidly—as when agriculture was invented or city-states arose—is also when natural selection produces the most dramatic changes in a gene pool. Yet most of the field's leaders, admits UNM's Miller, "have not kept up with the last decade's astounding progress in human evolutionary genetics." The discovery of genes as young as agriculture and city-states, rather than as old as cavemen, means "we have to rethink to foundational assumptions" of evo psych, says Miller, starting with the claim that there are human universals and that they are the result of a Stone Age brain. Evolution indeed sculpted the human brain. But it worked in malleable plastic, not stone, bequeathing us flexible minds that can take stock of the world and adapt to it.
(20 June 2009)
Long article. Evolutionary psychology is popular with Nate Hagens, Jay Hanson and others in the peak oil blogosphere. The debate about it is long and complicated -- I gladly leave it to others! -BA

When does a packed but happy crowd become a dangerous, even lethal one?

Emma Brockes, The Guardian
... Like all small academic disciplines, crowd-control theory is subject to schisms and rivalries that fall between the interrelated fields of fire protection, urban planning and crowd management. There are those who take a scientific approach and those who take an empirical one, but most offer their services as expert witnesses in the almost weekly occurrence, somewhere in the world, of someone being injured or killed in a crowd.

... Much of it is common sense. Factors include force: "Recognising that the crowd can exert a tremendous force." Information: "The crowd was getting info that the Who concert was starting, and it was false, but it triggered the movement." And timing: "Usually things happen very quickly. At Walmart, if they had given people time of arrival tickets and it was clearly first come first served, it might have helped." In a phrase you don't hear often, Fruin says, "I was a little sympathetic to Walmart. They didn't know what they created there."

What they may have created is known by different buzz words, but most consultants agree the phenomenon of "crowd crazes", "mayhem marketing" or "craze-like competition" is on the rise. That's when crowds are deliberately provoked through the distribution of "free gifts" (as in the Japanese mall event in 2002 when 10 people were injured after gift bags were thrown from the stage) ...

... It is a source of constant frustration to crowd-control experts that the language used to describe crowds is not only imprecise, but often the exact opposite of what happens. "Stampede" is rarely an appropriate term. "Herd-like behaviour has a connotation of rapid movement," says Jake Pauls, a safety consultant who advised on evacuation plans for the World Trade Centre. "This is seldom the case in crowds: things happen slowly, like molasses moving on a cold day. Trampling incidents tend to be rare. Many people who die, for example in Sheffield [the Hillsborough disaster], were actually standing up.

... The main problem is lack of information, preparation and consideration for the way people in a tight spot will try to get out of it.

... One of the keys to surviving a bad crowd situation, he says, is to make human contact with those around you. Contrary to received wisdom, he hasn't found that people automatically become selfish when they're put under pressure. "You can't talk to anybody, because of all the noise - you rely on eye contact. Facial gesture. Hand movement. You always want to make contact with somebody around you, because people will help you if they can, and extend your hand. I call it the Grip of Life. It's that human connection of hope and support and encouragement."
(27 June 2009)
Many similiarities to the panic that will ensue as the mainstream picks up the idea of resource depletion. When that happens, I think the same advice will apply:

The main problem is lack of information, preparation and consideration for the way people in a tight spot will try to get out of it. ... One of the keys to surviving a bad crowd situation, he says, is to make human contact with those around you. Contrary to received wisdom, he hasn't found that people automatically become selfish when they're put under pressure.

That's why it's so important that we develop a context for people to understand problems like peak oil and sketch out reasonable responses. -BA

The Psychological and Evolutionary Roots of Resource Overconsumption Revisited

Nate Hagens, The Oil Drum
This post examines our own history on the planet, outlines how the ancient-derived reward pathways of our brain are easily hijacked by modern stimuli, and concludes that in very real ways, we have become addicted to the 'consumptive behaviors' linked to oil.


The majority of Peak Oil writing and discussion centers around the upcoming date of an all liquids peak and how steep the subsequent decline rate might be. There's also active debate on how to best replace the coming shortfall in fossil energy with renewable flows. Fewer discussions are about relocalizing a global economy dependent on cheap transportation fuels, and how best to structure a world with lower density energy. Yet fewer still delve into who we are, how we got here, and what and why we use energy, and seemingly want more of it every year. Essentially, most of our energy conversations, at conferences, schools, institutions, and the blogosphere, focus on the means, and not the ends. The ends have generally remained unquestioned. There seems to be an implicit assumption that worldwide energy demand will continue to grow something akin to a natural law, and that solutions should focus on ways to increase supply and/or efficiency of energy. But in an economic system based on self-interest on a finite planet, the true drivers of demand will need to be better understood beyond the microeconomic mantra "price will change behavior".

This post examines our own history on the planet, outlines how the ancient-derived reward pathways of our brain are easily hijacked by modern stimuli, and concludes that in very real ways, we have become addicted to the 'consumptive behaviors' linked to oil.
(25 June 2009)
A re-posting of one of Nate's classic essays.

As good as it is, what is needed is cross-cultural perspectives to combat the tendency to parochialiality. We need to know about cultures in different historical periods and different geographies. Or even sub-cultures in another part of town.

For example, a commenter on TOD about a month ago described the very different point of view of his Albanian in-laws (they had no problem with Collapse - they were used to living like that). I come from a Quaker and non-conformist background, and the phenomena that Nate describes seem very alien to me.

I think that cultural anthropology and history have a lot more to tell us about the potential of human beings than do physiology and evolution.

Some of the people I most like to read have a multi-cultural perspective. For example, Dmitry Orlov or Amanda Kovattana. Or people who are rooted in a traditional faith.

Having a foot in another culture seems to protect one against the tendency to make universal generalizations based on one's immediate surroundings. -BA

Let’s Get Rid of the Economy of Growth

Kirkpatrick Sale, Front Porch Republic
Cold Spring, NY–It’s getting worse and worse, and the wizards don’t have a clue. They don’t even know the economy is broken-and can’t be fixed. That’s why they keep doing more of the same with the same old solutions and same old people.

Nothing could be more obvious, and I think most sentient people in the land know this in their hearts. And nothing could be more obvious than the need to overhaul that economy entirely-which is indeed the opportunity we have now.

I don’t mean we have to scrap the capitalist system entirely, but we do have to reign it in. We have to fit it in to the limits of the real world. We have to understand that economics is a subsystem of the overall ecosystem. We have to realize that continuing to base it on the concepts of growth and consumption–and encouraging, “stimulating,” more of that–will lead to the collapse not only of the global economy but probably the industrial civilization it serves.

... Let us posit that the three greatest perils we face are resource depletion (particularly oil, but don’t forget fish and fresh water, for example), global warming and the alteration of habitats and species, and an excessive human impact on the planet at all levels. They are all the result of unchecked economic growth, and on a planetary scale. If we continue business as usual we will surely meet up with their disastrous consequences.

The alternative? Nothing complicated: a non-growth ecnonomy. A human-scale economy. A steady-state economy.

The idea of a steady-state economy was spelled out by John Stuart Mill in the middle of the 19th century, and has been taken up and amplified by a whole host of thinkers in recent times, including Herman Daly, Kenneth Boulding, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, Leopold Kohr, Hazel Henderson, Howard Odum-oh, and myself (Human Scale, 1980). There is today an organization called the Center for the Advancement of a Steady-State Economy, and in the UK a Sustainable Development Commission has recently issued a report called “Prosperity Without Growth.”

But what steady-state scholars have traditionally failed to emphasize, and what I have always held to be crucial, is scale. They have tended to picture such an economy, naturally but erroneously, on the scale of the nation-state, without realizing that it is the size and nature of the state in the first place that tends to foster growth and would be hard-pressed to do otherwise.
(26 June 2009)
Kirkpatrick Sale is an author and scholar. The Wikipedia article describes him as "a leader of the Neo-Luddites" and "the theoretician for a new secessionist movement."

Front Porch Republic is the most interesting conservative publication I've seen in a long time. The authors are alive and literate. The site has Sharon Astyk, The Oil Drum and James Howard Kunstler on its blogroll, so you can tell they are not a Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh sort of conservatives. They seem to look to the strain of conservativism represented by Wendell Berry, Thoreau and Ivan Illich. -BA

Saving Ourselves: Consuming Within Recharge Rates

Randall Amster, Common Dreams
... I recently asked some of my students whether water was a scarce or abundant resource. Being good environmentalists, they mostly reflected upon the hard-to-deny fact that water is scarce and getting scarcer -- it's the "new oil" and "blue gold" as various outlets continually suggest. There's a truth in this perspective, and yet water can also be seen as an abundant resource in which the planet's evaporation-rainfall cycle continually renews it. We can actually quantify the amount of water it takes to maintain a local aquifer or the flow of a river at healthy levels, and this is sometimes known as the "recharge rate" of how much it would be necessary to put back in to keep the water flowing. Swimming pool owners in hot climates, for example, often fill their pools a little bit each morning to compensate for evaporation, and thus perform a low-tech version of recharging their water levels in this manner.

In fact, every resource has an inherent recharge rate , in the sense that the "balance of a system can be expressed as a relationship relating all of the inputs and outputs into or out of the system." Water is perhaps the easiest to measure, as in the swimming pool example, although in the real world variables such as soil moisture levels and the location of stormwater basins can make the calculations somewhat more complex. Still, rates are estimable if not outright calculable in most locales, suggesting that in practice we can find the balance point between output (i.e., what we consume) and input (i.e., what gets replaced) for any given resource. Using this framework, the distinction between renewable and nonrenewable resources become blurred, since everything has an inherent (or at least potential) rate of renewal and can thus be sustained over time.

This may seem counterintuitive, since we've been accustomed to viewing resources like oil and minerals as nonrenewable, but that's only because we've applied a human time scale to such commodities.

... So here's my recommendation for sustaining the planet's fecundity, and for saving ourselves in the process: consumption within recharge rates, but no more. Air, water, and food are abundant and renew quickly, and thus can be consumed at significant levels. Coal, oil, uranium, and natural gas recharge very slowly and therefore should only be consumed at very small levels (if at all) consistent with how long it would likely take to replace them. Trees might still be used for human purposes, but only as fast as they will grow back or can be replanted. Solar radiation, geothermal energy, wind power, and tidal cycles renew continually, and their recharge rates are internally driven, so they can be utilized widely and abundantly.

Thich Nhat Hanh refers to something very much like this as "mindful consumption," which he contrasts with the unmindful practices that are "doing violence to our home" and have led the world to the doorstep of "catastrophic climate changes," yielding a pervasive sense of "violence, hate, discrimination, and despair."

Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., teaches Peace Studies at Prescott College, and is the Executive Director of the Peace & Justice Studies Association. His most recent book is Lost In Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness (LFB Scholarly 2008).
(26 June 2009)

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