How to Save the World from Itself

Brace Yourself:

Below is the full text of a long post  followed by 1stVillager commentary.  It’s a great article and well worth the time.

Is deception no longer an adaptive human strategy?

by Kurt Cobb

“A lie is as good as the truth if you can get somebody to believe it.” So goes the cynical maxim. Naturally, it contradicts the accepted public morality embodied in the saying: “Honesty is the best policy.” That saying is attributed to Miguel de Cervantes though it has been repeated by many others. I rather think that the ancient Roman satirist Juvenal had it right when he wrote: “Honesty is praised and starves.”

The way to understand these contradictory statements is in the context of evolutionary success. Animals bear deceptive markings and patterns to camouflage themselves from predators. And, animals have been known to act out lies to deceive their fellow animals. William Catton Jr. relates such a story in his book Bottleneck: Humanity’s Impending Impasse:

One of the chimpanzees at the Gombe Field station provided a modern demonstration of this. He had acquired an ability to open locked banana boxes. But he seemed to know it was unwise for him to do so in the presence of other more socially dominant apes who might attack him and take the bananas. To solve the problem this ape perfected the acted lie. By striding purposefully away from camp as if on his way to a good food source, he tricked other apes who would amble after him for a few hundred yards. By doubling back alone to the then deserted camp, he could open a banana box and peacefully enjoy its contents in the absence of the other chimps who, having seen there was no food in the camp other than what was confined to boxes they could not open, did not return with him.

It’s no surprise that humans have also found deception to be a useful survival skill. Certainly, it is useful in hunting animals. Even today we use the duck blind to conceal the position of the hunter. But deception as an adaptive behavior finds its true test in relations between humans in warfare, in sports, and even in commercial activities. We are more likely to deceive those whom we consider part of the out-group since they represent a possible source of resources for the in-group to which we belong and whose survivability we want to enhance. My in-group, however, is constantly shifting. Is it my family? Does it include my friends? How about my community? My nation? Those whom we consider appropriate targets for our cons depend on what group we place ourselves in at any moment.

All of this was brought to mind by the recent failure of the Harper administration in Canada to overturn a law which prohibits lying on news broadcasts. The change was sought to enable a Canadian upstart cable news channel dubbed Sun TV News to adopt the same style as the Fox News Channel in the United States. Apparently, lying is part of the format and not being able to lie would prevent Sun TV News from fulfilling its proper role in the world of Canadian media.

Does that mean Canadians are getting the truth elsewhere? Well, not lying is not always the equivalent of telling the truth. If you lie, it means by definition that you are saying something you know to be false or at least should have known to be false. But if you are simply mistaken, then people don’t call you a liar. They usually try to correct you.

So, there are two kinds of misinformation which we are subjected to every day in human affairs. The first is merely incorrect information. It may very well be the best estimate of the truth by the teller. If we detect the error, we call it an honest mistake. If we don’t detect the error, it may have the same effect as a deliberate lie would have on our actions.

For example, it is passed off as more or less incontrovertible that the human economy can grow indefinitely without either running out of resources or destroying the climate. The argument is that high prices for any scarce resource will lead to the discovery of more of that resource or to substitutes for it. All of this will happen in time to avert any catastrophic collapse of human industrial society.

Even among some who accept the reality of climate change, there is a belief that the offending emissions can be brought under control through technology alone, that alternative carbon-free energy sources can be deployed rapidly and in sufficient capacity to replace our current level of energy production from fossil fuels, and that geoengineering projects can be constructed if need be to alter the incoming amount of sunlight or absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. We will thereby save ourselves from civilization-destroying climate change while continuing to live pretty much as we do and with economic growth intact.

People who make these claims are, in my view, simply mistaken about the extent of the challenges. We cannot know for certain whether such people are wrong. But we can judge their chances of being right to be slight based on the evidence. The results of believing such information if it is false can be just as serious as believing intentional falsehoods.

This brings us to another kind of communication that is constructed of outright lies. Claims by industry-funded think tanks include that the Earth is not warming; that if it is, human activity is not responsible; and that such warming will somehow be beneficial to humans on balance. All these claims can and have been shown to be false by the actual scientific evidence. Another demonstrably false assertion is that there is no consensus among climate scientists that humans are changing the climate through their actions.

Catton explains in Bottleneck that the purpose of deception is to create a “false or misleading definition of the situation.” The ability to deceive depends on two things, the skills of the deceiver and a situation in which the deceiver’s words or actions will be interpreted as truthful. The generally rising prosperity of the last 150 years leads most people to conclude that the future will be more or less like the recent past, namely, continued economic growth with few constraints. So, claims of continuous growth fall on fertile ground.

Those who attempt to deceive the population about climate change also have experience as their ally. Catastrophic consequences tied definitively to climate change are difficult to demonstrate. And, most people have not been touched by frequently cited examples: Hurricane Katrina, the record 2010 floods in Pakistan, the shrinking Arctic icecap. Their experience tells them that at most climate change is benign.

The trends revealed by scientific research are far more troubling than the average person’s experience. While the scientific community has endeavored mightily to communicate these trends, the task has proven difficult because of the abstract nature of much of the scientific knowledge which must be communicated. This has made it fairly easy for the fossil fuel industry to muddy the waters with misleading and outright false information skillfully planted in major media outlets.

In the past deception may have been an adaptive behavior for the human species. But, as with any trait, changed circumstances can render previously adaptive behaviors maladaptive. The changed circumstance is that humans are now so numerous and so powerful through their technology that they are are able to undermine the very biosphere which supports their survival.

And, since humans coordinate their activities primarily through language, it stands to reason that if that language is now used most effectively to create a false or misleading definition of the actual situation, then the human community will not be able to act appropriately to ensure its continued survival in the face of multiple threats such as climate change, fossil fuel depletion, soil erosion, water pollution and so on. The ability to deceive then has become so counterproductive that it threatens humans with extinction.

Could this trait be somehow moderated to allow a more realistic assessment of our situation? Partly this would require a new definition of who is included in our community. If the definition remains narrow–for example, my climate-change denying friends in the fossil fuel industry–then there is little hope for change. If the definition can expand to all of humanity, then the need for deception is diminished. I no longer consider people halfway across the globe as part of an out-group who can be regarded as enemies and may be deceived without moral concern.

But overcoming deception will also require the inclusion of scientific information and observations not normally incorporated into what most humans call their experience. Of the two tasks I’ve outlined, this second one seems the more difficult.

It is discouraging to conclude that a human behavior which has been selected for by nature to enhance our survival has now turned against us. But in this way, language–which is perhaps the highest achievement of humankind–could become our undoing.

Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, Prelude, and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights.

Original article available here

My Turn:

One level below the practical implications of this debate is a disturbing conflict for Christians.
Said Christ, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”  When challenged, “who is my neighbor?”, he declared my neighbor is all humanity.

Yet, common sense and experience teach that at the survival level, “Honesty is praised and starves.”  My experience building an intentional community based on a combination of the golden rule and a self-sufficiency work ethic teaches me that with few exceptions, the world functions on the level of base self-interest.  People crying out for a return to Christian principles regularly engage in deception that is harmful to others simply because it works.  In its most cynical form, the preachers of many organized religions are exposed as the greatest hypocrites, calling for mutual love while plundering the gullible under the cover of religious piety.  So, even the advocates of “pure religion” are among the least trusted.

The call for mankind to unite under the banner of enlightened self-interest assumes a confidence in universal enlightenment that is more quixotic than Christ’s call to love all mankind equally.  In the disinformation age, truth ubiquitously couched in half-truths, smothers any possibility of getting to ultimate truth.  As noted, the modern religion called science is equally compromised by special interests.  It has come to the point where one must do “primary research” in order to trust the conclusions.  Secondary or second-hand science is no longer trusted.

“And, since humans coordinate their activities primarily through language, it stands to reason that if that language is now used most effectively to create a false or misleading definition of the actual situation, then the human community will not be able to act appropriately to ensure its continued survival in the face of multiple threats … “

One could infer from this that language is the problem.  But the problem goes much deeper than language.  Language is but a tool of deception, perhaps the singular tool in a devil’s tool chest that distinguishes humans from lower animals.  But the author’s final sentence clarifies,

“The ability to deceive then has become so counterproductive that it threatens humans with extinction.”

This nugget approaches the truth.  Language is not the root of the problem.  The problem is fundamental morality.  But to clarify, the root is not the ability to deceive, but deception itself, the common assumption that “Honesty starves” and survival depends on deception.  That takes us back to Christ’s call to love ALL others as yourself, not just pretend to love others as yourself.

The fog of the disinformation war is penetrated by appealing directly to an ultimate source of truth.  In science, primary research, done by a competent, meticulous scientist can yield truth to that scientist.  Once public, having left the scientist’s hands and forced through the sieve of special interests, it becomes suspect.  The same can be said of religion.  Some still cling to an older notion that the ultimate source of truth is God.  As with the newer religion of science, personal revelation (the spiritual equivalent of primary research) is the only sure way to knowledge of the truth.

I am hopeful that mankind will come to its collective senses, taking a higher road that leads somewhere other than death and destruction.  There seem to be two potential paths leading to salvation.  One is the path of universal enlightened self-interest through education, logic and scientific inquiry leading to enlightened choices.  The other path embrace Jesus Christ’s call to morality, rejecting petty self-interest in favor of the Golden Rule.  Ironically, the destination of both paths is enlightened self-interest where people love others as themselves.  Many believe there is a fork in the high road forcing us to choose a mutually exclusive secular or spiritual option.  There is no such fork.  Truth is truth, whether revealed through either the rigor of scientific or spiritual inquiry.  Both paths require rigor.  If forced to bet on one path over the other, I bet that the spiritual path has been historically more successful in elevating human behavior than the path of universal scientific inquiry.  For me, no such choice is required.  In the face of man’s power to annihilate himself and evidence that he is well down that path, we must take up Don Quixote’s challenge to “dream the impossible dream”.  But I can’t get my head around that dream unless equipped with more than a lance.  Mankind must do the right thing not only because it is logically in his selfish interest, but also because it is right and moral.  He will get there when armed with truth discovered both through scientific and spiritual inquiry.  Thinking such a quest is possible while equipped with only half the tool-chest is worse than quixotic.  It is foolish.

Full disclosure, I am a Christian and a Mormon with the spirit of Don Quixote.

Moral Chemistry

The Parable of the Good Samaritan. Other relig...

Good Samaritan

If there is one principle that the greatest sages, prophets, philosophers and religions throughout the ages agree on, it is the golden rule.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  It is the foundation of moral behavior.

Cultures that foster the golden rule have a higher degree of trust, resulting in greater coöperation, productivity and wealth.

The Village on Sewanee Creek has three foundational principles:

  1. The Golden Rule
  2. Self-Sufficiency
  3. Personal Liberty and Accountability

Focus on these three principles creates an environment where harmony, trust and productivity can flourish.  But people are imperfect regardless of good intentions.  So the message of this TED talk is encouraging.  Above good intentions, there are physical explanations for different people’s ability to empathize and practice the golden rule.

Turns out that bio-chemistry plays a major role and there are things we can do to improve our own natural tendencies to live moral, harmonious lives.  I particularly like the concluding prescription.  Hope you enjoy this talk as much as I did. 

Demographics Drive Change

Whether it’s population or economic growth, exponential growth inevitably ends with bust and collapse.
Here is a video that explains the impact of exponential growth. 
World news is fixated on the UN’s pronouncement that we are passing the 7 billion population mark.
Ironically, there are many countries where population collapse is the issue as chronicled in this op-ed from AlJazeera, “BABY BUST SPELLS TROUBLE FOR RICH NATIONS”
Japan is the poster child, but Russia, Europe and even the US are on the list of countries now or soon unable to support aging populations. For those interested in seeing what the future looks like for countries with aging populations, check out this blog on the rusting of Japan.   Written from the perspective of an affluent expat financial analyst who is fluent in the Japanese language and culture, I find it fascinating in an eerie-dreary sort of way.
While energy resource depletion (aka Peak Oil) is one of the fundamental tectonic plates shifting beneath our feet, population demographics is another one.
Demographics defined my thirty year career. Perhaps nothing is as sensitive to or exposes demographics so clearly as how people eat. I was at the forefront of exporting American food service and retail chains to emerging nations around the world. I successfully developed well-known brands like IHOP, Papa John’s, Pizza Inn, 7-Eleven, Dunkin’ Donuts, Baskin-Robbins and Blockbuster Videoin over fifty countries.

7-Eleven's could be found EVERYWHERE in Thaila...

Baskin-Robbins Korea 1 of thousands

In the 70’s, it was Japan. There was a massive demographic shift as young mothers entered the workforce (similar to what had occurred in the prior 15 years in the USA. Japan was becoming more affluent. Young families with growing incomes and less time wanted convenient food options. Japan was mimicking America’s infatuation with chain restaurants. Japan’s growth curve was steep and so was the decline.
None of the brands I represented had the marketing or financial clout of McDonald’s, so I had to be sensitive to targeting only countries that had youthful, aspiring populations, mostly in developing countries where success was assured. For me, that almost always meant youth in Asia. Our greatest successes were in places like Japan (in the early days), Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other middle Eastern countries and more recently Eastern Europe, China and India.  Developing Latin American Countries

I opened this shop in Pakistan

were OK for inexpensive products like Dunkin’ Donuts).  Western Europe was always a tough nut to crack. My career taught me to be intuitively sensitive to population and economic demographics. Lesson number one.

Lesson number two was equally grounded in fundamental tectonic fact as expressed in the phrases “watch where the feet point” and “follow the money”. In the politically charged, sometimes back-stabbing corporate world of a senior executive, it was often difficult to know what alliances would form to support or betray you. Even hero de jour, Steve Jobs, was thrown out of the company he founded.  Those things shift quickly in the winds of expediency and personal interests. But if you have your ear to the ground you can always sense the grinding at the tectonic level. That is where the truth is.

As world resources become increasingly strained and rich nations slide into poverty, I see a growing call coming for population control measures that will target the less productive members of society, the old and infirm. It will be justified as “scientific” and natural survival of the fittest. Alex Jones and commentators like him attribute that to the “New World Order” elites, rising fascism, communism and the “banksters”. The mass media counters by marginalizing that rhetoric as nut-case “conspiracy theory” or “fear mongering”. It is hard to forecast who will be the leaders, the movers and shakers in a radically changing world. But it is clear that the world is about to shake because at the tectonic level (demographics and resources) there are unmistakable clues to the inevitable. Leaders like Hitler are impotent by themselves. Their power derives from their ability to tap into the tectonic forces of the masses. Demographic tectonics tells me there will be a mass of people clamoring for solutions. History tells me that someone like Hitler will offer solutions. The solution to over-population and under supply of resources is inevitably eugenics.

Under the din of claims, counter-claims and fault-finding, the tectonic plates of the masses continue to shift. Regardless of where one hangs the blame, earthquakes, like nature in general, move without regard to our feeble attempts to explain them.   It seems an ironic twist of language that my early career was defined by the potential of youth in Asia, while in later life I am thinking more about the potential for euthanasia. My early analysis of the demographic potential of “youth-in-Asia” led me to respond correctly and productively to the needs of the masses by developing thousands of restaurants and retail outlets in emerging nations. Later analysis of demographic potential for euthanasia leads me to the conclusion that in a eugenic world where only the fit and productive survive, we had better get on with the job of being not only fit, but productive and self-sufficient.

My baby boomer generation has mortgaged future generations with debt that cannot be repaid.  Those generations will default on that debt just as surely as sub-prime mortgagees did.

The Religion of Science

Is Science the new opiate of the “educated’ masses?

In our time, Science has generally replaced religion as the accepted means of understanding truth.  Religion has been discredited in our secular world, not only as a means of finding truth.  It is regularly vilified as a dogma that produces conflict, war, and the plundering of the planet.  Religion is redefined as dogma that stagnates thought and impedes the advancement of mankind.  In many “progressive” circles it is held as the source of all things evil.  Science is the new religion of our time and applied technology (light bulbs, micro-wave ovens, i-phones, computers) its proof, our Bible.

It has been twenty years since the announcement of “cold fusion” at the University of Utah. MIT scientists and government researchers exaggerated its death and prematurely buried it.   Now still unexplainable yet real experimentation results are exhuming this science from the grave.  Immutable truth has a habit of haunting those who discount it for fun and profit.

Look beneath the surface.  The serious inquirer discovers that imbedded within this drama are all the important questions about man’s search for truth, good versus evil, the corrupting politics of power and greed, human nature, faith and God.  These two YouTube videos, Cold Fusion Suppressed Technology ( ) and Cold Fusion – More Than Junk Science (60 Minutes, CBS News ( ) do address the scientific methodology as a proof of viability, but the important message is that beneath the methods, the sine qua non of any search for truth are motives, morals, integrity and values.  Absent this, we see the same dogma stagnation, manipulation of the masses for profit and power and rape of natural resources that have been seen as the province of “organized religion”.  Perhaps the new high priesthood of science based in government granted University research should be relabeled “organized science”.

But I digress.  Is morality not the realm of spirituality and religion?  I’m not speaking of the corrupted form of religion, manipulated by despots throughout time, but the religion of humble seekers of eternal truth.  The questions for our age are,

  1. Absent moral purity, can science be trusted any more than religion?   
  2. How can you tell if there Is underlying integrity?

And the answer just might be the modern maxim, “follow the money”.  The increasingly cynical masses have come to trust the wisdom that money leads to power.  Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  An unfortunate conclusion is that everything is corrupt, including religion, government, corporations, wall street, labor unions and the last bastion of credibility, the new religion, science.  The masses have thrown the baby (religion) out with the bath water.  With the current levels of cynicism it is conceivable that the same could happen for all other institutions including science where no one trusts anything.  Faith is dead.  This would truly be the cataclysmic end of the civilization foretold by prophets of doom.

The quest for knowledge of truth is personal and lonely.

The question I often ask myself and others is, “How do you know that?”  The answer is usually discomforting.  We must all rely on someone else’s first hand observations and analysis for things that we don’t personally and regularly touch and feel.  (Leave aside, for the moment, whether we should trust our own observations and feelings.)  That reliance is called faith whether exercised in the spiritual or scientific realm.  Because we individually lack the training and knowledge to assess the truth of almost everything, we construct means of creating credibility analogs. 

When a technology reaches the state of mass production where virtually everyone experiences its effects, then everyone universally accepts the scientific explanations that underpin it.  Yet few and sometimes no one really understands the basic physics of those explanations.  What’s more, even the science that purports to explain the phenomena often shifts under our feet as it discovers new “knowledge” that modifies the old.  This begs the question, “what do you know”? . . . . Really.

So, how do we avoid a second coming of Noah’s deluge in the form of babies in bathwater?  In the end, science and religion are in many respects different sides of the same coin.  Each seeks to unwrap the mysteries of truth, each through a different process and each focusing on different areas of truth. 

The holy grail of science is the process that can be peer reviewed and most importantly, replicated under controlled circumstances, usually by a few qualified, knowledgeable scientists.  The masses then read the results in their text books and believe them to be true.  Their method of validating truth is two-fold. 
First:  Primary, personal experience with observable phenomena.  Flip a switch and the light comes on. Tune the radio and hear the music. (Yet understanding of the physics of electricity or radio waves is typically shallow to non-existent).
Second:  Vicarious faith in the prophets of science, and their disciples.  This faith is based on second-hand evidence, analogs for trust:  Nobel prizes awarded, credentials at prestigious research Universities, acknowledgement from peer reviews, and for the masses, talking heads in popular TV, newspapers and books.  For the average person this faith is in nothing more than a popularly accepted dogma.  It is no different than the religious faith exercised by the masses of the Middle Ages.

The scientific method of religion for the individual is similarly two-tiered.
First, primary, personal experience with the results of experimentation:  Pray for an answer to an intractable problem and receive an understanding that is enlightening or comforting, outside our normal thought process and unexplainable other than through the whisperings of the spirit.  Exercise faith and witness a healing of the body, or often more importantly, the soul.  Give generously of your means and love and reap the benefits.
Second, the testimonies of trusted people that we know personally, or the stories written long ago in scripture.

In either case, the personal inputs upon which people base belief are the same.  In both cases, adherents will swear to a knowledge of the truth of their conclusions. 

Today’s popular wisdom chants Karl Marx’, “religion is the opiate of the masses”, a means to wealth and power.  It’s an outdated slogan since that baby is out the window a long time ago in most 1st world nations.  A time will come, perhaps soon, when people begin to understand that science has its own false prophets.  These evil people have mastered the confidence game for power and profit but care little for the improvement of people they are meant to serve.  They care even less about truth other than that which results in personal gain.  Just as religion has been subverted, so can science.  Science is the new opiate of the “educated” masses who are educated with scientific dogma but lack wisdom. 

Perhaps, when people understand the vulnerabilities of science they will begin to recognize that science and religion are indeed, two sides of a multi-dimensional coin.  It is a coin that can be used for good or evil and a coin that, to have value, must seamlessly incorporate the strengths of each and root out the corrupting virus that is man’s quest for money and power over truth.

It seems to me a great irony that during the dark ages, utter contempt for religious beliefs was primarily the province of tyrants.  They were the ones who manipulated religion to justify and instigate unspeakable horrors in the name of God while the masses were unwitting but sincere followers of the tyrannical “keepers of the faith”.  Today, it seems a majority have embraced contempt for religion, resulting in a scramble to adopt tyrannical values.  Hence, we can trust no one.  Would that everyone embraced godly values that would form the basis for trust and discovery of truth through science, religion, meditation, philosophy, historical perspective or any method that gets us closer to the truth.