Saturday, June 27, 2015

Have Humans Really Never Had It "So Good"?

A current meme making the rounds - especially amongst academics- is that modern day humans have "never had it so good". While they may be getting ground under by the one percenters and corporations, and many can barely make ends meet - never mind- they can still get to Walmart for a new DVD, video game or whatever.

One part of this meme is that humans are too attuned to "look for trouble" rather than be grateful and appreciate what they've got. Why are they bellyaching, for example, about Confederate flags no longer being sold at Walmart when  - compared to a Middle Ages serf - they are basically living like Kings with their own home ("castle") and even enough money to buy HDTVs, guns and even swimming pools?

One strong advocate for this put on the happy face and be thankful for what you have is Dr. Steve Mason in his Integra (June, p. 21) article, 'A Happy Face'.  But before we get to Steve let's deal with another powerful meme related to it, promoted by another Steve named Pinker. This is that compared to past eras human violence has decreased qualitatively and quantitatively. Pinker frames it as a "decline of evil".

 If indeed the aggregate indices and totality of human-instigated evil have declined,  it means nearly all the apocryphal tales of religious books and literature are wrong or at least exaggerated. It means in addition, that the entire meme of Eschatological Messianism is defunct and debunked. The latter, of course, refers to the period of glorious dominion presumed to follow the last period of world history, after Armageddon, when the "Antichrist" ( the ultimate Evil-doer) is due to briefly reign, followed by a Second Coming of Christ. This is all according to evangelical-fundamentalist Christians in the U.S.

Countering the Armageddon bafflegab is the strong evidence that violence in toto appears to have declined around the world relative to other eras. If this is valid, and not merely a statistical quirk, it means at least one element of human evil is in decline. These propositions, or their derivatives, are implicit in Stephen Pinker's recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. I am deliberately associating violence with manifest human evil as at least a proxy indicator of its extent. Pinker's arguments are essentially based on two propositions that he sets out to prove:

1) The past was far more beastly and vicious than presumed to be, and

2) The present is vastly more peaceful, contrary to appearances.

 In a way these propositions are fairly sound. For example, in the immediate past rationalism was virtually non-existent and when rationalists did emerge, they were rapidly eliminated. Not only their minds, but bodies too, as well as property and often any offspring. Most of this was done via the Inquisition which lasted for nearly seven hundred years. Though they’d never admit it in a million years, the Vatican and Roman Catholic Church actually harbored one of the most malignant forms of human evil, in that same Inquisition.

 In his excellent monograph The Inquisition of the Middle Ages, Henry Charles Lea, in his chapter Subjection of the State  notes how papal bulls and direct threats were used to subvert and co-opt all state, civil authorities. This was to render them useless to oppose the will of the Inquisition. One such bull issued by Pope Innocent IV on May 15, 1252, is described as[1]: a carefully considered and elaborate establish machinery for systematic persecution as an integral part of the social edifice in every city and every state

Each ruler or magistrate thereby became the extension of the Church itself, and could apply bans, imprisonment, property confiscation or outright punishment to those deemed heretics and do it in the name of the Holy Inquisition. In this way, a civil metastasis of the physical evil embodied in the Inquisition could be spread far and wide.

 Ad extirpanda ensured that the vicious violence perpetrated under the guise of protecting dogmatic or doctrinal purity was applied to a vastly larger population than it otherwise might have been. Because of its violent extent, especially in relation to seizure of property, it's estimated that by the middle -1300s half the population of then western civilization had been subjected to it, an unheard of proportion.

 By comparison, the most recent outbreak of  mega-magnitude violence was World War II in which some 73 million are estimated to have been slain, either in direct combat, or in brutal purges and  mass exterminations such as the Nazis perpetrated in their concentration camps, including at Mauthausen, Treblinka and Auschwitz. Even so, 73 million dead would not even comprise 10% of then populated western civilization, say ca. 1944-45. Meanwhile, the proportion butchered or with property seized by the Vatican’s Inquisition represented a far greater proportion than 10% of the then human population.

Thus, although modern era evil and violence appears more extensive and vile, it really isn't. It's a trick of our perception and historical selection bias. Pinker himself argues that "murder rates in England peaked in 1300 and in New England in the late 17th century. Afterwards, both fell dramatically."

 Pinker also accurately notes that in the modern era (from late 19th century through today) wars rather than tribal - religious wars or crimes, accounted for the lion's share of violence, and hence evil. But even given greater numbers killed in such conflicts, this form of mega-violence has been in marked decline for the past two decades. And while we may see genocides in these conflicts, such as in Rwanda in 1994, they pale beside the disproportionate genocides conducted by ancient Israelite Tribalists. These were the name of Yahweh, i.e. against the Canaanites, if Genesis is to be believed. Indeed, if those accounts are true, it means some 500 -1000 times more humans were wiped out (as a proportion of then population), never mind the justification for it.

In this sense, Pinker's excellent graphs tell a lot of the story. For example, as expected. World Wars I and II show highly peaked points, then there's a bumpy but consistent trailing off following World War II. In terms of statistical frequency, the twentieth century naturally stands out for the sheer scale of the destruction of human life, including via atomic bombs, gas chambers and other devices.

However, when one normalizes the graphs to the actual populations present in the key eras, one finds that the past was actually far more vicious as well as the violent deaths - including being carved open by an Inquisitor with entrails removed and fed to the fires - much more common than the vile acts in 20th century or even the present (including mass shootings, terror attacks and beheadings). Is dying by Zyklon B in a Nazi gas chamber worse than an inquisitor using his knife and pliers to extract your intestines while you're awake and cook them in front of you? I'm not sure I even want to go there. But the fact is, by proportion of the respective populations, many more humans were dispatched in the latter mode than the former.

 Pinker also expatiates on the neuro-plasticity of the human brain and its ability to change in response to experience. He implies from this that people are less likely to resort to violence in their daily lives than their forbears, and that other behavioral changes and strategies work better. Of course, this assumes all factors are equal and they may not be. For example, verbal violence using computers (say on social network sites) now often takes the place of physical violence. However, the consequences can be just as terrible with the victims taking their own lives. Is this a retrenchment of evil? I would argue, no, only casting the evil in a different guise.

 Then again, there’s no assurance any current epoch for relatively less evil will continue. As a case in point there is the catastrophic approach of Peak Oil. Indeed, one issue of MONEY magazine actually warned[2] that “global oil supplies are near or past their peak, while demand for energy product shows no signs of abating”.

 Even before the MONEY article appeared, warnings have been repeatedly sounded though one wonders how many have paid attention. For example, Peter Tertzakian[3] has used a somewhat different term – the break point- to describe an analogous phenomenon for which oil prices continue to rise as more efficient forms of oil (e.g. light sweet crude) continue to go down, forcing deep sea drilling, access to tar sands oil and oil shale fracking.

T. Boone Pickens, one of the most famous oilmen and the ultimate pragmatist, has asserted that[4]:  We’re now at the point where demand for oil is 87 billion barrels a day, while only 85 billion can be produced.”  This is acknowledging Peak Oil by any other name. The Financial Times article further noted that the world’s premier energy monitor was “preparing a sharp downward revision of its oil supply forecasts”[5]. The full formal report pointed to “global oil supplies plateauing even as demand continues.”

 The article also noted[6] that a growing number of people in the industryare endorsing a version of the ‘peak oil’ theory: that oil production will plateau in coming years, as suppliers fail to replace depleted fields with enough fresh ones to boost overall output.”
The drastic consequences of energy supply and infrastructure  collapse in the face of exponentiating demand have been well described. The data show a disturbing gap by 2009 of nearly 2.1% between the total energy actually produced from around the world, and that consumed[7]. Much of this can be traced to the inability of fossil fuel production to keep up with population growth and energy demand[8]. Many experts, indeed, are convinced Peak Oil occurred in 2005.

 Why the concern? Because we will face perhaps the most intensive external agent driving masses toward human evil in our history. Many may not buy this so we perhaps need to delve deeper and one can cite Richard Heinberg[9] who has laid the case out in crystal clarity by using the primary quantifier of EROEI or energy return on energy invested.

Oil in the U.S. used to have an EROEI as high as 18 fifty years ago[10]. It only took one barrel of oil to extract eighteen barrels of oil. This was such a fantastic ratio that oil was practically free energy. But the latest data show this fallen to around 9 is still falling[11], a sure sign we are in energy trouble, since the minimum EROEI required for the basic functions of an industrial society is in the 5-9 range[12].

 More critical is the food component of oil that's hardly mentioned except by the inner circle cognoscenti. To be blunt, oil = food given that it provides the primary bulk of fertilizer to support the green revolution  or what's left of it. Take away the oil fertilizers, not to mention the petrol to run farm machinery, and famine follows on a mass, global multi -billions level scale.

In his essay Thoughts on Long-Term Energy Supplies: Scientists and the Silent Lie, physicist Albert Bartlett pinpoints the failure to name human population growth as a major cause of our energy and resource problems[13].  Bartlett avers that scientists display a general reticence to speak out on this issue which stems from the fact that it is politically incorrect to argue for stabilization of population, at least in the U.S.

To put the numbers in more stark relief, Bartlett, in a follow-up extended letter in Physics Today[14], noted that in the 1970s there were about 2.2 liters per person per day of oil. Of this, one could estimate that just over half or nearly 1.3 liters went to food production, processing, preparation or distribution. This was in a world with nearly 2.7 billion fewer people! Today, we are down to a production level of barely 1.6 liters per person per day while the consumption level approaches 4 liters per person per day. After Peak Oil, the latter will continue to increase, while the former will diminish by about 2-3 percent per year.

 It doesn’t take a math genius to ascertain that this is a recipe for catastrophic crash of the human population![15]

Obviously, if the food supply is inadequate, we can expect violence will become commonplace as each person fights for whatever energy resources are available.  The gist of it is that as the oil to support our energy-intense civilization ebbs, it will become harder to obtain water, affordable food as well as other amenities now deemed basic for living a civilized life. Power availability, say merely to stay cool in a scorching greenhouse world, will be scarce. Since power is also needed to preserve foodstuffs, and run furnaces or air conditioning the catastrophe isn’t difficult to decipher.

  When the old energy order finally breaks down, with power grids kaput because of excessive demand during global warming heat spells, and food in too short supply, it will literally be every man for himself. In such a brutish world, it’s difficult to imagine brain neuroplasticity saving the day or spontaneously encouraging any better angels of our nature. The available useful energy will be too low to do such! More than likely, as the final food stores vanish, most of that brain neuroplasticity will be needed to mount defenses against marauding gangs, anarchists, cannibals and assorted other two-legged predators.

One must conclude then that given the cumulative harrowing facts and statistics, Pinker’s concept of diminishing evil being permanent or sustained is more a pipedream than a credible aspect for modern  human affairs. The most generous take for Pinker’s thesis is that he managed to capture a fraction of a cycle of human history within which violence did retreat from earlier epochs. However, he didn’t factor  in the energy parameters far enough into the future to see that ultimately human civilization, predicated on moral order can't be sustained without resources.

Steve Mason (op. cit.) portrays more modern concerns in the realm of inflated worries. He insists he's "not some Pollyanna nitwit bent on banning the death penalty and passing the chicken soup" but he does then appear to dismiss global warming as any real or abiding concern by naming it explicitly  after writing "human beings perceive as threats the silliest things".  Well, hate to break it to him, but global warming is not about some tiny little elevation of one's discomfort zone, it's about real, life threatening upheaval, e.g.

Hence, people's concerns about this threat are not simply misplaced, or inflated, and one can argue such concern drives activism and practical response.

It is thus well to "ease the minds of the masses" as he proclaims his objective to be,  but not to have them blinded to real threats, or dismissing them as idle ones.  Mason also jumps a bit too rapidly into the claim that "famines and plagues are a thing of the past". Not really! They are only in hiatus. When our population exceeds the critical threshold that the narrow margin for resource support  provides, we will again see plagues and massive famines. It is as certain as the Sun rising tomorrow morning.

Mason's take on the "pesticide threat" is also dismissive, despite  the fact there's now good evidence that the death of one third of all honeybee colonies can plausibly be traced to a form of pesticide from a family called neonicotinoids—“neonics” for short—developed a decade or so ago to replace organophosphates and carbamates, which are also highly toxic but dissipate far more quickly. In case anyone forgot, the humble honeybee is responsible for the pollination of nearly half our food crops.

Mason writes: "I suppose the American Cancer Society can supply figures to support significant  increases in cancer deaths" - but he shouldn't expect that given the ACS is part of the problem!  See e.g.

As noted therein, citing research from Breast Cancer Action:

"The Cancer industry consists of corporations, organizations, and agencies that diminish or mask the extent of the cancer problem, fail to protect our health or divert attention away from finding the causes of breast cancer...this includes drug companies that, in addition to profiting from cancer treatment drugs, also produce toxic chemicals that may be contributing to the high rates of cancer in this country and increasing rates throughout the world. It also includes the polluting industries that continue to release substances we know or suspect are dangerous to our health, and the public relations firms and public agencies who protect these polluters.

The Cancer industry includes organizations like the ACS that downplay the risk of cancer from pesticides and other environmental factors and which have historically refused to take a stand on environmental regulation".

Mason does aver:

"I'm not saying that we're out of the woods for good, that a stray comet's not headed our way, but for the time being at least, why not relax and enjoy?" 

Well, because too many parameters for  species survival criticality don't allow it!  Hence, one must resist the temptation to dismiss pessimistic emotions as pathological.  This is a point also reinforced by Barbara Ehrenreich in her book: 'Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America', Her book is worth it just to see the skewering of Stephen Covey's "Who Moved My Cheese?" crap in Chapter 4 and doing pretty much the same with Martin Seligman's "Authentic Happiness" poppycock in Chapter 6.

Seligman tries to make us believe that pessimism can have only adverse effects on one's thinking - but in fact, as Chris Hedges shows ('Empire of Illusion') pessimism can be a useful ally and antidote to the manifestly unreal and BS culture we inhabit - where most citizens' brains have already been colonized by "smiley face" bunkum and PR piffle. (Explaining why too many no longer know their own history.)  This leaves them more likely to be relentlessly exploited by capitalist elites and political predators: purchasing crap goods and services from the first, and buying empty promises from the second.  None of which is consequence free.

In my book, 'Atheism: A Beginner's Handbook' I tried to explain in the last chapter why Americans were almost universally distrustful of atheists (ranking them below Islamic terrorists and homosexuals in terms of respect).  I wrote that:

"Two factors drive this: 1) a brain architecture that favors an optimism dynamic and “hope” even when reality testifies to the contrary, and 2) a pernicious culture of “positivity” that reinforces this brain defect, recently highlighted by Barbara Ehrenreich."

Ehrenreich noted that American mass culture is saturated by a saccharine “cult of positivity,” with children brainwashed from an early age that they can do anything, and adults brainwashed to believe if they just work hard and long enough they’ll become super millionaires like Donald Trump. That no one has slain the insipid “Horatio Alger” myth up to now is really a testament to America’s  individualist hubris and false optimism.
The takeaway from all this is there is a decent literature in support of not fleeing from pessimism, negative thought or even from mild depression at the state of the planet (especially the extent to which we're trashing it). As one respondent to a Science News piece put it: "These emotions can be just another source of information".   (Science News, Dece. 14, 2013, p. 30).

Thus, I SHOULD  rationally evince pessimism if I learn about the CIA and its insidious tortures and what it has done to the reputation of our country  - even rendering us hypocritical when we squawk to  North Korea or China about human rights. If we don't practice them uniformly ourselves how do we have a moral leg to stand on? We don't. And that IS depressing!
Those who shut such emotions out are consciously limiting key sources of information and internal response - and perhaps putting themselves in the same place of too many hopeful Jews just after Hitler came to power in Germany. As one Holocaust survivor put it in one of the presentations in The Holocaust Testaments: "It was the pessimists who left the country early. It was the optimists who stayed and got sent to the camps."

[1] Lea,,op. cit. 33.
[2] MONEY magazine (December, 2011) 'Making A Bet on Scarcity',   70.
[3] Tertzakian, A Thousand Barrels A Second, 246-47.
[4] Pickens,: The Financial Times. May 21, 2010,  A1.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Op. cit.  A12.
[7] The World Almanac and Book of Facts: 2013, 142.
[8] See the site: which has a wealth of information, statistics for Peak Oil indiciators.
[9] Heinberg: The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies.
[10] Inman: Scientific American, (308), 59.
[11] Op. cit., 60.(chart)
[12] Op. cit., 61.(inset information)
[13] Bartlett: Physics Today,: 2004 (July) , 53.
[14] Bartlett: Physics Today.  2004  (November), ,18.
[15] At the heart of these considerations is the net energy eqn. (cf. Physics Today, Weisz, July 2004, p. 51):  Q (net) = Q (PR) – [Q (op) + E/T].  In effect, for break-even oil one would find Q(net) = 0  Thus, there is no net gain in energy given the quantity that must be used to obtain it. For the last 700 billion barrels, of hard to obtain oil (which we are fast approaching): Q(net) = negative quantity = -Q.  Since the rate of energy production (Q (PR) must be debited by the energy consumed for its operation Q(op), and the energy E invested during its “lifetime” T.  Thus its Q(PR) will be small in relation to the bracketed quantity. Thus, the problem in a nutshell is not “running out of oil’ but running out of cheap, accessible oil.  Bottom line, we need not run out of the stuff before the world economy runs into problems of untold, unspeakable proportions!

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