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Olduvai III: Catacylsm
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Panicking about societal collapse? Plunder the bookshelves

Panicking about societal collapse? Plunder the bookshelves

As civilization seems to be lurching towards a cliff edge, historical case studies are giving way to big data in authors’ search for understanding.
Four Moais, the typical large monolithic human figures statues, on Easter Island

Monuments to resilience or collapse? The 800-year-old statues of Easter Island.Credit: Andia/Universal Images Group via Getty

In case you missed it, the end is nigh. Ever since Jared Diamond published his hugely popular 2005 work Collapse, books on the same theme have been arriving with the frequency of palace coups in the late Roman Empire. Clearly, their authors are responding to a universal preoccupation with climate change, as well as to growing financial and political instability and a sense that civilization is lurching towards a cliff edge. Mention is also made of how big-data tools are shedding new light on historical questions. But do these books have anything useful to share? Any actionable points besides that on my coffee mug: “Now panic and freak out”?

The newest is Before the Collapse. In it, energy specialist Ugo Bardi urges us not to resist collapse, which is how the Universe tries “to get rid of the old to make space for the new”. Similarly, Diamond’s 2019 book Upheaval suggested that a collapse is an opportunity for self-appraisal, after which a society can use its ingenuity to find solutions. Both writers seem to accept that collapse is inevitable, but they take very different approaches to analysing it. Diamond zooms in to glean lessons from historical case studies; Bardi zooms out to view societies as complex dynamic systems that behave cyclically. Numerous books published in the past few decades chart how research has shifted from Diamond’s approach to Bardi’s.


Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed Jared Diamond Viking (2005)

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Doom or denial: Is there another path?

Doom or denial: Is there another path?

I was recently asked to comment on a dustup between some members of Extinction Rebellion (see Thomas Nicholas, Galen Hall, and Colleen Schmidt, “The Faulty Science, Doomism, and Flawed Conclusions of Deep Adaptation”) and Jem Bendell, founder of Deep Adaptation (see his “Letter to Deep Adaptation Advocate Volunteers about Misrepresentations of the Agenda and Movement”). Since the issues raised in this controversy seem relevant to readers of Resilience.org, I thought it might be worthwhile to accept the invitation and weigh in.

For those not familiar, Jem Bendell’s Deep Adaptation (DA) takes as its starting point the judgment that, because of unfolding human-induced climate impacts, the near-term utter collapse of society is nearly inevitable. Extinction Rebellion (XR) is an activist movement that uses civil disobedience to compel government action to avoid climate tipping points that would lock in trends leading ultimately to ecological and social collapse. In simplistic terms, you could say that Deep Adaptation is about accepting and coping with the reality of climate-driven collapse while Extinction Rebellion is about acting to prevent it.

The nub of the controversy is this: some folks involved in Extinction Rebellion think that Bendell is being too fatalistic, thereby discouraging his followers from taking actions that might still save civilization and global ecosystems. Bendell, in his response, accuses his critics of ignoring evidence and misrepresenting his views.

I don’t propose to plunge into the weeds, adjudicating each point raised in each essay. Instead, I prefer to step back and offer my own interpretation of the evidence, and then discuss the subtext of the dispute.

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Rethinking the Fed’s 2% Inflation Target: Spotlight On an Absurd Debate

Is the Fed’s 2% inflation target too high or too low? That’s the big debate now amongst central bankers.

The Wall Street Journal reports Policy Makers Rethink a 2% Inflation Target.

From Ottawa to Oslo, policy makers have been considering whether that level of consumer-price growth, a Holy Grail for the world’s major central banks over the past quarter-century, is still relevant.

The 2% target was always an arbitrary figure, some economists argue, and even if it was optimal two decades ago, that is no longer the case given deep changes that have since reshaped the global economy.

Trouble is, it isn’t clear what inflation rate would be better. Dozens of academic studies that considered that question have produced answers ranging from 6% to less than zero, according to a survey published last year by Federal Reserve economist Anthony M. Diercks.

“Whatever [inflation] rate was thought to be optimal in 2006 or before is now too low,” says Olivier Blanchard, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, D.C., who has called for a 4% target.

Factors such as aging populations, low economic growth and higher savings rates are working to push down the neutral interest rate, at which the economy is growing at a sustainable rate for the long run and inflation is stable. As a result, central banks run a greater risk of taking benchmark interest rates to zero or below when seeking to support growth.


Logic would dictate that if demographics work to hold the inflation target lower, then the target ought to be lower not higher.

Lesson from Japan, ECB

Japan provides ample evidence of what happens to savers when the central bank holds down rates hoping for higher inflation. All Japan did was accumulate debt. Inflation went nowhere.

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Lunatic Politics (Part 2) – It’s Becoming Impossible to Have a Conversation

Lunatic Politics (Part 2) – It’s Becoming Impossible to Have a Conversation

More and more people are becoming aware of and concerned about the level of political dialogue going on right now. We’ve gotten to a point where I’m seeing almost no intelligent debate about any serious issue. Russiagate now consumes such a massive amount of our collective energy, it feels we’ve become nearly incapable of discussing anything else. Even worse, Russiagate has morphed into a creepy D.C. establishment religion where merely demanding evidence for the wild claims being made gets you labeled a traitor or Putin agent. Ironically, average Americans don’t care about the issue.

When Gallup recently asked Americans what the most important (non-economic) problem facing the country today is, the amount of people saying Russia was so low they couldn’t even attribute a number to it.

Think about that. We’re being divided into two camps of increasingly insane and angry people because of hysteria surrounding an issue nobody even cares about. As usual, we can thank mass media for turning this topic into its singular obsession as well as promoting an environment of cultural insanity and stupidity.

As a result, people aren’t having intelligent conversations with one another. They’re just yelling at each other. The dialogue feels more like a political hunger games where people see everything as a linguistic competition of kill or be killed. Language itself has become debased as individuals try to one up each other with name calling and hyperbole. Demonizing and dehumanizing the other side appears to be the primary goal, which will only lead to a very bad place if we don’t take a collective deep breath.

A Rhetorical Education

A Rhetorical Education

Quite a bit of the discussion on this blog and its predecessors has focused on controversial issues, the kind of thing that causes rhetoric to fly fast and thick.  Given the themes I like to discuss in these essays, that could hardly have been avoided.  Ours is an age riven by disputes, in which debate has taken over much of the space occupied by physical violence in less restrained eras. (How many people died in the struggle that put Donald Trump instead of Hillary Clinton in the White House?  During most of human history, that wouldn’t have been an ironic question.)

Yet this contentious age has an odd feature, and it’s one I’ve referenced more than once in recent posts on this blog:  the fact that the vast majority of the rhetoric deployed in the disputes of our day is so stunningly incompetent.

Consider the way that any widely discussed issue these days is debated: say, the squabble over legislation now before Congress that would make web hosting firms and content providers liable for illegal content posted by third parties. The supporters of the bills in question insist that it’s all about stopping online sex trafficking, and anyone who opposes the bills as written must be in favor of sex crimes. The opponents of the bills, for their part, insist that they’re just an excuse for censorship, and anyone who supports them must be trying to destroy the internet.

Set aside for the moment the substantive issues involved—they’re real and important, but not relevant to the theme of this week’s post—and look at the rhetoric. Both sides have chosen the strategy of flinging over-the-top accusations at those who disagree with them. That strategy’s familiar enough these days that nobody seems to have thought to ask the obvious question: does it work?

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Islands Not sinking: Climate Change Demonstrated to Be a Hoax

Islands Not sinking: Climate Change Demonstrated to Be a Hoax

Have you ever wondered how it is possible that coral islands lie flat just a little above the sea level? It is not a coincidence, the coral reef that forms the islands is alive and it can adapt to variations of the sea level. According to some people, that demonstrates that climate change is a hoax (??).

Do you remember when there was a “debate” about climate change? Yes, there was such a thing. Someone would set up a panel where there would be a scientist arguing for the current interpretation of anthropogenic global warming and someone who at least pretended to be a scientist who would argue for the opposite interpretation. It was supposed to be a civil debate, all based on science.

I don’t have to tell you that such debates have disappeared, you don’t see them anymore just as you don’t see quiet and civilized debates between Trump supporters and members of the Antifa movement. In recent times, the closest thing to a public debate on climate was the proposal by Scott Pruitt, EPA’s chief, of a “Red Team” and a “Blue Team” of scientists who should discuss climate matters. The fact that Pruitt chose terms commonly used in military exercises says a lot about what kind of “debate” this was supposed to be. Perhaps it is a good thing that the idea seems to have died out.

Today, we have no debate anymore. We only have two sides shooting slogans against each other. Each side is ready to exploit every perceived weakness in the other to discharge a volley of posts and tweets aimed at gaining a few political points. A snowstorm demonstrates that AGW doesn’t exist while a hurricane that we are all going to die soon. The latest example of this attitude is the news arriving from the Tuvalu Islands.
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Noam Chomsky and The War on Straight Answers

Noam Chomsky and The War on Straight Answers

In the wake of Donald Trump’s shocking pledge: “You will find out who really knocked down the World Trade Center,” many Americans may find themselves staring into the abyss. The implication has reached the mainstream, that we do not exactly know who was behind the September 11th attacks, which are trotted out to justify every policy enacted ever since.

“Because they have papers in there that are very secret,” continued Trump, “you may find it’s the Saudis, okay? But you will find out.”

It was genuinely a surprise that Trump would commit to uncovering the truth of the September 11thattacks, while the de facto leader of the American left, Professor Noam Chomsky of MIT, had long ago and repeatedly dismissed the 9/11 attacks as holding no importance whatsoever.

“Who cares?” was Noam Chomsky’s now infamous 2007 quote.

“I mean even if it [a September 11th government conspiracy] were true, which is extremely unlikely, who cares? I mean it doesn’t have any significance.”

In an email to Professor Chomsky I demanded he answer one very direct, albeit surprisingly controversial question. His non-response speaks volumes. My public debate challenge stands unanswered.

That vital question I posed to Chomsky, a cornerstone question for our age, concerns reality as we know it today (or as many do not). It is a “yes” or “no” proposition, and so without the opportunity for any fanciful verbal contortions.

Is there a US government cover-up of the facts of the September 11th attacks?
YES or NO?

You may want to ask Professor Chomsky this question yourself (chomsky@mit.edu). Don’t expect a response, although he may double down on “who cares?”

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The Deceptive Debate Over What Causes Terrorism Against the West

Ever since members of the UK Labour Party in September elected Jeremy Corbyn as party leader by a landslide, British political and media elites have acted as though their stately manors have been invaded by hordes of gauche, marauding serfs. They have waged a relentless and undisguised war to undermine Corbyn in every way possible, and that includes – first and foremost – the Blairite wing of his party, who have viciously maligned him in ways they would never dare do for David Cameron and his Tory followers.

In one sense, that’s all conventional politics: establishment guardians never appreciate having their position and entitlements threatened by insurgents, and they are thus uniting – Tory and Labour mavens alike – to banish the lowly intruders from their Oxbridge court (class and caste loyalty often outweighs supposed ideological differences). Corbyn’s reaction to all of this is also conventional politics: he quite reasonably wants to replace his Blairite shadow ministers who have been vilifying him as a Terrorist-loving extremist with those who are supportive of his agenda, a perfectly rational response which the British media is treating as proof that he’s a cultish Stalinist tyrant (even though Blairites, when they controlled the party, threatened to de-select left-wing MPs who failed to prove sufficient loyalty to Prime Minister Blair). In response to the dismissal of a couple of anti-Corbyn ministers yesterday, several others Labour MPs have announced their protest-resignations with the gestures of melodrama and martyrdom at which banal British politicians excel.

Rather than wallow in all that internal power jockeying of a former world power, I want to focus instead on one specific argument that has arisen as part of Corbyn’s cabinet “re-shuffling” because it has application far beyond Her Majesty’s realm. One of the shadow ministers replaced yesterday by Corbyn is a total mediocrity and non-entity named Pat McFadden.

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Psychologist’s Work for GCHQ Deception Unit Inflames Debate Among Peers

Psychologist’s Work for GCHQ Deception Unit Inflames Debate Among Peers

A British psychologist is receiving sharp criticism from some professional peers for providing expert advice to help the U.K. surveillance agency GCHQ manipulate people online.

The debate brings into focus the question of how or whether psychologists should offer their expertise to spy agencies engaged in deception and propaganda.

Dr. Mandeep K. Dhami, in a 2011 paper, provided the controversial GCHQ spy unit JTRIG with advice, research pointers, training recommendations, and thoughts on psychological issues, with the goal of improving the unit’s performance and effectiveness. JTRIG’s operations have been referred to as “dirty tricks,” and Dhami’s paper notes that the unit’s own staff characterize their work using “terms such as ‘discredit,’ promote ‘distrust,’ ‘dissuade,’ ‘deceive,’ ‘disrupt,’ ‘delay,’ ‘deny,’ ‘denigrate/degrade,’ and ‘deter.’” The unit’s targets go beyond terrorists and foreign militaries and include groups considered “domestic extremist[s],” criminals, online “hacktivists,” and even “entire countries.”

After publishing Dhami’s paper for the first time in June, The Intercept reached out to several of her fellow psychologists, including some whose work was referenced in the paper, about the document’s ethical implications.

One of the psychologists cited in the report criticized the paper and GCHQ’s ethics. Another psychologist condemned Dhami’s recommendations as “grossly unethical” and another called them an “egregious violation” of psychological ethics. But two other psychologists cited in the report did not express concern when contacted for reaction, and another psychologist, along with Dhami’s current employer, defended her work and her ethical standards.

A British law firm hired to represent Dhami maintained that any allegations of unethical conduct are “grossly defamatory and totally untrue.”

The divergent views on the paper highlight how the profession of psychology has yet to resolve key ethical concerns around consulting for government intelligence agencies. These issues take on added resonance in the context of the uproar currently roiling the American Psychological Association over the key role it played in the CIA torture program during the Bush administration. 


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How to Properly Debate a Non Prepper

How to Properly Debate a Non Prepper

Let me start by saying that I almost never do this. I hate giving people a hard time for their opinions, even if they’re wildly divergent from my own. But sometimes, people say things that are so baseless and ignorant, they demand a response.

Such is the case with a piece published yesterday at piquenewsmagazine.com, by Leslie Anthony. His article “Be prepared for Preppers” may be one of the most outrageous attempts to smear the prepper community, that I’ve ever seen.

Normally this wouldn’t warrant a response from any of us. We’re all thick skinned people who’ve faced our fair share criticism for our lifestyle, but in the course of painting us all as dumb, paranoid losers, he actually managed to present himself as a prime example of why we prep for disasters. Dissecting his article also presents an opportunity to dispel a few myths about preppers, so let’s dive right in.

After starting his article with the Oxford definition of a prepper, which is “a person who believes a catastrophic disaster or emergency is likely to occur in the future and makes active preparations for it, typically by stockpiling food, ammunition, and other supplies.” He immediately associates this definition with being a part of a lunatic fringe.

Thus, “prepper” doesn’t apply to those who carry an extra house key, a first-aid kit and roadside flares to accompany their spare tire, or who might be hoarding enough popcorn and juice boxes to get through a blackout. Instead, the term more rightly fingers conspiracy theorists and anti-government nut-jobs who are strangely looking forward to a biblical End of Days to descend they can break out their toys and supplies to fight the resulting looting-spree / civil-war / zombie-apocalypse.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
In progress...

Olduvai II: Exodus
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