Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Other White Meat

Most pork is contaminated, often with antibiotic-resistant bacteria:
A Consumer Reports analysis of pork purchased in American supermarkets and other shops reveals that many samples contained surprisingly high amounts of a bacterium that causes food poisoning. Compounding the concern is that many of the samples of the bacterium, Yersinia enterocolitica, proved to be antibiotic-resistant.

The magazine analyzed 148 samples of pork chops and 50 samples of ground pork for contamination, the meat was selected from a variety of stores in six American cities -- the stores from where the samples were purchased were not named.

Y. enterocolitica was found in 69 percent of the samples. Salmonella, staphylococcus aureus, or listeria monocytogenes, which are all more-common causes of foodborne illness, were found in 3 to 7 percent of samples. And 11 percent of the samples had enterococcus, which suggest fecal contamination and may cause illnesses such as urinary-tract infections.

The magazine notes their concern that the majority of the samples it analyzed were resistant to at least one of the medically prescribed antibiotics they used for testing in the lab. Many factory-farm raised animals are commonly fed antibiotics to keep them 'healthy' -- the practice is widely criticized because of the horror-movie potential for resistant strains of bacteria to dominate, and sure enough ... according to the report:

    Some of the bacteria we found in 198 samples proved to be resistant to antibiotics commonly used to treat people. The frequent use of low-dose antibiotics in pork farming may be accelerating the growth of drug-resistant “superbugs” that threaten human health.

Also of note, about 20 percent of the 240 pork products analyzed also tested positive for the growth-hormone drug ractopamine. Originally developed as an asthma medication for humans, it was never approved for that use, but was later employed to increase pigs’ growth and lean muscle mass. (God forbid Eli Lilly should let a drug go to waste.) It’s a controversial drug, and is banned in the European Union, China, and Taiwan -- Consumer Reports' food-safety experts posit that no drugs should be used in healthy animals to promote growth.
Most Pork is Contaminated, New Study Shows (Treehugger)

Looking for antibiotic-resistant bacteria? Try raw pork (Grist)

Don't worry, the government is on it - forcing small farmers to slaughter their free range pigs:

In a undoubtedly positive step, two Australian supermarket chains, accounting for 80% of all supermarket sales in the nation, are phasing out selling pork and eggs sourced from factory farms.

Common Dreams reports that Coles will stop using factory farmed pork and eggs in its house branded products as of January 1. Meanwhile, Woolworths has already begun its phase out, with all of its eggs coming from cage-free chickens and all of its pork products coming from farms not confining pigs in stalls from the middle of 2013.
 Largest Supermarket Chains in Australia Saying No to Factory Farmed Animal Products (Treehugger)

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Neurochemistry of Americans

Reading this article about the neurochemistry of why men cheat, I was struck by this paragraph:
The neurochemical dopamine is motivational. It drives us to act to appease a desire, such as for food or sex, and when we do, we get a reward, typically a burst of endogenous opioids. With experience, we learn just how pleasurable it can be to tickle this reward system.

...Which system shouts the loudest may depend partly on our genes. But one person’s genome is not exactly like another’s. We have variation. As we explain in our book, The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex, and the Science of Attraction, that variation can make a lot of difference. When a European team studied monogamous birds called great tits, they found that 13 percent of chicks resulted from extra-pair mating. The birds, both male and female, most likely to fly off to find a paramour tended have “bold” personalities. This gregarious, novelty-seeking personality has been linked to a variation in a gene that holds the recipe for a dopamine receptor called D4, or DRD4 in humans.

A version of that gene known as 7R+ has been implicated in drug addiction, impulsive behavior, risk taking, and gambling. But it’s also been found to be prevalent in people who are migrants, innovators, the ambitious—people who have key traits for success. (There has been no study so far of its prevalence in four-star generals or political leaders.) In one sample of 181 young adults, those who had at least one copy of 7R+ had 50 percent more instances of sexual infidelity than noncarriers.
Did you catch that part about migrant populations? This is the key insight in Peter Whybrow’s American Mania – Americans are dopamine addicts. Why is our wealthy class so greedy and rapacious? Why do they strive for more, at the expense of everyone else, even when they have more than they can spend in a hundred lifetimes, even as it undermines the very society that made them rich in the first place? For the dopamine addict, life is a constant chase for that next hit. And America, composed of migrants attracted to that “reward,” is disproportionately endowed with such people, more than perhaps anywhere else on earth.

Why is addiction is so prevalent in America – food, drugs, alcohol, sex, money, etc? Why do we behave like crazy people?  Why are we obsessed with novelty, and why are we constantly looking to acquire more and more than we can possibly use? Why is there so much infidelity and fornication in a supposedly “Christian” nation? Why are we constantly trying to “keep up with the Joneses?” Why do we trample over people at WaMart in a race to buy the latest electronic toy or bit of plastic? Why do we take out loans for houses that we know we cannot afford? Why do we believe that “whoever dies with the most toys wins?” Why do we “work hard and play hard?”

Notice that the key characteristics of “entrepreneurs” whom Americans idolize as superhuman heroes, are also the key components of a dopamine addict. Notice that the traits of the dopamine addict are identified with “success” in the above paragraph. The “successful” person is not the smartest or most talented, or has the best judgment or ideas. They are merely those with the highest dopamine levels. In fact, it seems to be the only requirement to the upper echelons, not intelligence, creativity, talent, wisdom, good judgment, discernment, prudence, thoughtfulness, intention, etc. Their only “skill” is climbing the ladder and stepping on everyone else. The entire financial industry is a magnet for dopamine addicts. In fact, it seems specifically made for them. And we put this system at the very heart of our society!

“Bold” gregarious and novelty seeking” as the above paragraphs describe the dopamine addict, seem to be the central characteristics of every business “leader” I’ve ever had the misfortune to meet. Unfortunately, such leaders also tend to be invariably awful. Self-centered, greedy, narcissistic, and megalomaniacal, they crave constant attention and praise, and surround themselves with carbon copies of themselves putting them in a “bubble” of sycophants and cronies who parrot the leader’s words back at him in a circle-jerk of groupthink. And once these people are on top, they are able to pull the levers from our centrally planned systems to meet their own ends, which is invariably to get more, more, more of everything, consequences be damned. Is it any wonder we’re in crisis with “leaders” like this? I’ve also read that dopamine addicts also have little empathy for others, which also explains the pathological behavior of the American rich class (see Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” comments). And they promote people just like them, which is why management has become more like a cult than anything else.

Notice also how incompatible this is with the Calvinist heritage of early America that still permeates So we have a population that culturally has been taught to follow the austere self-control and abstemiousness of Calvinism, but whose brains are hard-wired by nature to ceaselessly chase sex, food, alcohol, money, etc. Is it any wonder this country is insane? Is it any wonder that Christian cults churches mine these contradictions as a means of control, dispensing a constant stream of “forgiveness” for the “sinner? (setting up a recurring treadmill of “sin”, “guilt” and “forgiveness”).

The other characteristic of Americans is that the fear center is suppressed. The fear brain is associated with extra “circuits” leading to the amygdala. By contrast, the optimist’s brain has extra circuitry leading to the “reward” center of the brain. In her book Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain neuroscientist Elaine Fox describes now people with the “sunny” brain are incapable of seeing threats or dangers. They are literally hard wired not to see bad news, or even the possibility of anything “negative” ever happening to them. Certainly this would characterize people making the difficult journey to a foreign land to seek work.

This can also explain why there is no social safety net in America. Bad things can’t happen, and when they do, it’s always to “other” people. So why should I pay for that? Nothing bad will happen to me, says someone with their natural “fear” circuits turned off, like most Americans. "I'll always be able to find another job, not like those unemployed 'losers.'" "I'll be able to find a good-paying job to pay back my student loans". "I wont get a disease that bankrupts me," etc. etc. Remember, the central trait of Americans is “optimism.”

But one thing I found most interesting in Fox’s book is the description of someone who had their amygdala removed to prevent seizures. She had no fear center at all. She was able to function normally, but the central characteristic her husband identified was that she was blindly trusting of anyone. If someone told her that they needed her wallet or ATM number and card, she would gladly give it to them. There was no “protection” against being taken advantage of.

Without the amygdala, we would be at the mercy of people trying to take advantage of us. This reminds me of two other “American” traits – an outgoing personality, free from social fear, and a preponderance of “suckers.” The fact that so many Americans seemed to by such gullible rubes has been noted by many observers including P.T. Barnum and H.L. Mencken. Presumably, these two had functioning amygdalas. But for Americans as a whole, while their amygdalas are not totally removed as in the woman’s case, they seem to behave in a manner very similar to her. Blindly trusting, and with no “bullshit” filter, is it any wonder why our political class seems comprised of grifters and charlatans who just keep getting reelected over and over again? It’s entirely consistent with American “optimism.” According to the neuroscience. Other societies, for example Nordic ones, probably have people with healthy functioning amygdalas alerting to them to the realistic dangers we all must potentially face (probably necessary for survival in a harsh environment).  Thus they take necessary precautions, have a healthier society, acknowledge threats and deal with them ahead of time, and take care of their own, because they know that time and chance happen to us all, something the optimist is incapable of understanding. Our society is comprised of people who self-selected based on an amygdala that is non-functional. It also might explain why European countries, freed from such people due to the great migration from 1830-1914, were able to construct their modern societies. The Pollyanna rubes all went to America to pursue their dreams.

It also explains why no matter how many threats are piling up, Americans blindly trust that nothing bad will happen and everything will work itself out somehow. They refuse to acknowledge global warming, the massive gap between rich and poor, escalating debts, shrinking jobs, peak oil, resource depletion, and on and on. They just deny it’s happening because they are hard-wired not to because their “rainy brain” is nonfunctional and their “sunny brain” puts them in a constant state of blissful denial. It also puts them at the mercy of the dopamine-addled shuysters who are robbing them blind right under their noses. Unfortunately, the dopamine addicts at the head of every social institution due to their “bold” personalities, are even more oblivious to threats thanks to their hyped up reward centers. It is any wonder a “cult of positivity” and creating reality by wishing has attained cult-like status among America’s leadership class at all levels as detailed in Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Brightsided. The system is designed to promote “leaders” who by their very nature are blind to the threats we face.

I suspect that the third characteristic of Americans, their bellicose religiosity, also has a genetic basis as well. I suspect these genes also drive an “us versus them” tribalist mentality, a suspicion of outsiders, authoritarianism, and a belief in the status quo, however warped - all traits mined by politicians.

With this “cocktail” caused by immigrant self-selection, we see that America takes on the characteristics of its people form the bottom up, not from the top-down. A hyperactive dopamine center, a suppressed fear center, and an authoritarian/religious impulse are a dangerous cocktail when there is no counterbalance. It is a recipe for a disaster.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Postcards From The Future

Some photo stuff. The massive infrastructure that keeps goods on the shelves and lights on is almost invisible to us, so that gave photographer Shuli Hallak an idea for a theme:

“The overarching theme in my work is to look at the invisible networks of systems we all depend on but of which we know so little,” Hallak explained. “I started to think about other hidden infrastructures that run our lives, and energy is a huge one—and complicated, too.”

“I am drawn to the beauty of these places. On the surface, these networks are mesmerizing because they show an intricate system of highly choreographed parts that we constructed,” said Hallak. But she’s also finely attuned to the reality of what she sees. “Witnessing the sheer magnitude of destruction, the explosion of mountains and drilling 17,000 feet into the earth, deeper than we’ve ever dared before, for the extraction of fossil fuels to keep our energy addiction well-oiled, was impressive. We have figured out unfathomable solutions to feed our bottomless hunger.”

And it works. When you see these photographs, you realize how dependent we are on this massive infrastructure, and how fragile it all is. All to often we feel that civilization is conjured up by magic, and we don't realize what it takes to achieve what we take for granted.

Shuli Hallak: Photographs of energy use including coal, oil, and solar power (PHOTOS) (Slate)

And since we're on the subject, here are some photographs of Hashima Island, a.k.a. Gunkanjima, an abandoned island off Japan recently featured in the movie Skyfall and in the Life After People specials.

Gunkanjima: Ruins of a Forbidden Island

Makes you realize how transient everything is and how quickly things fall apart, even seemingly permanent things. Civilization requires constant maintenance and upkeep. Most of the buildings that humanity has ever constructed are long gone. And the paragon of abandoned cities - photographs from Chernobyl:

UPDATE: Chinese Architecture, Old and New (photos) (The Atlantic)

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Are People Getting Dumber And Less Violent?

So there was recently a story about a professor who claimed that humans were becoming steadily less intelligent since the dawn of agriculture. Here was the first article I saw in it. here’s the Guardian article that was on Naked Capitalism and Ran’s page. Even The Onion has it covered. The money quote:
I would wager that if an average citizen from Athens of 1000 BC were to appear suddenly among us, he or she would be among the brightest and most intellectually alive of our colleagues and companions, with a good memory, a broad range of ideas, and a clear-sighted view of important issues. Furthermore, I would guess that he or she would be among the most emotionally stable of our friends and colleagues. I would also make this wager for the ancient inhabitants of Africa, Asia, India, or the Americas, of perhaps 2000–6000 years ago.
And I love this:
In the past, a hunter-gatherer who wasn't capable of devising a plan to fight off saber-toothed tigers probably died, whereas in modern times, a Wall Street executive who makes a similar mistake is instead rewarded with a substantial bonus and becomes more attractive to a potential mate.
What can I say? My gut says he’s right but I can’t prove it. Just look at any newspaper or textbook from the eighteenth or nineteenth century. Look at the works of the Renaissance. And I always contemplate that the plays of Shakespeare, whose lyrical command of the English language has never been surpassed, were the common man’s “popcorn" entertainment of the time! Today we get Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo and Hoarders.

From my understanding, this professor was not contending that this was actually true, he was merely hypothesizing it, and actually hoped it wasn’t true. He merely called for further investigation. His point was that without a weeding effect, certain natural mutations would put downward pressure on intelligence. He seems to have been advocating more research to determine the validity of the concept, maybe via computer modelling by geneticists, not time travel to ancient Greece. It makes sense though - with our heroic medical technology allowing much less healthy people to breed, the weeding effect has been curtailed and we’ve become much, much less physically robust on average since the dawn of agriculture, and particularly so since the dawn of industrialism.

Whenever we reached our zenith of intelligence, I suspect we’ve been cruising on momentum ever since. As James Burke’s series Connections documents so well, inventions are built on one observation after another, along with necessity and circumstance, which is why it’s foolish to talk of inventions happening “before" their time. And when it is their time, they will be invented like it or not - Thomas Edison often had to get to the patent office ahead of other inventors who were working on the same things. That's why seem so advanced today - we're standing on the shoulders of giants with the benefits of all that past discovery. Once we had our fully “modern” brains, forged in the template of the Ice Age (and possibly the Toba eruption), we were probably inexorably set on this path. Thus, we’ve always contained the seeds of our own devolution.

One other note: humans have become domesticated, and domesticated animals are always dumber than than their wild counterparts. Also, society has changed us from predators to herd animals. Predators have to be smart to get their meal, herd animals do not. Civilization acts as our “herd."

So how do we explain the super geniuses we hear about so often who graduate from college at a age seven and compose symphonies in diapers? I suspect it has something to do with associative mating. In the past, your mating options were severely constrained by culture, geography (distance), and tradition. Now we’ve created institutions where a genius chemist can meet and marry another genius chemist, a brilliant musician can meet another brilliant musician, and a gifted athlete can marry another gifted athlete. Thus, I suspect we’re pushing toward extremes even as the average goes down. How many people a century ago past had parents who were both basketball players, or both college professors? This article contends that this plays a role behind increasing autism rates, and I think it’s onto something (I would also point out the increased age of parents):

Childhood Autism and Associative Mating (Marginal Revolution). Cowen comments: If you are in some way genetically “extreme,” and suddenly better at finding/pairing with similar extremists, the numbers of that type in a population can rise relatively rapidly.

And about the so-called Flynn effect? I tend to be partial to the idea that it measures one specific type of intelligence - test taking intelligence: following orders, filling in the right blanks, and thinking in generalized and systemized abstractions. This is the type of intelligence highly favored by society, and has been for a long time in developed civilizations, meaning that those who have it will reproduce more. In reality, just like with dogs, we’re breeding for certain skills. I suspect this does not save us from the trend noted above, which is why our technical achievements seem to accelerate even as our art, politics, and social cohesion decline. But this is all idle speculation, of course.

Another reason for the rising I.Q. scores may be that we’re all becoming more autistic. I forget where I first heard the observation, but our society bears all the characteristics of an autistic individual - a tunnel-vision obsession with machines, technology, quantification, statistics, facts, systemization, etc. to the exclusion of all else, along with a difficulty understanding or relating to feelings, emotional needs and desires, social bonds, emotional satisfaction, love, affection, etc. Such things are not understood by the autistic individual, who cannot comprehend them, so they are completely dismissed, just like they are in economics. In addition, a savant is obsessively focused on the minutia of work to the exclusion of all else, often forgoing even physical needs like eating, sleeping and sex. Sound familiar? These are same things that an I.Q. test is measuring. Our entire society has taken on the very characteristics of an autistic person. But why?

Incidentally, the “Idiocracy Theory” has a formal name: dysgenics (not devolution as is often incorrectly stated).

And since we’re on the topic of change over time, in addition to getting dumber, we seem to be getting a lot less violent according to Steven Pinker. Are they related. This blog post covers some criticism of Pinker, notably from Black Swan author Nassim Nicholas Taleb:

Why war might really be over (and why it might not) (Noahpinion)

Pinker’s book has generated a lot of heated discussion. One obvious observation is that the concept of a prison system only emerged in England in the late eighteenth century with the idea of the Panopticon and the Utilitarian ideas of Bentham. In the ancient world there were no prison buildings; for example, you can scour ancient cities in vain looking for a “jail” as we know it. Yes there were some holding cells, but these were mainly temporary, and medieval castles had their dungeons (and dragons), of course. There was no reason to hold anyone for any length of time; either they would be released or (more likely) executed.

Now it’s a massive sprawling industry containing a significant chunk of a nation's population at any one time, and every country has one. The prison system is as universal as democracy, capitalism and the nation state. Thus we’ve merely concentrated society’s violence into geographically isolated clusters, where once it was dispersed evenly throughout society. Essentially, we’ve concentrated violence (and poverty too), not reduced it. I heard a podcast recently where a prisoner was talking about the various gangs and cliques inside poison, and how you had to join one to survive. These groups used constant violence and the threat of it to secure their territory and physical safety. I thought to myself, this was how the whole world was in the past, not just prison. The whole world worked, in essence, on the prison dynamic. Now just prisons do as remnants of an earlier time (Chimpanzee tribes are similar, too).

I also suspect decreasing testosterone levels play a role here too. Levels have been declining for a while, and no one knows why. Many suspect environmental factors like BPA in milk bottles and xenoestrogens in plastics and foods like soy. I think there’s some genetic pressure towards lower levels here too. In the past you needed to be strong and aggressive; it was beneficial, and you got more mating opportunities. Now the “provider dad” wearing a sweater vest and tie is far more successful given our current situation; in a world where you have to sit still and passively absorb information as a child, and sit in a cubicle and follow orders as an adult, high testosterone is probably a liability more than an asset. Because you’re less valuable, you reproduce less. Again “domestication” takes its toll.

As for wars being less common, well, that’s a trickier one. I suspect the nation-state with its well-defined borders plays a role here. Too bad it’s being undermined and is falling apart. Now warfare is conducted by economic means rather than physical combat. In the past you had to seize land to seize command of more resources. Now it’s so much easier to use debt repayments and international tribute trade to do the same, without all that messy bloodshed, and violence is only required if someone refuses to play ball (and it’s still much easier to topple governments in that case, see Guatemala, Iran, Chile, Venezuela, et. al.). The Pax Americana has meant the U.S. has had to foot the bill to maintain the military threat of violence that underwrites the Western capitalism system. But how long will that continue?

ADDENDUM: For some dissenting views, see these from The Guardian:

Why it's unlikely we are more stupid than our hunter-gatherer ancestors

Fragile intellect or fragile arguments?

Friday, November 23, 2012

Wood: Savior Or Villain?

I asked Green to speak about this in a little more detail in a brief, noisy interview. He notes that architects are stuck in a glass and steel mindset, and that man-made materials are nowhere near as good as what Mother Nature has made. He wonders why sticking solar panels on the roof of a concrete or steel building is considered green when the actual building is made of materials that are not. Green says that the culture of concrete peaked with Le Corbusier in 1929 and steel with Mies Van Der Rohe in 1950; now is the time for wood.

    The Earth grows our food; The earth can grow our homes. It's an ethical change that we have to go through.

He is right; there are millions of hectares of wood in North America dying right now from the onslaught of the Mountain Pine Beetle; it is almost unethical to use anything else. But innovation in architecture is incredibly slow; the building codes are not performance based, so change takes years, and we have to "change society's perception of what is possible."

Michael Green's work certainly is a testament to wood; this atrium in the North Vancouver City Hall is a clever use of large panels of laminated strand lumber that is normally cut up for lintels and beams. Green tells Wood Solutions:

    Engineered structural timber materials with many applications have emerged from the realisation that we can chop wood up and glue it back together; that we can use the fibre, which is the basis of wood, to its best advantage. For example, we used jumbo sheets of LSL (laminated strand lumber), which is made from compressed timber waste, to construct a large building very quickly. This was the North Vancouver City Hall project, where we cross laminated three sheets measuring 12 by four metres to create a beautiful wood structure that is also exposed as its ceiling.
Architect Michael Green Calls Wood "The Most Technologically Advanced Building Material In The World." (Treehugger)

But is there such a thing as sustainably harvested wood?
Similar in a way to climate change, some of the eventual impacts of widespread clearcutting are separated from the extraction act in time and location. After all, in many forest areas west of the Cascade range, when a patch of trees is cut down, it starts to grow back spontaneously within a few years.

Yet each time the woods are clearcut, and when they are replanted as "managed forest," slopes erode, soil is lost, streams are silted and down cut, fungi, invertebrates, fish, fowl and mammals are scattered, starved, and killed.

The underlying faith that forest regrowth as provided by Nature for millennia is something inevitable, is reminiscent of the great faith that the free lunch of fossil fuel energy can go on indefinitely.

And — like the faith that humankind will somehow be held harmless from the inevitable outcomes of continued mountaintop removal and tar sands mining, ubiquitous petrochemical pollution, and use of the atmosphere as a vast open sewer — the faith in forest returning is buttressed and protected by great heaps of pseudoscientific mythology.

The reality is that on much land in the Pacific Northwest, particularly the industrial forest lands of Oregon managed under the pernicious Oregon Forest Practices Act, even where there is a dense stand of conifers, there is truly no longer a forest — in the sense of the diverse, resilient, tree-centered life-giving landscape, in which the Douglas fir, for instance, evolved millions of years ago.

Growing up outside Boston, I knew about the big trees in California, the giant sequoia and the towering coast redwoods. I loved the white pines and hardwoods in New England, but grand as they were, I understood those trees were nothing to what was out West.

The reality, I've come to understand over recent years, appears to be that giant trees were once found all across North America.

The giant conifers of the west are simply the last few remaining of a variety different species reaching great size, once spread widely across the land.

While the giant white pines of New England and the enormous chestnuts farther south are long gone — not to be seen again for hundreds of years, if ever — while some of the great sequoias and coast redwoods are protected in California — and while the tallest trees on Earth may have been Douglas firs in the Pacific Northwest, felled and milled routinely, early in the 1900s — Douglas fir of all ages, up to and including giants several centuries old, is still viewed by many as an inexhaustible commodity in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia.

Natural ecosystems are typically resilient to impacts up to a certain level, at which their resiliency is exhausted or overwhelmed. At this point, rather like a steel beam under increasing strain, the typical ecological response changes from slow degradation into rapid failure.

In June, 2012, 22 leading scientists co-authored a review paper in the leading scientific journal, Nature, titled Approaching a state shift in Earth's biosphere. This major paper outlines the concept and science of ecosystem collapse, and the strong evidence that cumulative land use changes across Earth are approaching the level of 90% of land altered.

Ninety percent change is enough to put most ecosystems into a state of irreversible collapse.
The Corruption of Wood (Architecture Week)

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Dinosaur Day

This past weekend I got to observe some wild turkeys up close at the Schlitz Audobon Center. While I had some vague knowledge that birds are descended from dinosaurs, when watching a wild turkey it really hits home - that tiny head bobbing on that long neck, that bulbous body and large thighs, those scaly three-toed feet, walking though the underbrush.
Happy Dinosaur Dissection Day! Thanksgiving is upon us—a time to reflect, cope with loved ones, and stuff ourselves silly with theropod meat. While the turkey on the table may not seem quite as fierce as the Cretaceous “terrible claw” Deinonychus, they are both feathered dinosaurs, cousins separated by about 110 million years. Birds were the only lineage of dinosaur to survive the catastrophe that wiped out their relatives 66 million years ago. Of course, our species wasn’t the first to dine on dinosaur. We’re continuing a longstanding tradition. From armor-encased ankylosaurs to the terrible tyrannosaurs, dinosaurs were smorgasbords for other species millions and millions of years before the first Thanksgiving...Even now, dinosaurs remain on life’s playbill in avian garb, and thanks to countless gustatory investigations, we know they’re quite tasty—so much so that we’ve organized a national holiday around picking flesh from their skeletons. I hope you enjoy your annual dinosaur dissection today, and when you snap the turkey’s delicate wishbone, remember to give thanks for the theropod on the table and all of its extinct dinosaurian kin.
Enjoy a Delicious Dinosaur on Thanksgiving (Slate)  And why don't we eat turkey eggs? Because turkeys lay far less eggs, they eat more, and they take up more space. Thus we see how economic reasons have constrained our once-varied diet to a monoculture of what can be produced "cheaply." In hunter-gatherer societies, food is what nature can provide, not what you can pay for. Early humans ate a well-rounded and varied diet. Our market economy actually works against this.
Turkey eggs used to be a menu staple in North America. Wild turkeys roamed the continent before the arrival of humans, and archaeologists have found turkey-egg shells at the encampments of pre-Columbian Americans. Hopi Indians consider the eggs a delicacy. (The Navajo ate only the flesh of turkeys, however, European settlers noted.) Europeans took domesticated turkeys across the Atlantic in the 16th century, and turkey eggs were soon a part of Old-World cuisine, particularly in England. Americans also served them until fairly recently. Turkey egg omelettes were a regular offering at New York’s legendary Delmonico’s restaurant in the late 19th century...The average turkey egg is 50 percent larger than a chicken egg, but contains nearly twice as many calories and grams of fat and four times as much cholesterol. Duck and goose eggs also contain more fat and protein than chicken eggs do, which is one reason why most people find “exotic” eggs more flavorful than the ubiquitous chicken egg.
White or Dark, but Never Scrambled (Slate) As I pointed out last year, the turkeys we eat are also a victim of industrial monoculture. And in a Plagues and Peoples vein, the colonization of North America was facilitated by the spread of old-world diseases, including an infection spread by rat urine which is still around today:
Where had all the people gone? As the Pilgrims thanked God for their luck, they were unaware that the previous tenants had died of a gruesome infectious disease. The Pilgrim leader William Bradford was already aware of the death toll from “Indean fever.” His scouts had ventured inland and noted “sculs and bones were found in many places lying still above ground, where their houses and dwellings had been; a very sad spectackle to behould.” It’s estimated as many as nine out of 10 coastal Indians were killed in the epidemic between 1616 and 1619.

What killed so many people so quickly? The symptoms were a yellowing of the skin, pain and cramping, and profuse bleeding, especially from the nose. A recent analysis concludes the culprit was a disease called leptospirosis, caused by leptospira bacteria. Spread by rat urine.

Leptospirosis is what’s known as a zoonotic disease. The bacterium lives in animal hosts and is transmitted between animals and to people via urine in fresh water. Its favorite host is the black rat, Rattus rattus (the rat so nice they named it twice), a nonnative species that was inadvertently transported to North America on explorers’ ships. For unknown reasons, it’s the only animal whose kidney can sustain continuous leptospira infections. The tubules of an infected rat’s kidney are lousy with bacteria and excrete hundreds of thousands in every drop of urine (10 million leptospira per milliliter, according to one study). Meanwhile, just 10 bacteria, injected into the abdomen, will send a laboratory hamster to violently hemorrhagic death within days. Leptospira is in a family of spiral-shaped bacteria called spirochetes, along with the bugs that cause syphilis and Lyme disease.

Like Pilgrims in the New World, leptospira must first penetrate the host. Invisible in water, the bacterium enters the eyes, the nose, or scrapes in the skin. Then it disseminates, looking to colonize the kidney. Humans are a dead end; our kidneys aren’t the right environment for them to set up and multiply. Like colonies at Jamestown, Roanoke, and Popham, the bacteria get ambushed or die of starvation, and the infection is usually cleared within a month if it isn’t fatal.

According to the hypothesis, infected ship rats landed in the New World and excreted leptospira, infecting raccoons, mink, and muskrats whose urine further contaminated any standing fresh water. It is unclear why this particular infectious disease should afflict Native Americans and not subsequent European colonists. Prior exposure does not necessarily result in immunity because there are a number of different infectious strains.

A clue might lie in the way these different cultures interacted with natural environments. The Wampanoag gathered sharp-edged clams, skinned pelts from beaver and deer, canoed through streams, and were much fonder of bathing than were Europeans of that era. And they likely spent time hand-picking wild cranberries from bogs on Cape Cod. Wampanoag have long had seasonal feasts of thanksgiving, one of which celebrates the cranberry harvest. There is some evidence that cranberries were also used medicinally—raw, ground into a poultice, and applied to open wounds. Although modern research suggests that cranberries can be a potent antimicrobial, that might not have been enough to slay the spirochete. The more leptospira that initially invade the bloodstream (possibly via direct contact with berries), the more likely the disease is to be fatal.

While experts have an academic discussion, many modern Wampanoag have no doubt that the 1616-1619 epidemic was real. Robert Charlebois, a Canadian Abenaki Indian who works at Plimoth Plantation 2 miles down the road from Plymouth Rock, is well aware of the leptospirosis hypothesis. He is certain it is true. Moccasins are water permeable, he says, and being in touch with the land and nature exposed the Wampanoag in ways that Pilgrims, with their thick-soled boots, would not have encountered.
The Pilgrims Should Have Been Thankful for a Spirochete (Slate)

Robber Barons, Then And Now

This Naked Capitalism post on Lincoln's work for the railroads seems to make this an opportune time to post a few inconvenient truths about how our economy developed in the nineteenth century. Here's an essay from Brad DeLong, pared down to some essential points for a blog post by Mark Thoma (Thoma's comments in italics). Click through the link to get to the whole thing if you're interested, skim if you're not:
Robber Barons, by J. Bradford DeLong, 1998: 
Matthew Josephson called them "Robber Barons". He wanted readers to think back to their European history classes, back to thugs with spears on horses who did nothing save fight each other and loot merchant caravans that passed under the walls of their castles. He judged that their wealth was in no sense of their own creation, but was like a tax levied upon the productive workers and craftsmen of the American economy. Many others agreed: President Theodore Roosevelt--the Republican Roosevelt, president in the first decade of this century--spoke of the "malefactors of great wealth" and embraced a public, political role for the government in "anti-trust": controlling, curbing, and breaking up large private concentrations of economic power. 
Their defenders--many bought and paid for, a few not--painted a different picture: the billionaires were examples of how America was a society of untrammeled opportunity, where people could rise to great heights of wealth and achievement on their industry and skill alone; they were public benefactors who built up their profitable enterprises out of a sense of obligation to the consumer; they were well-loved philanthropists; they were "industrial statesmen." 
Over the past century and a half the American economy has been at times relatively open to, and at times closed to the ascension of "billionaires." Becoming a "billionaire" has never been "easy." But it was next to impossible before 1870, or between 1929 and 1980. And at other times--between 1870 and 1929, or since 1980--there has been something about the American economy that opened roads to the accumulation of great wealth that were at other times closed. 
Does it matter whether an economy is open to the accumulation of extraordinary amounts of private wealth? When the economy is more friendly to the creation of billionaires, is economic growth faster? Or slower? And what role does politics play? Are political forces generally hostile to great fortunes, or are they generally in partnership? And when the political system turns out to be corrupt--to serve as a committee for extracting wealth from the people and putting it into the pockets of the politically well-connected super-rich--what is to be done about it? What can be done to curb explicit and implicit corruption without also reducing the pressure in the engine of capital accumulation and economic growth? 
These are big questions. This essay makes only a start at answering them.

Here's an interesting note: 
And this is the third thing ... about the turn of the century robber barons: even though the base of their fortunes was the railroad industry, they were for the most part more manipulators of finance than builders of new track. Fortune came from the ability to acquire ownership of a profitable railroad and then to capitalize those profits by selling securities to the public. Fortune came from profiting from a shift--either upward or downward--in investors' perceptions of the railroad's future profits. It was the tight integration of industry with finance that made the turn of the twentieth century fortunes possible. ... 
The jump in wealth of the founders of these lines of business was intimately tied up with the creation of a thick, well-functioning market for industrial securities. And that would turn out to be a source of weakness when Wall Street came under fire during the Great Depression. ...

Progressives did not believe that the billionaires were just the helpless puppets of market forces. In 1896 Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan called for the end to the crucifixion of the farmer by a gold standard working in the interests of Morgan and his fellow plutocrats. Fifteen years later Louis Brandeis warned Morgan partner Thomas Lamont--after whom Harvard University's main undergraduate library is named-that it was in fact in Morgan's interest to support the Progressive reform program. If Morgan's partners did not do so, Brandeis warned, the Progressives would recede. Their successors on the left wing of American politics would be real anarchists and real socialists (DeLong, 1991). 
Louis Brandeis and company did not much care whether the billionaires of what they called the "money trust" were in any sense economically efficient. In Brandeis's mind, they're evil because their interests were large..., size alone made a billionaire's fortune "dangerous, highly dangerous." ... 
Populists from the American midwest found this set of issues a reliable one, and their senators took turns calling for political and economic changes to reduce the power exercised by the super-rich. ... 
The political debate was resolved only by the Great Depression. The presumed link between the stock market crash and the Depression left the securities industry without political defenders. The old guard of Progressives won during the 1930s what they had not been able to win in the three earlier decades. 
Ironically, it was Republican president Herbert Hoover who triggered the process. Hoover thought that Wall Street speculators were prolonging the Depression and refusing to take steps to restore prosperity. He threatened investigations to persuade New York financiers to turn the corner around which he was sure prosperity waited. Thus, as Franklin D. Roosevelt put it, "the money changers were cast down from their high place in the temple of our civilization." The Depression's financial market reforms act broke the links between board membership, investment banking, and commercial banking-based management of asset portfolios that had marked American finance before 1930. Investment bankers could no longer be commercial bankers. Depositors' money could not be directly used to support the prices of newly-issued securities. Directorates could not be interlocked: that bankers could not be on the boards of directors of firms that were their clients.

 D. The Drying-Up of the Flow of Billionaires 
Whatever else Depression-era financial reforms did (and there are those who think it crippled the ability of Wall Street to channel finance to new corporations) and whatever else the New Deal did (and it did a lot to bring social democracy to the United States and to level the income distribution), one important--and intended--consequence was that thereafter it was next to impossible to become a billionaire. 
Not that it was ever easy to become a billionaire, mind you, but the channels through which lucky, skilled, dedicated, and ruthless entrepreneurs had ascended were largely closed off. ... 
The hostility of Roosevelt's New Deal to massive private concentrations of economic power was effective: the flow of new billionaires dried up, as the links between finance and industry that they had used to climb to the heights of fortune were cut.

This is the important question: 
Did the hostility of America's political and economic environment to billionaires between 1930 and 1980 harm the American economy? Did it slow the rate of economic growth by discouraging entrepreneurship? As an economist--someone who believes that there are always tradeoffs--I would think "yes." I would think that there must have been a price paid by the closing off of the channels of financing for entrepreneurship through which E.H. Harriman, James J. Hill, George F. Baker, Louis Swift, George Eastman, and others had made their fortunes. 
But if so, there are no signs of it in aggregate growth data. ... 
V. Tentative Conclusions

 So what can Americans expect from their current crop of billionaires? Or rather what can they expect from the processes that have allowed their creation? 
They should be extremely dubious about billionaires' social utility. Their relative absence from the 1930s to the 1970s did not seem to harm economic growth in the United States. Their predecessors' claim to much of their wealth is, to see the least, dubious. And their large-scale presence was associated with the serious corruption of American politics.

    Perhaps those who are going to be industrial statesmen have as reasonable a chance of truly being industrial statesmen in an environment hostile to billionaires, as in an environment friendly to their creation: at that level of operations, after all, money is just how people keep the score in their competitions against nature and against each other. ...

On the other hand, their personal consumption is only an infinitesimal proportion of their total wealth. Much less of Andrew Carnegie's fortune from his steel mills went to his own personal consumption than has gone to his attempts to promote international peace, or to build libraries to increase literacy.

The child who in mid-nineteenth century Scotland painfully learned to read from the handful of books he had access to in his family's two-room cottage as they fell closer and closer to the edge of starvation--that child is visible in the Carnegie libraries that still stand in several hundred cities and towns in the United States, and is visible around us now. ...

So if there is a lesson, it is roughly as follows: Politics can put curbs on the accumulation of extraordinary amounts of wealth. And there is a very strong sense in which an unequal society is an ugly society. I like the distribution of wealth in the United States as it stood in 1975 much more than I like the relative contribution of wealth today. But would breaking up Microsoft five years ago have increased the pace of technological development in software? Probably not. And diminishing subsidies for railroad construction would not have given the United States a nation-spanning railroad network more quickly.

So there are still a lot of questions and few answers. At what level does corruption become intolerable and undermine the legitimacy of democracy? How large are the entrepreneurial benefits from the finance-industrial development nexus through which the truly astonishing fortunes are developed? To what extent are the Jay Goulds and Leland Stanfords embarrassing but tolerable side-effects of successful and broad economic development?

I know what the issues are. But I do not yet--not even for the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century United States--feel like I have even a firm belief on what the answers will turn out to be.
Robber Barons (Economist's View)

And I've cited this article before, but it's always useful as reminder:
One legendary moment of greatness was the completion of the first transcontinental. There is a legend-making photo taken at Promontory Summit, Utah, May 1869, when the Union Pacific and Central Pacific joined tracks and reunited a war-divided people. After that came the Northern Pacific; the Great Northern; the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe; * and other lines that brought a transportation revolution to the West. White debunks the legend, arguing that the achievement was shoddy and chaotic and benefited the nation very little. The money that built those lines did not come from the railroad men themselves—Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Henry Villard, James J. Hill, and Thomas Scott. Instead, they persuaded Congress to lay out enormous subsidies.
The Union Pacific alone raked in $43 million in interest subsidies on federal loans, and railroads east and west of the Mississippi River received more than 131 million acres in free land. White explains that largesse as a result of political corruption. But then why did so many investors, including shrewd Germans and Brits, throw money into these enterprises as well? Not until the 20th century would there be enough white settlement and shipping traffic in the West to justify such investments. No rational need existed for decades, yet a railroad-building frenzy went on and on. The builders made a lot of money for themselves, but why did so many people give them so much capital?

Other government subsidies came in the form of stifling, with armed force, any resistance from Indians or any move on the part of immigrant laborers to try to make the railroads serve their needs. White describes in brilliant detail the infamous Pullman strike of 1893, when the government blatantly took the side of the corporations. "By and large, the western railroads remained what they had been before the strike—bloated, ill managed, heavily indebted, and corrupt.  … Many were now wards of the federal courts, and all of them depended on the might of the federal government to control their own workers."

The dean of business historians Alfred Chandler Jr., in The Visible Hand(1977), described the 19th-century railroad corporation as the harbinger of order, rationality, and efficient organization. White scoffs at such an image. These corporations were made up of "divided, quarrelsome, petulant, arrogant, and often astonishingly inept men." And instead of the conventional leftist picture of a ruthless, soulless, but all-powerful business that crushed its opponents, the infamous Octopus of novelist Frank Norris, he finds "a group of fat men in an Octopus suit." They were morally challenged men, dripping with hypocrisy, mean-spirited, and grasping.
But White, who is a master of invective, describes them also as stupid and incompetent. Their only claim to genius was their ability "to find occasions for profit in their own ineptitude." Leland Stanford, for example, was well-known to his companions as dim-witted, careless, selfish, lazy, and yet filled with "immense self-regard." That tone of criticism appears all through the era. The Massachusetts railroad executive Charles Francis Adams, dismissed his fellow businessmen as creatures of "low instincts, … essentially unattractive and uninteresting." This is essentially White's view also, and he finds their success more than reprehensible; that such reptilian types ever gained so much power and wealth is bewildering. That their descendants still command so much authority is beyond understanding.

Richard White is a Thorstein Veblen for our times. Veblen (1857-1929) was an academic economist too radical for his own day. He and White share contempt for the business community; it was Veblen who invented such phrases as "conspicuous consumption" and "businesslike mismanagement." There are differences: White is a more engaging writer than Veblen, less given to windy circumlocutions, and he grounds his charges in deep and thorough research. Dripping with venom, this book is nonetheless a model of the historian's use of primary sources, narrative skill, and insightful reinterpretation of the Gilded Age. It is easily the best business history I have read, and it carries a weight of argument and evidence that cannot be denied.  Another difference is that Veblen was dismissed by Stanford University for his "immorality" and unpopular views, while White is one of that university's most honored professors.
The Transcontinental Travesty (Slate)

And lest you think anything's changed:
PITTSBURGH (AP) — It sounds like a free-market success story: a natural gas boom created by drilling company innovation, delivering a vast new source of cheap energy without the government subsidies that solar and wind power demand.

"The free market has worked its magic," the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, an industry group, claimed over the summer.

The boom happened "away from the greedy grasp of Washington," the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank, wrote in an essay this year.

If bureaucrats "had known this was going on," the essay went on, "surely Washington would have done something to slow it down, tax it more, or stop it altogether."

But those who helped pioneer the technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, recall a different path. Over three decades, from the shale fields of Texas and Wyoming to the Marcellus in the Northeast, the federal government contributed more than $100 million in research to develop fracking, and billions more in tax breaks.
[...] The first federal energy subsidies began in 1916, and until the 1970s they "focused almost exclusively on increasing the production of domestic oil and natural gas," according to the Congressional Budget Office.

More recently, the natural gas and petroleum industries altogether accounted for about $2.8 billion in federal energy subsidies in the 2010 fiscal year and about $14.7 billion went to renewable energies, the Department of Energy found. The figures include both direct expenditures and tax credits.

Congress passed a huge tax break in 1980 specifically to encourage unconventional natural gas drilling, noted Alex Trembath, a researcher at the Breakthrough Institute, a California nonprofit that supports new ways of thinking about energy and the environment. Trembath said that the Department of Energy invested about $137 million in gas research over three decades, and that the federal tax credit for drillers amounted to $10 billion between 1980 and 2002.

The work wasn't all industry or all government, but both.
Decades of federal dollars helped fuel gas boom (Associated Press)
The day after Barack Obama won his re-election bid, the chief executive of Murray Energy, Robert E. Murray, gathered his staff and began to read a prayer. He asked God to forgive America for its choice of president, and he prayed for “guidance in this drastic time with the drastic decisions that will be made to have any hope of our survival as an American business enterprise.” He closed with a heartfelt “amen.”

Then he fired 156 people.

Murray explained that the layoffs were inevitable in light of Obama’s re-election. He’s not the only coal baron to cite the president as the cause of the industry’s supposed death knell. CONSOL Energy Inc. President Nicholas Deluliis blamed Obama for 145 planned layoffs, while Alpha Natural Resources CEO Kevin Crutchfield cited the Obama-created “regulatory environment” as the basis for 1,200 job cuts this fall. Other coal executives poured millions into (ultimately ineffective) anti-Obama super PACs. The Romney campaign itself tried to stoke anger against the administration to win over voters in coal-rich Ohio, echoing the coal CEOs’ invectives against Obama and his environmental regulation.

There’s a slight flaw, however, in this blame game: It’s almost entirely made-up. Obama has indeed increased regulation over the coal industry to limit output of carbon and mercury, mandating that older plants update their scrubbers. But his efforts have been fairly mild and nonaggressive, and the regulations—which have the benefit of protecting Americans from mercury poisoning—aren’t cripplingly costly to coal companies. 
Coal CEO Prays for Deliverance From Obama, Fires Workers (Slate)

The only thing that's changed is that they've realized the usefulness of effective propaganda. Remember, when politicians say they want to shrink government and let the "free" market decide, they mean for labor, not for themselves. There is no such thing as a free market.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Charles Mann Ponders The State Of The Species

Charles Mann ponders the age-old question of whether humans are smarter than yeast:
As a student at the University of Moscow in the 1920s, Georgii Gause spent years trying—and failing—to drum up support from the Rockefeller Foundation, then the most prominent funding source for non-American scientists who wished to work in the United States. Hoping to dazzle the foundation, Gause decided to perform some nifty experiments and describe the results in his grant application.

By today’s standards, his methodology was simplicity itself. Gause placed half a gram of oatmeal in one hundred cubic centimeters of water, boiled the results for ten minutes to create a broth, strained the liquid portion of the broth into a container, diluted the mixture by adding water, and then decanted the contents into small, flat-bottomed test tubes. Into each he dripped five Paramecium caudatum or Stylonychia mytilus, both single-celled protozoans, one species per tube. Each of Gause’s test tubes was a pocket ecosystem, a food web with a single node. He stored the tubes in warm places for a week and observed the results. He set down his conclusions in a 163-page book, The Struggle for Existence, published in 1934.

Today The Struggle for Existence is recognized as a scientific landmark, one of the first successful marriages of theory and experiment in ecology. But the book was not enough to get Gause a fellowship; the Rockefeller Foundation turned down the twenty-four-year-old Soviet student as insufficiently eminent. Gause could not visit the United States for another twenty years, by which time he had indeed become eminent, but as an antibiotics researcher.

What Gause saw in his test tubes is often depicted in a graph, time on the horizontal axis, the number of protozoa on the vertical. The line on the graph is a distorted bell curve, with its left side twisted and stretched into a kind of flattened S. At first the number of protozoans grows slowly, and the graph line slowly ascends to the right. But then the line hits an inflection point, and suddenly rockets upward—a frenzy of exponential growth. The mad rise continues until the organism begins to run out of food, at which point there is a second inflection point, and the growth curve levels off again as bacteria begin to die. Eventually the line descends, and the population falls toward zero.

Years ago I watched Lynn Margulis, one of Gause’s successors, demonstrate these conclusions to a class at the University of Massachusetts with a time-lapse video of Proteus vulgaris, a bacterium that lives in the gastrointestinal tract. To humans, she said, P. vulgaris is mainly notable as a cause of urinary-tract infections. Left alone, it divides about every fifteen minutes. Margulis switched on the projector. Onscreen was a small, wobbly bubble—P. vulgaris—in a shallow, circular glass container: a petri dish. The class gasped. The cells in the time-lapse video seemed to shiver and boil, doubling in number every few seconds, colonies exploding out until the mass of bacteria filled the screen. In just thirty-six hours, she said, this single bacterium could cover the entire planet in a foot-deep layer of single-celled ooze. Twelve hours after that, it would create a living ball of bacteria the size of the earth.

Such a calamity never happens, because competing organisms and lack of resources prevent the overwhelming majority of P. vulgaris from reproducing. This, Margulis said, is natural selection, Darwin’s great insight. All living creatures have the same purpose: to make more of themselves, ensuring their biological future by the only means available. Natural selection stands in the way of this goal. It prunes back almost all species, restricting their numbers and confining their range. In the human body, P. vulgaris is checked by the size of its habitat (portions of the human gut), the limits to its supply of nourishment (food proteins), and other, competing organisms. Thus constrained, its population remains roughly steady.

In the petri dish, by contrast, competition is absent; nutrients and habitat seem limitless, at least at first. The bacterium hits the first inflection point and rockets up the left side of the curve, swamping the petri dish in a reproductive frenzy. But then its colonies slam into the second inflection point: the edge of the dish. When the dish’s nutrient supply is exhausted, P. vulgaris experiences a miniapocalypse.

By luck or superior adaptation, a few species manage to escape their limits, at least for a while. Nature’s success stories, they are like Gause’s protozoans; the world is their petri dish. Their populations grow exponentially; they take over large areas, overwhelming their environment as if no force opposed them. Then they annihilate themselves, drowning in their own wastes or starving from lack of food.

To someone like Margulis, Homo sapiens looks like one of these briefly fortunate species.
The whole thing is here:  State of the Species: Does success spell doom for Homo sapiens? Charles Mann, Orion Magazine. It ends on a cautiously optimistic note, one which I wish would feel more confident in.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Collapse and the Sorites Paradox

Often times those who talk about collapse run into quite a bit of difficulty. It's easy for people to dismiss this sort of talk as foolish rantings since day-to-day activities seem so normal. One way to understand the problems of talking about societal collapse is through a logical thought experiment devised by Ancient Greek philosophers called the Sorites Paradox.

Sorites is the Greek word for "heap." Imagine, for instance, a heap of sand on your desk. A heap contains maybe 1,000,000 grains of sand. If you take away a single grain of sand, is it still a heap? I think most of us would say, "of course it is!" Nothing's changed from any outward appearance, after all. If I take two grains away? Three? Four? Ten? No difference, of course it's still a heap of sand.

The problem is, I can just keep doing this - picking away a grain of sand out of the heap and asking you if it still a heap. Eventually we will be left with a single grain of sand. Is this a heap? Of course it isn't. But exactly when did it stop being a heap? Which grain did I remove to turn it from a heap to something else? Can you point to it? This concept also works with someone who is rich. Clearly if I take a dollar away from someone who is a millionaire, it will make little difference. The rich person is still rich. What if I keep doing it? At what point do they become poor? $100,000? $10,000? $100? $53.76?

A more formal statement of these premises would be: 1,000,000 grains of sand is a heap of sand (Premise 1) A heap of sand minus one grain is still a heap. (Premise 2).

Repeated applications of Premise 2 (each time starting with one fewer grains), eventually forces one to accept the conclusion that a heap may be composed of just one grain of sand (and consequently, if one grain of sand is still a heap, then removing that one grain of sand to leave no grains at all still leaves a heap of sand; indeed a negative number of grains must also form a heap). [Wikipedia]

We can easily see how this applies to societal collapse. The problem arises from vague predicates. How do we define a heap? How do we define a collapse? When does one become the other? When does pre-collapse become post-collapse? What one single thing, when removed, causes the collapse? What one switch causes a pre-collapse society to become a post-collapse one? Is there a phase shift? Can we define such a thing? If not, how can we really define collapse at all? Does the term have any meaning?

This is a point I made previously in Not Collapse - Breakdown. Breakdown is easy to see all around us. When power outages become routine, when the space program is mothballed, when cities curtail their garbage collection, when libraries cut back hours, when flights are routinely delayed and cancelled, when potholes dot the roads, when food prices rise, when strip malls lie empty for years, when the lights go out during an NFL game, when copper is stripped out of abandoned buildings, when cyberattacks shut down Web sites, when schools hold bake sales for necessities, when cities turn to lotteries for revenue; all of these are breakdowns in what we have become used to. But which one of these can be said to constitute a collapse? Like our removal of a single dollar or grain of sand, these changes are small and hardly noticeable. Often, they are merely a minor inconvenience. As I wrote:
Collapse is a good word to describe a contrast between a beginning and end state. It's obvious when you look at Piranesi's etchings of the crumbling ruins of the Roman forum, or photographs of vine encrusted Mayan temples in the Yucat√°n swallowed up by the jungle, that a collapse has occurred. It had occurred before we got there, and it is final. It is a prior state to whatever state we are in now: the previous state collapsed, and now we're in this "new" state. But to the people actually living though the process, it must have seemed very different, and collapse hardly seems like the right word to describe it...To the people actually in the midst of it, however, it surely must have seemed more like a breakdown.
Yet just as we recognize a single grain of sand as something other than a heap and a poor person from a rich one, we must recognize that at some point we will be in a collapsed state relative to what we were before. To say there is no such thing as collapse would fall into the closely related Continuum Fallacy, in which vague claims are completely rejected because they are not as precise as we would like. Vagueness alone does not make such a concept invalid. It has been said that one indisputable fact about the Roman Empire is that it collapsed. But when? Numerous dates are proposed, from the Crisis of the Third Century all the way until 1453

Complicating matters is the fact that rarely is it a continuous downward slide. There are numerous periods of retrenchment, reorganization and partial recovery. The larger pattern is only evident over a longer period of time.

For example, the Great Depression, with its falling stock market, bankrupt industries, shuttered factories, bank runs, Dust Bowl and twenty-five percent unemployment would be considered a collapse by any definition. Certainly it must have seemed so to people at the time. Yet America’s global empire had not even been established and its period of greatest prosperity lay ahead. Similarly, there were periods in the Roman Empire where it looked like improvements were being made and the system might last indefinitely. Diocletian managed to oversee a reorganization of the Roman economy and political structure. Even after things had started to go permanently downhill for the West in 407, in the period 411-21 under the generalship of Constantius and before his premature death, there was a partial revival of Roman fortunes, with the pacification of Italy and the reassertion of imperial control over southern Gaul and parts of Spain. In 533 Justinian defeated the Vandals and reconquered Italy, also retaking Spain and parts of North Africa before a plague put an end to his expansion.

But it was not to be: the writing was on the wall. It's possible we might experience a similar turnaround. We cannot absolutely rule this out, we can only say that are extremely unlikely given current trends. Is it even possible to recognize a collapse except by hindsight? Often analysts will look at a graph of peaks and troughs and draw a line following roughly the average of the highs and lows, labeling it "trend." This cuts through the highly volatile statistical noise of highs and lows and is either sloping up or down. You can often be on an upswing even if the overall trend is down.

"Follow the trendlines, not the headlines."
What would be the "trend" in the United States since the nineteen-seventies?

Possible Resolutions

Two traditional resolutions to this paradox might be instructive for our purposes: setting a fixed boundary and group consensus.

Setting a fixed boundary in this case means a specific definition of collapse. In other words, when 'X' happens, we have collapsed. This is equivalent to defining a boundary in our example above, say anything over 10,000 granules is a heap and less than that is not. Of course, there is an arbitrariness to this that many find unacceptable; clearly 9999 grains is still a heap for all intents and purposes, whether we choose to define it as such or not. Often this is done with the Roman Empire by picking a specific event and date, say the sack of the city of Rome in 410 by Alaric or the deposition of the last emperor in 476 by Odoacer. Of course, this too falls into the Sorites Paradox: most people living in the years 411 and 477 did probably not think of themselves as living in a situation very much different than the previous year. Nonetheless, if we give specific criteria of what constitutes a collapse, we can clearly see when it happens.

The two big contenders here are either political dissolution or financial crash. Two common examples are the dissolution of Austria-Hungary in 1918 and the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. in 1991 caused by ethnic secessionist movements and political unrest. By this same token, a dissolution of the United States can be said to constitute a collapse. So too could a successful secession of one or more states. Secession petitions are now routinely filed after presidential elections by an increasing number of people, and there are small but active movements in a number of states. If one or more succeeds, do we have our collapse?

Numerous countries have gone through economic collapse. A repudiation of debt and fall of the currency (such as through hyperinflation) are the most likely descriptions of this scenario. The United States repudiating it’s debt would cause the global economy to topple and is nearly unimaginable. A Wall Street crash like October 1929 could also be considered a collapse scenario. Argentina went through a major collapse in 1999 - 2002. Many countries have as well, from Brazil to Mexico to Thailand to Zimbabwe. It should be noted that none of these countries ceased to exist as a result.

Currently the southern fringes of Europe are going through a situation that to all appearances looks like a total financial collapse, with soaring debts, mass unemployment, homelessness, suicides, evictions, foreclosures, hospitals lacking medicine, people rummaging through dumpsters to eat, labor strikes, violent public protests, political extremism, separatist movements, etc. Yet even in those countries, most people still have jobs, most businesses are still open, elections are still held, and most public services still function, albeit at a reduced or subpar level.

So those are our criteria - a state seceding from the union or a financial crash would be a collapse. I think when people use the term collapse in reference to the United States, it is one of these two things they are actually predicting, whether they specify it outright or not. Is there some other definition we could agree on? No more postal delivery? A closing and withdrawal of military bases from overseas locations? No more social security checks? Selling off the national parks? Cancelling football season? Something else? And what if none of these things occur? Have we "avoided" a collapse? Is everything then A-OK?

Group consensus means, in essence, that we’ve collapsed when a majority of people believes that we’ve collapsed. Are we far from that point? Are we, in fact, collapsing?

As Hurricane Sandy bore down on New York City, the largest city in the United States and it's cultural capital, there was a story about how America's satellite system, a technological marvel, had been crippled by decades of mismanagement and neglect, impairing prediction of the storm's path. Three years earlier, in 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineers, who routinely give a grade of 'D' to nation's aging infrastructure, advised installing surge barriers and tide gates to prevent flooding of the city. They were ignored. It was eerily reminiscent of the flooding of New Orleans years earlier, where the locks on Lake Pontchartrain were routinely cited as being inadequate and had failed to be upgraded for years. In the aftermath, utilities struggled to restore power, and gasoline was rationed based on license plates.

When a bridge collapsed in Minneapolis in August 2007 causing fatalities, attention was paid to how decrepit the nation's infrastructure really was. And this was only the most noticeable instance of many local ones which go unreported in the wider media. In my own town, a hunk of concrete fell of a major highway bridge over the mouth of a river (no one was hurt - it was closed and repaired), and pieces of the facade began falling off our city hall. We also had a high-speed rail connection between our two largest cities cancelled by the governor because "we can't afford it." Nor is this unique. One of the largest civil engineering projects in the country, two new rail passages under the Hudson River, was cancelled a few years earlier by the governor of New Jersey, who claimed that the state could not afford it and would be on "a never ending hook" (similar language was used with the rail line here). A report later proved most of the governor's financial claims false.  New York Times columnist Paul Krugman pointed out:
Demand for public transit is rising across America, reflecting both population growth and shifting preferences in an era of high gas prices. Yet New Jersey is linked to New York by just two single-track tunnels built a century ago — tunnels that run at 100 percent of capacity during peak hours. How could this situation not call for new investment?
It's not just transit: investment upgrades like a smart DC grid which are necessary for more efficient energy usage and renewable energy are opposed by a combination of stinginess and paranoia. Tighter regulation of our diminishing collective resources is perpetually denounced as "socialism." We must be reminded that this is the country whose engineering marvels were once the envy of the world - the Erie Canal, the Transcontinental Railroad, the Panama Canal, the Hoover Dam, the Mackinac Bridge, the power plant at Niagara Falls, the Interstate Highway system, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Great Plains Shelterbelt, the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the list is endless. Krugman also wrote in 2010:
The lights are going out all over America — literally. Colorado Springs has made headlines with its desperate attempt to save money by turning off a third of its streetlights, but similar things are either happening or being contemplated across the nation, from Philadelphia to Fresno.

Meanwhile, a country that once amazed the world with its visionary investments in transportation, from the Erie Canal to the Interstate Highway System, is now in the process of unpaving itself: in a number of states, local governments are breaking up roads they can no longer afford to maintain, and returning them to gravel.

And a nation that once prized education — that was among the first to provide basic schooling to all its children — is now cutting back. Teachers are being laid off; programs are being canceled; in Hawaii, the school year itself is being drastically shortened. And all signs point to even more cuts ahead.

We’re told that we have no choice, that basic government functions — essential services that have been provided for generations — are no longer affordable. And it’s true that state and local governments, hit hard by the recession, are cash-strapped. But they wouldn’t be quite as cash-strapped if their politicians were willing to consider at least some tax increases.
That same year Americans were shocked by a story in which firemen stood by and let someone's house burn down because they had not paid the requisite fees. Detroit and Flint in Michigan and Cleveland and Youngstown in Ohio (among others) have bulldozed large swaths of the city in order to shrink to a more manageable size. The largest ever municipal bankruptcy was declared by a county in Alabama (eclipsing that of Orange County, one of the nation's wealthiest, in 1994), with others like Stockton, California perennially threatening. A book was recently published by two French photographers called "The Ruins of Detroit," documenting, in the mode of a latter-day Piranesi, the current condition of a city that was once one of the ten richest cities on earth and the very symbol of American Industrial might. America's Internet speed has fallen to twenty-sixth worldwide, just behind Hungary and its rail system is often compared to Eastern Europe, with slow, bumpy, tardy service and rail lines dating back to the era of the Robber Barons. Are we in denial? Those who argue that we were overbuilt in the first place, or that such projects are a "waste" miss the larger point: This is not what nations on the upswing of history do.

Young people today literally cannot remember a time when we weren't "tightening our belts," or "making do with less." They have never lived when times weren't "lean" unlike their parents and grandparents. To them it is simply the way things always were. As another New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, succinctly put it, travelling to the United States from China is like going "from the Jetsons to the Flintstones." A recent commenter to this article said "Flying from Singapore into JFK, you wonder whether you really left the developing world and arrived in the developed -- or did you actually leave the developed world and arrive in the dis-developing (undeveloping? Unraveling?)." When governors regularly campaign on and gain widespread popularity from cancelling, curtailing and shutting down major civic works and public amenities rather than building or expanding them, you know things have changed dramatically in the fortunes of a nation.

A recent report from the census bureau puts the number of Americans in poverty at a record 49.5 million when expenses are taken into account, or over 16 percent of the population, the size of a large country. A similar number lack basic health care. When concepts like "financially fragile" or "living paycheck to paycheck" are used (meaning little or no savings and income just covering expenses), numbers of over 50 percent are common. The amount of unemployed equals the population of Illinois, the nation's fifth largest state, meaning there are more unemployed people in the U.S. than there are citizens in all but Florida, New York, Texas and California. The percentage of people actively in the workforce is down to what it was in 1981, before two-income families became the norm. Life expectancy is actually decreasing for the poorest members of society. Doubling up”, or multiple generations living under the same roof (dubbed “reduced household formation” by economists ) has been on the rise, and homeownership is down for the first time in decades. The age of cars on the road is an all-time high. Food banks are regularly overwhelmed with demand. From three to six workers exist for every new job opening, and job fairs regularly attract thousands from all over for just a handful of available jobs.

The U.S. incarcerates more of it's citizens in absolute numbers than anywhere else on earth, even countries with larger populations; in fact, there are more prisoners than farmers. The top 1 percent earns a greater share of the nation's income than the bottom fifty percent. Educational achievement and social mobility are persistently on the bottom of the ranking of OECD nations (referring to advanced industrial economies). The U.S. spends more on the military than the next fifteen nations combined, most of whom are close allies. China is set to overtake the United States as the world's largest economy in the next five years. The United States once has the world's largest steel and concrete industry, now China alone accounts for over half the world's concrete production. The United States runs permanent trade deficits, routinely taking in more that in exports. Once the world's largest creditor nation, it is now the world's largest debtor nation. Corporate profits are at historical highs (one single corporation, Apple, has more cash on hand that the U.S. government), while workers' share of profits is at an all-time low. Many American companies pay more to their chief executives in compensation than they remit in taxes to the U.S. government. The nation’s largest employers used to be Ford and General Motors. Now they are McDonald's and Wal-Mart. The median income is no higher now in real terms than in the early 1970's while costs for education and health care have increased on the order of 3-400 percent.

Have enough grains of sand been removed yet?

Of course, none of these things in isolation causes a collapse by any means. But all of them simultaneously? Are they coincidences? Does anyone seriously expect these trends to reverse at some point? These are not blips – these are trends have been going on for decades. The “end” of the recession and the subsequent “recovery” will merely return us to the previous state of affairs which was hardly good to begin with.

Even in the Great Depression there was a sense of forward progress that is all but absent today. I remember hearing from people who lived through that time talking about free zoos, parks, fountains and swimming pools for the public, numerous libraries and public speaking venues, inexpensive movie houses, and a sense of camaraderie. Besides, the Depression was part of a global economic conflagration - everywhere was bad. Today we are treated to constant scenes of new record breaking skyscrapers in China or Dubai, dozens of brand new airports around the world opening every year, entire cities being built from scratch in China, renewable energy investments in Europe, and high-speed maglev trains connecting major cities in Asia.

Drive through any inner city ghetto if you dare and you’ll see crumbling buildings, broken windows, dilapidated houses, beggars on street corners, people with all their worldly goods in shopping carts, and open-air drug markets. Murders are so commonplace they are not even reported in the news anymore. America’s glorious cities have become bombed-out Bantustans out of pre-apartheid South Africa. Her formerly prosperous farm and factory towns and seaside ports resemble the rusted-out tractorgrads and magnetogorsks of the former Soviet Union. Tent cities are springing up outside metropolitan areas from coast to coast. These are not new trends, they have been going on for decades and have just accelerated. Yet we still think things will someday "get back to normal." They will stabilize, no doubt. Sure, there is still food on the shelves and (mostly) gas at the pumps. But does anyone think we will enter a long era of expansion ever again the way did from 1950-1970? And if not, can we not call that a collapse of sorts? Can we yet reach a consensus? This is not what nations on the upswing do. This point cannot be overemphasized.

This is a controversial subject because some economists say that as long as living standards across the board are incrementally better than the remote past, the vast relative differences do not matter. Thus, it does not matter that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer relative to them, all that matters is that a poor person today is better off than a poor person in 1960. After all, today's poor people have cell phones and Internet access. Cell phones! Somehow what is never addressed is that the majority of people several decades ago could support a family with one income, even without an advanced degree. They could amass savings and easily purchase or even build a house. They had guaranteed pensions and their job was probably safe for life unless they chose to move on (I know, this is the story of my grandparents). Education was affordable if no-frills, and jobs were plentiful with room for advancement. Savings were positive and debts were low. Yet we’re to believe that we’re better off today because we have iPods and Facebook? As you can tell, I don’t buy it. And I don't believe payday and car title loan shops, dollar stores, casinos, and cash for gold places were quite so abundant in 1960, either.

What we are seeing is a real reduction or plateau of living standards. While it’s true that most of the gains of the twentieth century such as indoor heating, plumbing, and universal secondary education have been retained by even the very poor, in many other ways we are regressing. New electronic toys can mask the plateau in real living standards for only so long. We have clearly passed a zenith in living standards for most people and the end of a great expansion, and are now on the downward leg. How much will it accelerate? Even in the absence of an abrupt political or economic crisis, years of steady decline in living standards and shrinking government budgets may finally embed the idea of collapse in the public consciousness, causing a consensus that it is a reality, even if no one is quite sure when the bottom will be reached or how to even define a bottom.

The concept of decline seems to have lodged itself in the public’s consciousness and become a part of the zeitgeist as evidenced by the number of articles worldwide about America’s decline (and China’s rise), the popularity of books on collapse (such as Jared Diamond’s), and post-apocalyptic depictions of society in books, movies and on television such as Revolutions, The Road or The Hunger Games.

Countering this will be persistent cheerleading efforts by politicians and the corporate-owned media designed to manipulate the public’s perception of events to keep them quiescent and inflate their expectations for economic reasons. Surely, even if we cannot specifically define collapse, we can recognize when it is happening.


The term collapse is tossed around alot but it is essentially meaningless due to the Sorites Paradox. History is a continuum. If we do not define a specific event in precise terms such as a dissolution of political ties or financial crash, we cannot meaningfully speak of it except in the most generalized terms.

Collapse is more of a long-term trend than a single event. Small, incremental and localized changes often make wider trends unnoticeable for the vast majority of people. Perception filters and cultural inertia will also come into play. Often what is in actuality a collapse may just be rationalized away as the new normal, particularly by a media which is specifically designed to peddle the status quo and demonize alternatives.

Periods of brief recovery relative to a long downward slide can seem like a collapse is ending or even reversing, when in fact they are statistical blips in a long-term trend. We cannot see the future, so we do not know with absolute certainty what future periods of recovery will bring. This means that collapse, like Peak Oil, can only be seen in hindsight.

Hopefully this article has been helpful in describing why so many ideas and theories of collapse are out there, and why there is so little agreement on the topic. This is why even experts on collapse and those who have written entire books on the topic stubbornly (and smartly) refuse to specify an exact date or even give a timeframe. It also might explain why it all too often seems like collapse, like Linus' Great Pumpkin in Peanuts, so often fails to arrive when expected. In fact, the Great Pumpkin has been here all along.