Tag: <span>Catastrophe</span>

The Politics of the Zombie Apocalypse

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One of my favorite blogs is Slatestarcodex, the blog of Scott Alexander. And yes I would offer the obligatory “check it out if you haven’t already.”

As an example of the high esteem I have for his blog I’ve started at the very beginning and I’m reading all the archives, and one of his earliest posts has some bearing on the topic we were discussing in my last post, but is also interesting enough on it’s own account to be worth reviewing. So I’ll start with that and then tie it back to my post. His post is titled A Thrive/Survive Theory of The Political Spectrum, and in it he puts forth his own theory of how to explain the right/left, conservative/liberal divide:

…rightism is what happens when you’re optimizing for surviving an unsafe environment, leftism is what happens when you’re optimized for thriving in a safe environment.

As an example of the rightist/survival mindset he offers the example of a zombie apocalypse. Imagining how you might react to a zombie apocalypse, he feels, is a great way to arrive at most of the things supported by the right/survive side of the political equation. You’d want lots of guns, you’d be very suspicious of outsiders, you’d become very religious (if there are no atheists in foxholes there are definitely no atheists in foxholes surrounded by zombies) extreme black and white thinking would dominate (zombies are not misunderstood, they’re evil), etc.

For the leftist/thrive side of the spectrum he offers the example of a future technological utopia:

Robotic factories produce far more wealth than anyone could possibly need. The laws of Nature have been altered to make crime and violence physically impossible (although this technology occasionally suffers glitches). Infinitely loving nurture-bots take over any portions of child-rearing that the parents find boring. And all traumatic events can be wiped from people’s minds, restoring them to a state of bliss. Even death itself has disappeared.

As you can imagine you’d probably get the exact opposite of the previous scenario. Guns would be nearly non-existent. If you don’t have to compete for resources and violence has been eliminated most of the current objections to foreigners would be gone. Also, based on current trends in the developed world, it seems unlikely that religion would have much of a foothold, nurture bots would make marriage vestigial, etc.

I find his theory very compelling, it makes as much sense as any of the theories I’ve come across, and I have no problem granting that it’s probably accurate. Which leads us to an examination of the implications of the theory, and this is where I think it gets really interesting.

The first thing to consider is which view of the future is more likely to be accurate. Is it going to be closer to the technological utopia or the zombie apocalypse? I think my own views on this subject are pretty clear. (Though as I mentioned way back in the first post I think we’re more likely to see a gradual catabolic collapse than a Mad Max/Walking Dead scenario.) But I’m also on record as saying that I could very well be wrong. Given that we can’t predict the future, what’s more important is not to try and guess what will happen, to say nothing of trying to plan around those guesses, but rather to choose the course where the penalty for being wrong is the smallest.

In other words if the world prepares for disaster and instead we end up with robotic factories that produce everything we could possible need, then it’s fine, and yes we wasted some time and resources preparing for disaster, but in light of the eventual abundance it was a small price to pay. But if the world pins its hopes on robotic factories and we end up with roving zombies then people die, which I understand is much worse than wasting time and money.

Of course one might immediately make the argument that by preparing for disaster we could slow down or actually prevent the technological utopia. Obviously that argument is not easy to dismiss, particularly since, generally, planning for A makes it harder to accomplish B. This is especially true if B is the opposite of A. Thus, on its face that argument would appear to be compelling. But let’s look at how things are actually playing out.

If we want robotic factories then we need to spend resources inventing them. More generally, the best way to guarantee the technological utopia is to put as many resources as we can into innovation. So how are our resources allocated? According to this chart 41% of US GDP goes to the government, not the first place you think of when the word innovation comes to mind. But it’s still possible that some innovation might emerge, but if it does it will most likely come from military spending, the area leftists would most like to cut. I would argue that innovation is least likely to come from entitlement spending the area leftists are most desirous to expand. In other words, at first glance the people planning on the utopian future may, paradoxically, be the people least likely to bring it about.

Of course there’s still the remaining 59% of the economy. It’s certainly conceivable that leftists could be so much better at encouraging innovation in that area of the economy that it makes up for whatever distortions they bring to the percent of GDP consumed by the government. On this count I see evidence going both ways. I think the generally laissez-faire attitude of the rightist is much better for encouraging innovation. On the other hand the hub of modern innovation is San Francisco, a notoriously leftist city. On the gripping hand you have things like Uber not being able to operate in SF because of regulations. Personally I would again say that rightist are better at encouraging innovation then leftists. Best case scenario I have a hard time seeing it as anything other than a wash. Also as our affluence increases the percentage of GDP that goes to government also increases, which takes us back to the first argument.

Remember in the end, we don’t even need to show that rightest are better at innovation, just that their focus on survival doesn’t fatally injure the prospects of the technological utopia, which I don’t see any compelling evidence for.

Having progressed this far, we have the survive/rightist side of the aisle being great as a just-in-case measure, which doesn’t slow down the thrive/leftist side and may actually speed it up. In fact at this point you may think that Alexander obviously created the post as a defense of rightism, and many of the commenters on his blog felt the same way, but that was not the case. Here’s his response

…this post was not intended to sell Reaction [rightism/survive]. If anything, it was about how it was adapted for conditions that no longer exist. If you’re in a stable society without zombies, optimizing your life for zombie defense is a waste of time; working towards not-immediately-survival-related but nice and beautiful and enjoyable things like the environment and equality and knowledge-for-knowledge’s sake may be an excellent choice.

Does he have a point? Is the survive mindset a relic of the past which now just represents a waste of time and resources? This is where we return to my last post. If you haven’t read it here’s the 30 second summary. Some smart concerned people wanted poor countries to use opiates like morphine to ease the pain of the dying. They refused. Instead it was all the rich countries who started using opiates leading to the deaths of an additional 100,000 people, just in the US, from prescription opiate overdoses.

This is a great example of the thrive/survive dichotomy. In typical survive fashion the poor countries were not worried about easing the pain of people who were effectively already dead. Rather, they were a lot more worried about addiction and overdosing among the young, healthy population. Whereas in typical thrive we-shouldn’t-have-to-worry-about-anything fashion, the rich world prescribed opiates like candy. In our post scarcity world why should anyone have to worry about pain? But as it turned out despite living in what is arguably already a technological utopia (I mean have you seen this thing called the internet?!?) heroin is still really addictive. And using technology to switch a few molecules around and slap a time release coating on it (and call it oxycontin) didn’t make as much of a difference as people hoped.

This should certainly not be taken as sufficient evidence to say that “survive” is superior (though I think that’s where we’re headed) but it should at least serve as sufficient evidence to refute the idea that the conditions where the survive mindset is beneficial “no longer exist.”

So we have 100.000 people, at least, who wish the needle had been a little bit more on the survive end of dial and a little bit less on the thrive side of dial. With a number like that one starts to wonder why we even have people who are optimized for thrive. Well, just like everything, it goes back to evolution. Of course anytime you start putting forth an evolutionary explanation for things you’re in danger of constructing a just-so story. Though this particular theory does have some evidence behind it. Here Alexander and I are once again largely in agreement so I’ll pass it back to him:

Developmental psychology has gradually been moving towards a paradigm where our biology actively seeks out information about our environment and then toggles between different modes based on what it finds. Probably the most talked-about example of this paradigm is the thrifty phenotype idea, devised to explain the observation that children starved in the womb will grow up to become obese

Coincidently I came across another example of this just the other day. My research began when I came across an article that indicated that Dawkin’s theory of the Selfish Gene had fallen out of favor and I wanted to know why. As it turns out this paradigm of phenotypical toggling was a big reason. The example given by this article dealing with the problems of the Selfish Gene concerned grasshoppers and locusts. What people didn’t realize until very recently is that grasshoppers and locusts are the same species, but grasshoppers turn into locusts when a switch is flipped by environmental cues. Continuing with Alexander:

It seems broadly plausible that there could be one of these switches for something like “social stability”. If the brain finds itself in a stable environment where everything is abundant, it sort of lowers the mental threat level and concludes that everything will always be okay and it’s job is to enjoy itself and win signaling games. If it finds itself in an environment of scarcity, it will raise the mental threat level and set its job to “survive at any cost”.

In other words humans switch to thrive when things are going well because it works better, and when things aren’t going well they switch to survive because that works better. Of course the immediate question is, what does it mean for something to “work better”. Since we’re talking about evolution, working better means reproductive success, or having more offspring. The fact that the people most associated with the thrive side of things have the least children is something that seems like a big flashing neon sign, which makes me want to switch to a completely separate topic, but I’m going to resist it.

Also if we’re talking in terms of an evolutionary response the thrive side of things has to have been a potential strategy for a long, long time. It can’t have been something that developed in the last 100 years, or even the last 500 years. We’re talking about something that’s been around for probably tens of thousands of years. Thus, any theory about it’s benefits would have to encompass a pre-historical reason for the thrive switch to exist.

As I warned earlier. discussions like this are apt to look like just so stories, so if even the hint of ad hoc reasoning bothers you, you should skip the next 5 paragraphs.

Obviously one category of people who might benefit from the thrive switch would be whoever ends up being in the ruling class. You might think that’s too small a category to deserve it’s own evolutionary switch, but I direct your attention to the fact that 1 in every 200 men are descendants of Genghis Khan, and the related finding that there were more mothers than fathers in the past indicating strong polygyny, almost certainly concentrated in the ruling class. What this implies is that even if something is only triggered a small amount of the time, it could have a disproportionate evolutionary effect. Sure, you might only be on the top of the heap a short time, perhaps only a few generations, but a switch to take advantage of that could have an enormous long term effect.

If we’re willing to grant that the thrive switch was largely designed to take advantage of your time on top, and we’re willing to see where speculation might take us (you were warned) it generates some interesting ideas.

First it definitely explains the promiscuity. It explains the hedonism. It explains the enormous focus on jockeying for status and signalling games. But so far I haven’t departed that much from Alexander’s position. What if I told you it explains microaggressions?

The concept of microaggressions has been much discussed over the last few years. Most people view it as a new and disturbing trend. But microaggressions have been around forever, however up until now they were restricted to royalty. In dealing with royalty you have to be careful not to give the slightest hint of offense, to use exactly the right words when addressing them. Can anyone look at this chart explaining the proper form of address for royalty and tell me it’s not the most elaborate system ever for avoiding microaggressions? Is the rising objection to microaggressions an unavoidable consequence of the increasing dominance of the thrive paradigm?

Okay perhaps that’s a stretch, speculation and just-so-story time over we’ll return to firmer ground.

Much of what we understand about the kind of evolutionary switching we’re talking about comes from game theory. And of course the classic example of game theory is prisoner’s dilemma. Iterated prisoner’s dilemma is often used as a proxy for group dynamics and evolution. In this case the strategy that works best is a tit-for tat strategy, but game theory also tells us that occasionally, particularly in the short term, it can be advantageous to defect. Could the thrive switch be just this? That when the rewards for defecting reach a certain level, the switch flips and the individual defects? The exact nature of the defection (and the abandoned co-operation) are not entirely clear to me, but we are still talking about a certain payoff leading to a switch in strategy. And you don’t have to be a hard core libertarian to think that the baron in his castle has a more predatory relationship with the peasant than the peasant has with another peasant.

I admit that I am once again speculating to a large degree. But this speculation proceeds from some reasonable assumptions. Assumption one: the thrive switch works in conjunction with the the survive switch. That there’s a reason grasshoppers aren’t locusts 100% of the time. Assumption two: this symbiotic relationship has not gone away (see the previous point about opiates.) Assumption three: There are unseen reasons for the historical equilibrium between the two modes.  In other words, one could certainly imagine that the thrive strategy relies on having a certain level of surrounding survive. That evolutionarily speaking a society that’s 20% thrive and 80% survive works great, but a society in which those numbers are reversed, works horribly, or is in any case much more fragile than the society which is only 20% thrive.

How might we test this? What would count as evidence for an imbalance between the strive and thrive portions of society? What would count as evidence of the imbalance being dangerous? I can think of few things:

-College: This area could provide a blog post or three all on it’s own. As Alexander says if you’re in thrive mode then pursuing “knowledge-for-knowledge’s sake may be an excellent choice.” But there’s definitely a strong case to be made that we’ve reached a point where too many people go to college. And even if you agree with the general benefit of college and want it spread as widely as possibly, you can still probably agree that too many people take on too much debt to get degrees in fields with very little economic benefit. If that’s not evidence of a thrive imbalance than I think you have to invalidate the entire construct.   

-Debt: I’m reminded of an exchange in Anna Karenina when one of the main characters complains of being in debt. The noble’s he’s with asks how much and he responds with the amount of twenty thousand roubles, and they all laugh at him because it’s so small. One of the nobles is five million roubles in debt on a salary of twenty thousand a year. This to me encapsulates the idea that debt is something that was traditionally only available to the wealthy. But today we have a staggering amount of debt at all levels. I was just reading in The Economist that the unfunded pension liability in 20 OECD countries is $78 trillion dollars. That’s an amount that takes a minute to sink in, but for help $78 trillion is about the world’s GDP for an entire year. Now maybe Krugman and Yglesias and Keynes are all correct and government debt (even $78 trillion of it) is no big deal, but what about consumer debt, and student debt, and corporate debt. Is it all no big deal?

-Virtue Signalling: I mentioned signalling games earlier, and you may still be unclear on what those actually are. Well as Alexander explains:

When people are no longer constrained by reality, they spend most of their energy in signaling games. This is why rich people build ever-bigger yachts and fret over the parties they throw and who got invited where. It’s why heirs and heiresses so often become patrons of the art, or donors to major charities. Once you’ve got enough money, the next thing you need is status, and signaling is the way to get it.

So the people of this final utopia will be obsessed with looking good. They will become moralists, and try to prove themselves more virtuous than their neighbors.

In a virtue signalling arms race it becomes harder and harder to establish that you are truly the most virtuous, and as a result virtue get’s sliced into smaller and smaller parts. If three genders (male, female and other) is virtuous, surely seven is more virtuous, thirty-one still more virtuous and fifty-one the most virtuous of all (until someone comes along with their list of sixty-three or, not to be outdone, seventy-one.) Is this evidence of a thrive/survive imbalance? It sure looks like one, and of course, this is also just one example. Is it evidence of the imbalance being dangerous? That I’m less sure about, I guess it depends on how far the arms race goes. I have a hard time imagining that will eventually reach the point where murdering the transphobic is considered more virtuous than yelling at them, but honestly I never imagined we’d get as far as we have already.

Whether you accept these three points as evidence of a dangerous imbalance will largely depend on how closely your own biases and prejudices match mine. I’m certainly not the only one who thinks that worthless college degrees, massive debt, and the virtue arms race are problems. I just may be the only one who has tried to tie them to a single cause.

Since this is technically an LDS blog (though I’ve hid it very well the last couple of posts) you might constructively wonder what the Church’s stance on things is. And while the Church would strenuously object to an accusation that everyone in the Church is a Republican (particularly in light of the current candidate) and would probably also object (albeit perhaps less strenuously) over being labeled a Right-wing organization. With their emphasis on food storage, avoiding debt, chastity and family would they or anyone else object to them being labeled a “survive” organization


We Are Not Saved

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The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.

Jeremiah 8:20

When I was a boy. I couldn’t imagine anything beyond the year 2000. I’m not sure how much of that had to do with the supposed importance of the beginning of a new millennium, how much of it is just due to the difficulty of extrapolation in general, and how much of it was due to my religious upbringing. (Let’s get that out of the way right up front. Yes, I am LDS/Mormon.)

It’s 2016 and we’re obviously well past the year 2000 and 16 years into the future I couldn’t imagine. For me, at least, it definitely is The Future, and any talk about living in the future is almost always followed by an observation that we were promised flying cars and spaceships and colonies on the moon. This observation is then followed by the obligatory lament that none of these promises have materialized. Of course moon colonies and flying cars are all promises made when I was a boy. Now we have a new set of promises: artificial intelligence, fusion reactors, and an end to aging, to name just a few. One might ask why the new promises are any more likely to be realized than the old promises. And here we see the first hint of the theme of this blog, But before we dive into that, I need to lay a little more groundwork.

I have already mentioned my religious beliefs, and these will be a major part of this blog (though in a different way than you might expect.) In addition to that I will also be drawing heavily from the writings of Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Taleb’s best known book is The Black Swan. For Taleb a black swan is something which is hard to predict and has a massive impact. Black swans can come in two forms: positive and negative. A positive black swan might be investing in a startup that later ends up being worth a billion dollars. A negative black swan, on the other hand, might be something like a war. Of course there are thousands of potential black swans of both types, and as Taleb says, “A Black Swan for the turkey is not a Black Swan for the butcher.”

The things I mentioned above, AI, fusion and immortality, are all expected to be positive black swans, though, of course, it’s impossible to be certain. Some very distinguished people have warned that artificial intelligence could mean the end of humanity. But for the moment we’re going to assume that they all represent positive black swans.

In addition to being positive black swans, these advancements could also be viewed as technological singularities. Here I use the term a bit more broadly than is common. Generally when people talk about the singularity they are using the term with respect to artificial intelligence. But as originally used (back in 1958) the singularity referred to technology progressing to a point where human affairs would be unrecognizable. In other words these developments will have such a big impact that we can’t imagine what life is like afterwards. AI, fusion and immortality all fall into this category, but they are certainly by no means the only technology that could create a singularity. I would argue that the internet is an excellent example of a singularity. Certainly people saw it coming, and and some of those even correctly predicted some aspects of it (just as, if we ever achieve AI, there will no doubt be some predictions which will also prove true.) But no one predicted anything like Facebook or other social media sites and those sites have ended up overshadowing the rest of the internet. My favorite observation about the internet illustrates the point:

If someone from the 1950s suddenly appeared today, what would be the most difficult thing to explain to them about life today?

I possess a device, in my pocket, that is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man.

I use it to look at pictures of cats and get in arguments with strangers.

Everything I have said so far deserves, and will eventually get, a deeper examination, what I’m aiming for now is just the basic idea that one possibility for the future is a technological singularity. Something which would change the world in ways we can’t imagine, and if proponents are to be believed, it would be a change for the better.

If, on the one hand, we have the possibility of a positive black swans, technological singularities and utopias, is there also the possibility of negative black swans, technological disasters and dystopias on the other hand? Of course that’s a possibility. We could be struck by a comet or annihilate each other in a nuclear war or end up decimated by disease.

Which will it be? Will we be saved by a technological singularity or wiped out by a nuclear war? (Perhaps you will argue that there’s no reason why it couldn’t be both. Or maybe instead you prefer to argue that it will be neither. I don’t think both or neither are realistic possibilities, though my reasoning for that conclusion will have to wait for a future post.)

It’s The Future and two paths lie ahead of us, the singularity or the apocalypse, and this blog will argue for apocalypse. Many people have already stopped reading or are prepared to dismiss everything I’ve said because I have already mentioned that I’m Mormon. Obviously this informs my philosophy and worldview, but I will not use, “Because it says so in the Book of Mormon” as a step in any of my arguments, which is not to say that you will agree with my conclusions. In fact I expect this blog to be fairly controversial. The original Jeremiah had a pretty rough time, but it wasn’t his job to be popular, it was his job to warn of the impending Babylonian captivity.

I am not a prophet like Jeremiah, and I am not warning against any specific calamity. While I consider myself to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, as I have already mentioned, this blog will be at least as much informed by my being a disciple of Taleb. And as such I am not willing to make any specific predictions except to say that negative black swans are on the horizon. That much I know. And if I’m wrong? One of the themes of this blog will be that if you choose to prepare for the calamities and they do not happen, then you haven’t lost much, but if you are not prepared and calamities occur, then you might very well lose everything. As Taleb says in one of my favorite quotes:

If you have extra cash in the bank (in addition to stockpiles of tradable goods such as cans of Spam and hummus and gold bars in the basement), you don’t need to know with precision which event will cause potential difficulties. It could be a war, a revolution, an earthquake, a recession, an epidemic, a terrorist attack, the secession of the state of New Jersey, anything—you do not need to predict much, unlike those who are in the opposite situation, namely, in debt. Those, because of their fragility, need to predict with more, a lot more, accuracy.

I have already mentioned Taleb as a major influence. To that I will add John Michael Greer, the archdruid. He joins me (or rather I join him) in predicting the apocalypse, but he does not expect things to suddenly transition from where we are to a Mad Max style wasteland (which interestingly enough is the title of the next movie.) Rather he puts forward the idea of a catabolic collapse. The term catabolism broadly refers to a metabolic condition where the body starts consuming itself to stay alive. Applied to a civilization the idea is that as a civilization matures it gets to the point where it spends more than it “makes” and eventually the only way to support that spending is to start selling off or cannibalizing assets. In other words, along with Greer, I do not think that civilization will be wiped out in one fell swoop by an unconstrained exchange of nukes, and if it is than nothing will matter. I think it will be a slow-decline, broken up by a series of mini collapses.

All of this will be discussed in due time, suffice it to say that despite the religious overtones, when I talk about the apocalypse, you should not be visualizing The Walking Dead, The Road, or even Left Behind. But the things I discuss may nevertheless seem pretty apocalyptic. Earlier this week I stayed up late watching the Brexit vote come in. In the aftermath of that people are using words like terrifying, bombshell, flipping out, and furthermore talking about a global recession, all in response to the vote to Leave. If people are that scared about Britain leaving the EU I think we’re in for a lot of apocalypses.

You may be wondering how this is different than any other doom and gloom blog, and here, at last we return to the scripture I started with, which gives us the title and theme of the blog. Alongside all of the other religions of the world, including my own, there is a religion of progress, and indeed progress over the last several centuries has been remarkable.

These many years of progress represent the summer of civilization. And out of that summer we have assembled a truly staggering harvest. We have conquered diseases, split the atom, invented the integrated circuit and been to the moon. But if you look closely you will realize that our harvest is basically at an end. And despite the fantastic wealth we have accumulated, we are not saved. But in contemplating this harvest it is easier than ever before to see why we need to be saved. We understand the vastness of the universe, the potential of technology and the promise of the eternities. The fact that we are not wise enough to grasp any of it, makes our pain all the more acute.

And this is the difference between this blog and other doom and gloom blogs. Another blog may talk about the inevitable collapse of the United States because of the national debt, or runaway global warming, or cultural tension. Someone with faith in continued scientific progress may ignore all of that, assuming that once we’re able to upload our brains into a computer that none of it will matter. Thus, anyone who talks about about potential scenarios of doom without also talking about potential advances and singularities, is only addressing half of the issue. In other words you cannot talk about civilizational collapse without talking about why technology and progress cannot prevent it. They are opposite sides of the same coin.

That’s the core focus, but this blog will range over all manner of subjects including but not limited to:

  • Fermi’s Paradox
  • Roman History
  • Antifragility
  • Environmental Collapse
  • Philosophy
  • Current Politics
  • Book Reviews
  • War and conflict
  • Science Fiction
  • Religion
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Mormon apologetics

As in the time of Jeremiah, disaster, cataclysms and destruction lurk on the horizon, and it becometh every man who hath been warned to warn his neighbor.

The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.