Too Smart for our Own Good…and too dumb to change?

Off the Keyboard of EndIsNigh

Discuss this article around the Kitchen Sink of the Diner

I’ve always felt the many attempts to paint a picture in which we are not all responsible for our situation, whether in the form of the OWS 99% vs 1%, Illuminati (or Oligarchy, or Elite, etc) vs sheople, or even an epic battle of good vs evil, to be unsatisfactory in their effort to explain our predicament. In my opinion there has to be some element common to humankind that keeps us on the path to destruction. In other words, we’re all part of the problem and in order to correct course there must be a significant change worldwide at the level of the individual.

Is it possible that a fundamental aspect of what it means to be homo sapiens is at the root of our problem, and if so, what are the implications for finding a way out? Or whether it’s even probable that we will find it, and then act on it? If the VCP holds true, is our involvement in the predicament really something to be ashamed of since what we’ve done is in our very nature? William Catton has expressed the same sentiment in arguing that no one group is responsible for our predicament. Catton says, “the conversion of a marvelous carrying capacity surplus into a competition-aggravating and crash-inflicting deficit was a matter of fate.” And while I don’t suggest we absolve the criminal banksters and corrupt politicians of their crimes, or that we discard efforts to affect change, I find a lot of the blaming others and ourselves that’s going on is really detrimental, if not to our collective health, at least to our individual well-being.

This question, and the conclusions that may be drawn by answering it, is exhaustively researched by Craig Dilworth in his timely and important book (which I’m still reading) Too Smart for our Own Good: The Ecological Predicament of Humankind.” The book is described as follows:

We are destroying our natural environment at a constantly increasing pace, and in so doing undermining the preconditions of our own existence. Why is this so? This book reveals that our ecologically disruptive behavior is in fact rooted in our very nature as a species. Drawing on evolution theory, biology, anthropology, archaeology, economics, environmental science and history, this book explains the ecological predicament of humankind by placing it in the context of the first scientific theory of our species’ development, taking over where Darwin left off. The theory presented is applied in detail to the whole of our seven-million-year history. Due to its comprehensiveness, and in part thanks to its extensive glossary and index, this book can function as a compact encyclopedia covering the whole development of Homo sapiens. It would also suit a variety of courses in the life and social sciences. Most importantly, Too Smart makes evident the very core of the paradigm to which our species must shift if it is to survive. Anyone concerned about the future of humankind should read this ground-breaking work.
This book: • Provides the first and only theory of humankind’s development • Explains that economic and political (military) power have their respective biological bases in individual vs. group territoriality • Provides the first classification of human instincts: into the survival, sexual and social instincts • Provides the most inclusive characterization of different kinds of population check yet presented • Explains the importance of the anthropological, archaeological and economic findings of the past 50 years to understanding humankind’s development • Clarifies the preconditions for human life on earth • Predicts what will happen to us in the near future

Dilworth goes into excruciating detail to answer the question “why,” through analysis of the biological and evolutionary underpinnings of our species, and is therefore, beyond the scope of this post. However, Dilworth’s basic premise is based on a principle he calls the “Vicious Circle Principle” (or VCP for short), which can be expressed as the following:

The vicious circle principle (VCP) is both easy to understand and in keeping not only with modern science but also with common sense. Briefly put, it says that in the case of humans the experience of need, resulting e.g. from changed environmental conditions, sometimes leads to technological innovation, which becomes widely employed, allowing more to be taken from the environment, thereby promoting population growth, which leads back to a situation of need. Or, seeing as it is a matter of a circle, it could for example be expressed as: increasing population size leads to technological innovation, which allows more to be taken from the environment, thereby promoting further population growth; or as: technological innovation allows more to be taken from the environment, the increase promoting population growth, which in turn creates a demand for further technological innovation.

My intention in starting this thread is twofold. First, to introduce the book to those unfamiliar with it, as I believe it to be mandatory reading for collapseniks. Second, to discuss the ideas Dilworth presents given the relevance to recent discussions on the Diner. Unfortunately Dilworth comes to the depressing conclusion that humankind is headed straight for the evolutionary dustbin, despite the efforts of the few who are attempting to avert such a result, because we’re dealing with a fundamental trait of humanity unlikely to change any time soon. My opinion has been that we must evolve or perish, an opinion that appears to be supported by Dilworth’s theory. The middle section of the book is very academic and far from light reading which serves as a scientific basis for the conclusions drawn, but the first and final chapter (too dumb to change) is where most of the ideas are presented that will interest the Diners.

What I find most fascinating about the VCP is that it provides an explanation that goes beyond Nationalism, cultural values, religions and the rise and fall of empires, because the theory is overarching in it’s scope. Even if the US Empire collapses and doesn’t manage to take the rest of the world down with it, the VCP will still remain as the root cause of our problem.

Dilworth gives a brief explanation of his work.


Some quotes to get things started:

According to Daly, the appeals of growth are that it is the basis of national power and that it is an excuse for not sharing as a means of combating poverty. It offers – in conflict with the entropy principle – the prospect of more for all with sacrifice by none.


…goods and services that cannot be bought or sold are valueless from the point of view of neoclassical economics.


An attitude to life which seeks fulfilment in the single-minded pursuit of wealth – in short, materialism – does not fit into this world, because it contains within itself no limiting principle, while the environment in which it is placed is strictly limited.


All that is needed, they say, are larger research and development budgets, greater offerings to the Technological Priesthood who gave us the Green Revolution, Nuclear Power, and Space Travel. That these technological saviors have created more problems than they have solved is conveniently overlooked. The mythology of technological omnipotence is by itself very strong, but when backed by class interests in avoiding the radical policies required by the steady state, it becomes a full-fledged idolatry. As long as we remain trapped by the ideology of competitive growth, there is no solution. … The value of growth is rigidly held in first place, and we are trapped into a system of increasing environmental disruption and gross injustices by our inability to reorder values.


Economic growth, so long as it is based on a non-renewable surplus, erodes that surplus at a faster rate than would occur otherwise, shortening the time to its eventual disappearance. And if the surplus is of renewables, economic growth will tend to convert them into non-renewables: their being drawn into the economic system to a constantly increasing degree will mean their being used at a successively higher rate until that rate exceeds their ability to reproduce themselves.


As Schumacher also says, the economic growth of the industrial era could just as well be seen as a measure of the rate at which we are consuming geological capital, while counting it as income.


So the fact that our situation is terribly threatening has been known to decision makers for more than 30 years, and this quite independently of an awareness of the operation of the vicious circle principle. What an understanding of the VCP adds is a realisation both of how we have come to this pass, as well as why we in fact have made no serious attempt to remedy the situation despite our being aware of it. … According to the VCP the individual territorial instincts of the powerful override whatever other instincts they may have as support the well-being of the species, and it is they who determine the course taken. And, it seems to me, there’s not much we can do about it. The revealing of the nature of the situation, such as is attempted in this book, is not going to make any noticeable difference.


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