Status and Curiosity - On the Origins of Oil Addiction


“Selfish behaviors are reward driven and innate, wired deeply into the survival mechanisms of the primitive brain, and when consistently reinforced, they will run away to greed, with its associated craving for money, food, or power. On the other hand, the self restraint and the empathy for others that are so important in fostering physical and mental health are learned behaviors – largely functions of the new human cortex and thus culturally dependent. These social behaviors are fragile and learned by imitations much as we learn language". Dr. Peter Whybrow - "American Mania"

An advertisement for BMW cars -and freedom, and power, and sex, and status.... (Click to enlarge)


The majority of Peak Oil writing and discussion centers around the upcoming date of an all liquids peak and how steep the subsequent decline rate might be. There's also active debate on how to best replace the coming shortfall in fossil energy with renewable flows. Fewer discussions are about relocalizing a global economy dependent on cheap transportation fuels, and how best to structure a world with lower density energy. Yet fewer still delve into who we are, how we got here, and what and why we use energy, and seemingly want more of it every year. Essentially, most of our energy conversations, at conferences, schools, institutions, and the blogosphere, focus on the means, and not the ends. The ends have generally remained unquestioned. There seems to be an implicit assumption that worldwide energy demand will continue to grow something akin to a natural law, and that solutions should focus on ways to increase supply and/or efficiency of energy. But in an economic system based on self-interest on a finite planet, the true drivers of demand will need to be better understood beyond the microeconomic mantra "price will change behavior".

This post examines our own history on the planet, outlines how the ancient-derived reward pathways of our brain are easily hijacked by modern stimuli, and concludes that in very real ways, we have become addicted to the 'consumptive behaviors' linked to oil. "Traditional" drug abuse happens because natural selection has shaped behavior regulation mechanisms that function via chemical transmitters. Just as an addict becomes habituated to cocaine, heroin or alcohol, the 'normal person' possesses neural architecture to become habituated via a positive feedback loop to the 'chemical sensations' we receive from shopping, keeping up with the joneses (conspicuous consumption), pursuing more stock options and profits, and myriad other stimulating activities that a large social energy surplus provides. In order to overcome addictions, it is usually not enough to argue about which year the drug supply is going to begin its decline. It's a better path to understand the addiction, admit it before one hits rock bottom, and either begin the cold turkey process or become addicted to something else.


Timeline of human evolution - Source: Dr. William Stanton (Click to enlarge)

To understand how and why our demand for oil and energy services has continually increased, and what behavioral constraints we might encounter if an energy decline occurs, it will be necessary to review 'some' evolutionary history. For those familiar with biology it will be a quick refresher - for those not, it shouldn't be too painful, (but maybe a little).

All life on earth originated from the same single celled organisms. We are used to thinking in terms of months, years, decades, etc. so it's difficult to grasp millenia let alone millions or billions of years. As can be seen in the above graphic, human history takes up a very small % of the time of life on earth and an even smaller % of the time since Earth was first formed. We share a great deal of our genes with simpler organisms such as mice or wheat, and considerably more with dogs or other primates like chimpanzees. Of the genes actually used, or ‘conserved’, we share more – over 60% with fruit flies and over 96% with chimpanzees. We are all kin, somehow traceable back several billion years to the origin of life on earth. I am not only related to my colleague Euan Mearns, but to a lesser extent his dogs, and still lesser extent, the plants in his yard.

Charles Darwin’s maxim of evolution: "Multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die" has gradually, but definitively shaped who we have become as humans today. This theme has been expanded by modern biological research to focus less on 'the strongest' in the physical sense, and more on the concept of 'relative fitness' (or inclusive fitness), that those adaptations that are successful in propelling genes, or suites of genes, into the next generation will have outcompeted those that were deleterious or did not keep up with environmental change. Evolution does not have 'purpose', it just combines time (a great deal of it) with the substrate of life and hones and culls as eons pass. A male spider is sometimes consumed by the female after they have sex. This obviously is a bummer for the male spider, but can be explained by evolution if the nutrition provided for his offspring (carrying his genes) outweighs the sum of his future mating opportunities. Thus the spider, when presented with a 'hot female spider' is not 'calculating' the odds of being eaten vs. how many nutrients are in his body, but performing a behavior that was successful for his ancestors, and therefore chemically 'felt right'. (spiders share many of the same neurotransmitters as humans, e.g. serotonin and dopamine). All of life has arrived in 2008 by some path like this, including and especially human beings.

Fossil hominid skulls - Image Copyright Smithsonian Institute
A more detailed description Doug Theobold, Phd (Click to enlarge)

* (A) Pan troglodytes, chimpanzee, modern
* (B) Australopithecus africanus, STS 5, 2.6 My
* (C) Australopithecus africanus, STS 71, 2.5 My
* (D) Homo habilis, KNM-ER 1813, 1.9 My
* (E) Homo habilis, OH24, 1.8 My
* (F) Homo rudolfensis, KNM-ER 1470, 1.8 My
* (G) Homo erectus, Dmanisi cranium D2700, 1.75 My
* (H) Homo ergaster (early H. erectus), KNM-ER 3733, 1.75 My
* (I) Homo heidelbergensis, "Rhodesia man," 300,000 - 125,000 y
* (J) Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, La Ferrassie 1, 70,000 y
* (K) Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, La Chappelle-aux-Saints, 60,000 y
* (L) Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, Le Moustier, 45,000 y
* (M) Homo sapiens sapiens, Cro-Magnon I, 30,000 y
* (N) Homo sapiens sapiens, modern

Man split off from the rest of the apes about 5-6 million years ago (my). It is estimated that our earliest hominid ancestors, the australopithecenes were the first to walk upright. Can you imagine the excitement and attraction to the first few pairs of these creatures that started walking on two legs instead of four? Must have been like having the shiniest muscle car on the block!
Tens of thousands of generations of various stages of human ancestry passed in Africa, the big cats and environmental hazards keeping hominids close to or under local carrying capacities, with no real need to migrate. Genetic analysis shows that the intelligence that distinguishes us as homo sapiens is of comparatively recent origin-emerging perhaps a mere 200,000 years ago, compared to the millions of years that the hominid line has been in evolution. Wildly oscillating climate and the introduction of language were likely strong influences on the increase in hominid brain size during the past 1 million years.

History of human brain volume (Click to enlarge)

Modern humans ultimately emerged around 125,000 years ago and remained in small hunter gatherer tribes until the invention of agriculture around 12,000 years ago. It was not until we started 'spending' our 'ancient sunlight' bank account in the late 1700s that our population began its moonshot trajectory. The average American today uses around 60 barrel of oil equivalents of primary energy each year- depending on the assumptions this represents hundreds of annual energy 'slaves', for each one of us.

The Triune Brain (Mclean) viewed through the lens of natural selection (Click to enlarge)


I have (briefly) gone through evolution of the triune brain several times on TOD before. The various layers and mechanisms of our brain were built on top of eachother, via millions and millions of iterations, keeping intact what 'worked' and adding on what changes and mutations helped the pre-human, pre-mammal organism incrementally advance. Brain structures that functioned poorly in those ancient environments are no longer around. Gradually, organisms became more complex and the human neocortex developed on top of, and in complex synergy with, the older brain structures of the limbic system and the primitive reptilian core. We are, all of us, descended from the best of the best at surviving and procreating, which in the environment of privation and danger where we endured the most 'iterations' of our evolution, meant acquiring necessary resources, achieving status, and possessing brains finely tuned to natural dangers and opportunities. In our modern environment, it is the combination of pursuit of social status and the plethora of fun, exciting/novel activities that underlies our large appetite for oil.


Status has historically been a signaling mechanism that minimized the costs of competition, whether for reproductive opportunities, or for material resources. If you place 10 chickens in an enclosure there will ensue a series of fights until a pecking order is established. Each bird quicly learns who it can and cannot beat and a status hierarchy is created, thus making future fights (and wastes of energy) less common. Physical competition is costly behavior which requires energy and entails risk of injury. Status is a way to determine who one can profitably challenge and who one cannot. In our ancestral environment, those men (and women) that successfully moved up the social hierarchy ladder, 'improved' their mating and resource prospects. The ones at the bottom of the status rung did not mate at all. In modern humans, status is defined by what culture dictates – popularity, physical looks, wealth, fast cars, political connections, etc. Biologists have shown that historically, the primary way to reliably demonstrate one's 'quality' during courtship is to display a high-cost signal - e.g. a heavy and colorful peacock's tail, an energy expending bird-song concert, or a $100,000 sports car. Only these costly "handicap" signals are evolutionarily stable indicators of their producer's quality, because cheap signals are too easy for low-quality imitators to fake (Zahavi and Zahavi, 1997). In this sense 'waste' has been evolutionarily selected for!

It follows that the larger a cultures energy subsidy, the more opportunity there is for ‘status badges’ to separate from traits actually correlated with basic needs (e.g. strength, intelligence, adaptability, stamina, etc.) In many societies, achieving cultural success appears to lead to biological (genetic) success. Though ‘what’ defines status may be culturally derived, status hierarchies themselves are part of our evolved nature. Our ancestors at the bottom of the mating pecking order, ceteris paribus, are not our ancestors. This is all outlined in the evolutionary theory of sexual selection.


The brain utilizes about 40% of all available genes and consumes over 20% of our caloric intake. When it comes to self preservation, nature is especially parsimonious in shaping the brains survival systems to become incredibly efficient. Incremental biases in how our brains recognize, process, and react to the world around us either contributed to our survival and thus were carried forward, or died out. Of major importance in the millions of years of hominid adaptation was the concept of 'salience', which is related to curiosity, novelty and reward seeking. Salience is noticing what is important, or different; what contrasts from the usual. All of the various precursor hominid species to modern man evolved under conditions of privation and scarcity, at least until 20-30,000 years ago, (which is too short of time to meaningfully impact millions of years of neural sculpture).

Salience recognition is part of the mesolimbic dopamine reward pathway. This system of neurons is integral to survival efficiency, helping us to instantly decide what in the environment should command our attention. Historically, immediate feedback on what is 'new' was critical in avoiding danger as well as procuring food. Because most of what happens around us each day is predictable, processing every detail of a familiar habitat wastes brain energy. It also would slow down our mental computer so as to become a deadly distraction. Thus our ancestors living on the African savanna paid little attention to the stable mountains on the horizon but were alert to any change or movement in the bush, on the plains, or at the riverbank. Those more able to detect and quickly process 'novel cues' were more likely to survive and pass on their genes. Indeed, modern experimental removal of dopamine receptor genes in animals causes them to reduce exploratory behavior, a key variable related to inclusive fitness in animal biology. Novelty also played a role in mating selection itself as well. Perceptual biases (e.g. greater responsiveness to large, bright, high-contrast, loud, rhythmic, or novel stimuli) can influence the direction of sexual selection and the details of courtship displays (e.g. Endler, 1992; Ryan & Keddy-Hector, 1992). Small differences between species in these perceptual biases could lead to large differences in the courtship displays they evolved.

We are instinctually geared for individual survival - being both reward driven, and curious. It was these two core traits which the father of economics himself, Adam Smith, predicted would be the drivers of world economic growth in "Wealth of Nations". According to Smith, uniting the twin economic engines of self-interest (which he termed self-love) and curiosity was ambition – "the competitive human drive for social betterment". Charles Darwin, about 70 years later after reading Adam Smiths “Theory of Moral Sentiments” recognized the parallel between the pursuit of wealth creation and the competition for resources that occurred among species. More recently, books by Peter Whybrow "(American Mania)"and Michael Shermer (The Mind of the Market: Compassionate Apes, Competitive Humans, and other Tales from Evolutionary Economics) have suggested that our market system of allocating resources and 'status' has been the natural social culmination for an intelligent species finding an abundance of resources.

But, as we shall soon see, the revered Scottish philosopher could not have envisioned heli-skiing, Starbucks, corporate jets, 500 foot yachts, and many other stimulating and pleasurable objects that his modern descendants compete for and so easily become acclimated to. (I doubt he ever conceived of Peak Oil either).

The major brain dopamine pathways (Thanks to Dr. Peter Whybrow) (Click to enlarge)


"Americans find prosperity almost everywhere, but not happiness. For them desire for wellbeing has become a restless burning passion which increases with satisfaction. To start with emigration was a necessity for them: now it is a sort of gamble, and they enjoy the sensations as much as the profit.” Alexis DeTocqueville, Democracy in America 1831

An explosion of neuroscience and brain imaging research tells us that drugs of abuse activate the brain’s mesolimbic dopamine reward system, the neural network that regulates our ability to feel pleasure and be motivated for “more”. When we have a great experience – a glance from a pretty girl, a lovemaking romp in the woods, a plate of fresh sushi, hitting 777 on a $5 machine, catching a lunker pike, watching a sunset, hearing a great guitar riff etc. – our brain experiences a surge in the level of the neurotransmitter dopamine. We feel positively charged, warm, ‘in the zone’ and happy. After a while, the dopamine gets flushed out of our system and returns to it's baseline level. We go about our lives, looking forward to the next pleasurable experience. But the experience has been logged onto our brains limbic system, which in addition to being the center of pleasure and emotion, holds our memory and motivation circuitry. We now begin to look forward to repeat performances. This desire has it's beginnings outside of conscious awareness. Recent brain imaging research shows that drug and sexual cues as brief as 33 milliseconds can activate the dopamine circuitry, even if a person is not conscious of the cues. Maybe that’s why they hide artistically shaped sexual images in advertisements for whiskey and such.

Historically, this entire system evolved from the biological imperative of survival. Food meant survival, sex meant survival (of genes or suites of genes), and additional stockpiles of both provided success relative to others, both within and between species. There was a discrete payoff from waiting hours for some movement in the brush that signaled ‘food’, or the sound of a particular bird that circled a tree with a beehive full of honey,etc. Our pattern recognition system on the Pleistocene would have been a grab-bag of various environmental stimuli that ‘excited’ our brains towards action that correlated with resources (typically food). In sum, the brain’s reward pathway records both the actual experience of pleasure as well as ensures that the behaviors that led to it are remembered and repeated. Irrespective of whether they are ‘good’ for the organism in the current context– they ‘feel' good, which is the mechanism our brain has left us as a heritage of natural selection.




Rescorla Wagner Learning Function (Click to enlarge)

Habituation (and subsequent substance abuse and addiction) originates in the mechansims of how we learn. Dopamine responses comply with basic assumptions of formal learning theory. Learning depends crucially on the discrepancy between the prediction and occurrence of a reward. The importance of such prediction errors is derived from Kamin’s blocking effect (1969) which postulates that a reward that is fully predicted does not contribute to the learning of a stimulus or action, even when it has been repeatedly paired with the stimulus or action. This is conceptualized in the Rescorla-Wagner learning rules, according to which learning advances only to the extent to which a reinforcer is unpredicted and slows progressively as the reinforcer becomes more predicted.

Dopamine activation has been linked with addictive, impulsive activity in numerous species. Dopamine is released within the brain not only to stimuli an organism finds rewarding but also to those events which predict rewards. It has long been known that two groups of neurons, in the ventral tegmental and the substantia nigra pars compacta areas, and the dopamine they release, are critical for reinforcing certain kinds of behavior (Dayan and Montague, 1997; Glimcher, Dorris and Bayer, 2005; Schultz, 2002). Wolfram Schultz measured the activity of these dopamine neurons while thirsty monkeys waited for a tone which was followed by a squirt of fruit juice into their mouths. After a regimen of fixed, steady amounts of juice, the volume of juice was doubled without warning. The rate of neuron firing went from about 3 per second to 80 per second. But after several trials, as this new magnitude of reward was 'habituated to', the firing rate returned to the baseline rate of 3 firings per second. The monkeys had habituated to what was coming. The opposite happened when the reward was reduced without warning. The firing rate dropped dramatically, but then returned to the baseline rate of 3 firings per second. (Gowdy 2007)

The first time we experience a drug or alcohol high, the amount of chemical we ingest often exceeds by an order of magnitude the levels of naturally occurring neurotransmitters in our bodies. No matter how brief, that experience is stored in our neural homes for motivation and memory - the amygdyla and hippocampus. Getting drunk with your friends, getting high on a ski-lift, removing the undergarments of a member of the opposite sex for the first time –all initially flood the brain with dopamine alongside a picture memory of the event linked to the bodys pleasurable response to it. As such we look forward to doing it again, because we want to repeat that 'feeling'. But in a modern stimuli-laden culture, this process is easily hijacked. After each upward spike, dopamine levels again recede, eventually to below the baseline. The following spike doesn’t go quite as high as the one before it. Over time, the rush becomes smaller, and the crash that follows becomes steeper. The brain has been fooled into ‘thinking’ that achieving that high is equivalent to survival (even more so than with food or sex which actually do contribute to survival) and the ‘consume’ light remains on all the time. Eventually, the brain is forced to turn on a self defense mechanism, reducing the production of dopamine altogether – thus weakening the pleasure circuits' intended function. At this point, an 'addicted' person is compelled to use the substance not to get high, but just to feel normal – since ones own body is producing little or no enodgenous dopamine response. Such a person has reached a state of anhedonia, or inability to feel pleasure via normal experiences. Furthermore, being addicted raises the risk of having depression; being depressed increases the risk of self-medicating, which then leads to addiction, etc. via positive feedback loops.

Habituation and eventual addiction to a substance (the graph indicates endorphins, which relate to opiates, but similar patterns exist for dopamine) (Click to enlarge)

Essentially, when exposed to novel stimuli, high levels of curiosity (dopamine) are generated, but it is the unexpected reward that causes their activation. If I order a fantastic array of sushi and the waiter brings me my check along with a breath mint, I am going to have a plunge in dopamine levels which will create an immediate craving for food. It is this interplay between expected reward and reality that underlies much of our behavioral reactions. Ultimately, repeated use of a dopamine generating ‘activity’ causes tolerance. Withdrawal results in lower levels of dopamine and continuous use is required to keep dopamine at normal levels, and even higher doses to get the ‘high’ levels of initial use. (1)

Taking this further, the Rescorla-Wagner learning function 'shape' seems to be common in life -kind of like the 80/20 rule. Here we see it with happiness and GDP. There is something important here....


“Most of these people in the nations of the United States are extremely eager in the pursuit of immediate material pleasures and are always discontented with the position they occupy. They think about nothing but ways of changing their lot and bettering it...An American will build a house in which to pass his old age and sell it before the roof is on. He will plant a garden and rent it just as the trees are coming into bear. He will take up a profession and leave it, settle in one place and soon go of elsewhere with his changing desire. Yet at the end of the year crammed with work he has little spare leisure. His restless curiosity goes with him traveling up and down the vast territories of the United States.” Alexis DeTocqueville, Democracy in America1831!

All humans share the same general neurocircuitry that can be hijacked by access to intense and pleasurable stimuli. But some are more at risk than others, both genetically, and as is increasingly apparent in the fast paced OECD world, by culture. Just having a genetic predisposition to a certain condition doesn’t assure that the condition will happen. In order to ‘switch on’, certain genes must interact with or be triggered by environmental factors. If that doesn’t happen, the addiction will not occur. Temperament and character are the 2 key components that comprise individual personality. Their distinction is inherent when we separate instinct and inborn habits from free will and what we learn. 'Character’ emerges over time through self-awareness - it is learned behavior shaped largely by the family and the culture we grow up in. "Temperament' on the other hand, is an inborn pattern of emotional style that starts to unfold in childhood and persists into adult life. Temperament is strongly heritable, accounting for approximately 40% of behavioral variance in twin studies.

Professor Robert Cloninger has developed a system of evaluating human temperament and character and their variations. Utilizing a large database from over two decades of research, Cloninger has integrated objective psychological testing of individuals with the growing knowledge of the brains anatomy and chemical messenger systems. His research confirms that patterns of temperament are heritable, but further suggests that different personality patterns reflect variation in the genetic programming of neurochemical communication. The common behavioral patterns of temperament appear to reflect the balance of activity among the dopamine, norepenephrine and serotonin systems (the 3 information superhighways linking the ancient brain stem to the neocortex). His research has identified behavioral clusters that describe 4 major temperament styles -the poles of which are 'harm avoidance' (shy) and 'novelty seeking' (bold).

Cloninger's analysis integrates common patterns in which we interact with others and how we respond to social challenges. Briefly, individuals with harm avoidance temperament are generally shy and anxious in the face of social competition. (Research in humans and other primates suggest this pattern is associated with a dominance of serotonin in the brain messenger systems). On the other hand the temperament clusters of reward dependence, persistence, and novelty seeking – the 3 behaviors that overlap with curiosity – are linked to the activity of the brains reward system as well as to the dopamine and norepenephrine superhighways. When we are 'curious' and try some new snack, play a new video game, write a good rebuttal to a Stuart Staniford post, or meet somebody we really like, it is our dopamine reward pathways that are activated, reminding us to repeat the experience. This pleasurable reinforcement begins a positive feedback loop – a reward and an individuals response to and dependence on that reward is a large part of what defines ones type of temperament.

Individuals who are fascinated by novelty and risk are less anxious and fearful when confronted with uncertainty or danger. On the flip side, they are also easily bored, (for example by reading long oildrum posts with low 'graphic/text' ratios). The association of exploratory behavior across species (genetic ‘conservation’) with the D4 dopamine receptor complex suggests that this circuitry has played an important role in mammalian adaptation to changing environments throughout evolution. It is this novelty seeking temperament that is important in understanding exploratory (migratory?) behavior. This temperament style appears to reflect genetic differences in the dopamine reward system of the brain. Those scoring high on this scale are bold and curious individuals, who enjoy exploration and challenge and are risk takers with thick skins in social situations.


“In Europe, we habitually regard a restless spirit, a moderate desire for wealth and an extreme love of independence as great social dangers, but precisely these things assure a long and peaceful future in the American republics” - Alexis DeTocqueville "Democracy in America" 1831(this guy was a freakin' prophet!)

“America was set apart in a special way. It was put here between the oceans to be found by a certain kind of people. A beacon of hope to the rest of the world” Ronald Reagan – A Time for Choosing 1984

An invasive species will be defined as “an alien species whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health” - Executive Order 13112 signed by Bill Clinton in February 1999

The fact that patterns of temperament are strongly heritable has obvious implications for understanding the restless curiousity and risk taking that is so characteristic in American culture. 98% of all humans who have ever lived on the planet never moved from their birthplace.(9) Beginning in Africa, as few as 500 humans migrated northward into Europe and Asia, which began the population seeding of the rest of the world around 120,000 years ago. Fast forward to the 17th-19th centuries, a relatively empty America was rumoured to be a land of opportunity and full of resources. Typical migrants to our shores were self-selected and for a variety of individual reasons, chose to come here (with the exception of slaves). Whether it was to escape oppression, to better ones-self and family with the promise of riches, or to quest for new lands and experiences, America has become a melting pot of immigrants in the past few centuries. If only 2% of the worlds population is migrant, then it logically follows that Americans, in their risk to start life anew are a self selected subgroup of that émigré population. At the time of its first Census in 1790, the United States was home to a population of just over 4 million people. Today, 98%+ of our 300 million residents were either born elsewhere and migrated here or born into families that migrated to the United States in the last three centuries. (The other 2% being Native Americans). This phenomenon is not confined to first generation migrants – over 20% of Americans change their residence every year and this trend has been in place since the 1950s.(1)

There has been considerable genetic testing on a suite of alleles accompanying the D dopamine receptor, which in some tests showed a high correlation with novelty/impulsivity, especially at the DRD4 polymorphism. Lack of funding (and perhaps lack of political correctness) has precluded the obvious hypothesis tests to see if Americans really are more 'genetically' wired for novelty/impulsivity. Though the brain sciences have made major advances in the past decade, they are still in their infancy in what they might accomplish. Parsing behaviors down to one particular allele, though possible, doesn't seem too likely. However, the premise that Americans are genetically/culturally more prone to risk taking, impulsivity, novelty-seeking, and therefore addiction, is the main theme of the excellent book "American Mania" (a book which I've heavily borrowed from in this post) by Dr. Peter Whybrow, who heads up the Semel Neuroscience Institute at the UCLA Medical School. I find this thesis, especially given my personal history on Wall Street and interaction with people around the world, a compelling one.


Americas Addictions - Time Magazine July 2007(Click to enlarge)

It would be pretty hard to be addicted directly to oil. Its toxic, slimy and tastes really bad. But it can be quite possible to become addicted to the energy services that oil provides. Within a frenetic culture of 'more', it is no wonder we have so many addicts. By instinct we are geared for individual survival-curious, reward-driven and self-absorbed – modern technology has now become a vector for these cravings. Material wealth and the abundant choices available in contemporary US society are unique in human (or animal) experience – never before in the history of our species have so many enjoyed (used?) so much. High density energy and human ingenuity have removed the natural constraints on our behavior of distance, time, oceans and mountains. For now, these phenomenon are largely constrained to developed nations - people living in a hut in Botswana or a yurt in Mongolia cannot easily be exposed to the 'hijacking stimuli' of an average westerner, especially one living in a big city in the United States, like New York, or Los Angeles.

Many activities in an energy rich society unintentionally prey on the difference between expected and unexpected reward. Take fishing for example. If my brother and I are out on a lake fishing and we get a bite -it sends a surge of excitement through our bodies - what kind of fish is it? how big is it? etc. We land an 8 inch perch! Cool. A minute later we catch another 8 inch perch - wow there must be a school! After 45 minutes of catching nothing but 8 inch perch, our brain comes to expect this outcome, and we need something bigger (or at least different) to generate the same level of excitement - so we will likely move to a different part of the lake in search of 'bigger' or 'different' fish. (though my brother claims he would never tire of catching fish no matter the size or species I think he's exaggerating).

But given the above mechanics of the habituation process to 'real' drugs, one can understand how some initially benign activities can morph into things more destructive. Weekly church bingo escalates to $50 blackjack tables; Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, several years down the road results in monthly delivery (in unmarked brown packaging) of "Jugs" magazine or cybercams locked in on some bedroom in Budapest; youthful rides on a rollercoaster evolves into annual heli-skiing trips, etc. Video game sales just reached $18 billion annually (and are getting more violent by the year - Lord of Rings type stuff is too mild..) Globalization and cheap travel has enabled an explosion of internet matchmaking, where 10s of millions of singles ostensibly seek a mate, but all too often get habituated to the actual 'seeking' process itself (unexpected reward writ large). Many sites now cater to short term encounters (adultfriendfinder has 21 million members). So what started off with a small yearning for flowers and companionship often ends up with exposure to more and more extreme stimuli. Sometimes ignorance really is bliss.

The world wide web is especially capable of hijacking our neural reward pathways. The 24/7 ubiquity and nearly unlimited options for distraction on the internet almost seem to be perfectly designed to hone in on our brains g-spot. Shopping, pornography, gambling, social networking, information searches, etc. easily outcompete the non-virtual, more mundane activities of yesteryear. Though becoming addicted to more 'information' doesn't use a great deal of energy relatively speaking, it, repetitive use can be highly addictive, though psychiatrists in different countries are debating whether it is a 'true' addiction. For better or worse, the first things I do in the morning is a)check what time it is, b)start the coffee machine then c)check my email, to see what 'novelty' might be in my inbox. Bills to pay, and emails from people who are not important or interesting, wait until later in the day, or are forgotten altogether. Then I walk the dog. At least I don't own a television.

Novelty. Novelty. Novelty. Always something new in the inbox... (well, an email from Vladimir Putin would certainly qualify). Don't you just WANT to click on some of these? (Click to enlarge)

As you read this the World Series of Poker is going on in Las Vegas, with upwards of $200,000,000 in total prize money. There has been an explosion of young people playing poker, many of them dropping out of college to do so. Many young players have made millions and gone broke numerous times before their 21st birthday.
With numerous 19-22 year olds making millions per year, this is one modern cultural aspiration that seems to be trumping 'solar installer' or 'micro-hydro engineer'. Once exposed to playing 4-6 high stakes online poker games simultaneously (and winning), planting potatoes or backpacking in Yosemite become the neural equivalent of a baked potato (with nary salt nor butter).

Regarding sex, there are few healthy men on the planet today that in social settings do not respond, outwardly or otherwise, to the attention of a high status, attractive 20-30 something woman. This is salient stimuli, irrespective of the mans marital status. But here is one example of where nature and nurture mesh. Despite the fact that 99+% of our history is polygynous, modern culture precludes men from running around pell mell chasing women - we have rules, laws, and institutions such as marriage. Though habituation to various 'things' may at least partially explain the 60%+ divorce rate in modern society. The grass is greener and such...

Seriously, the entire brain and behavior story is far more complex than just one neurotransmitter and its reward pathway. But the pursuit of this particular 'substance' is clearly correlated with anxiety, obesity, and general increasing of conspicuous consumption in our society. (1) That dopamine is directly involved is pretty clear. Parkinsons Disease is a condition where dopamine is lacking in an area of the brain necessary for motor coordination. Here is a fMRI photo of dopamine levels of a Parkinsons patient vs. a control. The Parkinsons drug, Mirapex, increases dopamine levels in that area of the brain, but since pills are not lasers, it also increases dopamine in other areas of the body, including (surprise) the reward pathways. There are numerous lawsuits currently pending by Parkinsons patients who after taking the drug, developed sex, gambling, shopping and overeating compulsions (Journal of Neurology Sep 2005).

Food is also an area that can trick the brain. We evolved in situations where salt and sugar where rare and lacking. When we taste Doritos or Ben and Jerry's Chocolate Fudge Brownie, our reward pathways say 'yes yes - this is good for you!!', at the same time our 'rational' brain reminds us of the science showing obesity comes from eating too much of the wrong type of foods. For most (myself included) my rational brain is batting about .250 or less. Americans lead the world in obesity(Percentage of population with Body Mass Index > 30 SOURCE - OECD FACTBOOK 2005 – ISBN 92-64-01869-7 – © OECD 2005). Since we are exporting our culture (via the market system) to developing countries, it is no surprise that China is following in our footsteps. From 1991 to 2004 the percentage of adults who are overweight or obese in China increased from 12.9% to 27.3%.(8) Furthermore, we can become habituated to repeated presentation of the same food type - we quickly get tired of it and crave something different. We like variety. In food and in other things.

(Side note: recently I've been cooking for myself - I cook too much and share the leftovers with my dog. He now shuns his regular food (unless he's starving). Apparently dogs can experience food habituation as well (which is bad for me - he is now a perpetual beggar).


As has been previously written about on here, the economic term for impulsivity is steep discount rates, which means we weight the present predominantly more than the future when making decisions (consciously or otherwise). (I am beginning to think this phenomenon is really the ecological maxim, The Maximum Power Principle, integrated with culture) The discounting model of impulsiveness (Ainslie, 1975) implies that discount rates are positively correlated with impulsivity. On average, heroin addicts' discount rates are over double those of controls. Furthermore, in tests measuring discount rates and preferences among opium addicts, opioid dependent participants discounted delayed monetary rewards significantly more than did non-drug using controls. Also, the opioid-dependent participants discounted delayed opium significantly more than delayed money, more evidence that brain chemicals are central to an organisms behavior and money and other abstractions are secondary. Subsequent research has also shown that deprivation of various addictive substances even further steepens a subject’s preference for immediate consumption over delayed gratification. This grid summarizes some of the latest research statistics on addiction to various substances that cause us to choose small short term rewards over larger long term rewards. (source - Intertemporal Choice - Chablis et al. -The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics, 2007). Even if we are not snorting cocaine or binge drinking on a Tuesday night, in a world with so much choice and so many stimulating options vying for our attention, perhaps more and more of us are addicted to...time.


Source - "The Overspent American" - Professor Juliet Schor (Click to enlarge)

Though we might claim otherwise, we always want more. Many desires have negative feedbacks however. I can only eat about 3 cheeseburgers before my stomach sends a signal to my brain that I am full - if I ate 4 or 5 my stomach and esophogus would eventually fill up so that I couldn't physically eat another one. This is not so with virtual wealth, or many of the "wanting" stimuli promoted in our culture. In ongoing research Professor Juliet Schor of Boston University demonstrates that no matter how much we (the study was on Americans) make, we always say we'd like to make a little more the following year. Similar research, by UCLA economist Richard Easterlin followed a cohort of people over an 16 year period. (he is the eponymous coiner of the "Easterlin Paradox" which points out that average happiness has remained constant over time despite sharp rises in GDP per Capita.) The participants were asked at the onset to list 10 items that they desired. (e.g. sports car, snowmobile, house, private jet, etc.) Over the 16 year study, all age groups tested did acquire some/many of the things they originally desired. But in each case, their desires increased more than their acquisitions. This phenomenon is termed the "Hedonic Treadmill". Clearly mansions and sports cars don't inherently elicit lifelong cravings on their own. Culture plays the integral role in linking our neural scaffolding to consumptive pursuits. Modern brain research indicates that we get a higher buzz by pursuing the type of 'status' symbols (in this study, cars) that society attaches value to. In my opinion, this behavior is at the heart of the Peak Oil problem, and gives me less confidence that we are just going to 'tighten our belts' when the energy situation gets a little tougher and more expensive. That is unless, we change what we want MORE of.

In evolution, (and other fields), this is known as the Ratchet Effect, where once a certain level is reached there is no going backward, at least not all the way. An example of this is obesity - as we get fatter the body creates more adipocytes (adipose tissue). But this system doesn't work in reverse - even though we can lose some of the weight gain, the body can't eliminate these new cells- they are here to stay - thus the ratchet effect. In biology, animals will expend more energy to defend freshly gained territory. In humans, related concepts in economics are the endowment effect and loss aversion - the pain from losing (money) is greater than the pleasure of gaining it.


Our gradual acclimation to substances and activities that hijack our reward system is increasingly forcing us (collectively) to live in the moment. Unwinding this cultural behavior may prove to be difficult. The sensations we seek in the modern world are not only available and cheap, but most are legal, and the vast majority are actually promoted by our culture. If the rush is tied to something that society rewards we call it ambition, if its attached to something a little scary, then we label the individual a ‘risktaker’ and if its tied to something illegal – then they are an ‘addict’ or substance abuser. So it seems culture has voted on which drugs are 'good' to pursue.

Thought experiment on drugs - legal and illegal vs energy footprint(Click to enlarge)

This is (obviously) a hypothetical chart, so I will follow it with a hypothetical question. What would society look like if Starbucks dispensed marijuana and Home Depots were giant opium dens? Would we be better off, collectively? (Caffeine is akin to horizontal drilling of oil - it maximizes current production at the cost of higher future depletion).

Drug addiction is defined as "the compulsive seeking and taking of a drug despite adverse consequences". If we substitute the word ‘resource’ for ‘drug’, have we meaningfully violated or changed this definition? That should depend on the definition of ‘drug’ – "a substance that a person chemically comes to rely upon" is standard. Proximally, a drug is a physical substance, but ultimately, it is any activity or substance that generates brain chemicals in a pattern we habituate to. Thus, it is not crude oils intrinsic qualities we crave but the biochemical sensations we have become accustomed to arising from creatively using its embodied energy.

Take stock trading for example. Neuroscience scans show that stock trading lights up the same brain areas as picking nuts and berries do in other primates, suggestive of what our ancestors must have 'felt' as they tried to increase resources. In my opinion, there are three (at least) 'objectives' one gets from investing/trading in the market, in varying degrees in different people. Neoclassical economics suggests it is the efficient allocation of capital to the company that rewards the investor for risk. I think people trade for a)money/profit (to compete/move up the mating ladder), b)to be ‘right’, and c) for the excitement/dopamine of the unexpected nature of market movements. While they are not mutually exclusive, it is not clear to me which objective dominates, especially among people who have already attained infinite wealth (technically their annual expenses divided by the t-bill rate). This I witnessed first hand for many years as my billionaire clients on average were less 'happy' than the $30k a year clerks processing their trades. More exciting lives perhaps, but not happier. The rich wanted 'more' because they were habituated to getting more - it's how they kept score. Unless you inherit it, you don't get to be a billionaire if you are easily satisfied. Old brain - new choices.

Regarding compulsive shopping, if this were a rational process, and our choices were influenced only by need, then brand name t-shirts would sell no better than less expensive shirts of equal quality. The truth is that many shopping decisions are biased by corporate advertising campaigns or distorted by a desire to satisfy some competitive urge or emotional need. Payless Shoe Stores has just set up a website campaign for women who love shoes, etc. If the statistic in stating that 99% of what we buy ends up as trash within 6 months is correct, then we really have created an entropic machine (I don't know how to check that source - but the video is worth watching). The peak 'brain cocktail' is the moment we decide to buy that new 'item'. After a brief euphoria and a short respite, the clock starts ticking on the next craving.

Not shown on the chart would be many activities falling in the lower left part, both legal and low energy: gardening, reading books, playing games with the family, going for hikes, thinking, sleeping, playing sports, etc. Also not shown might be the hugest dopamine rush of them all - attaining high political office. Unlike heroin and opium which work on opiate receptors and 'satiate' the user, dopamine is a 'wanting' drug. One more orgasm, one more pair of shoes, one more million in the bank, one more social approval, one more check of my email, one more political notch, etc. I wonder what a brain scan of Hillary Clinton during a debate would look like compared to someone on cocaine. I'm guessing pretty similar. (fMRI machines, in order to function, have enormous magnets, and thus only work in lab settings - they cannot be made to be mobile in the forseeable future, but that would be fun)

Also missing on the graphic is violence. Recent research shows that the dopamine we (males) receive from aggression rivals that of food or sex. This is not encouraging.


The Global Carrot for 6.6 billion and growing is What and Whom?(Click to enlarge)

So what are the drivers of economic growth and resource depletion? The "aspiration gap" is economic-speak for the relative fitness/status drive towards who/what is at the top of the status hierarchy. Envy is a strong motivator. A friend recounted that when he last visited Madagascar, the 5th poorest nation on earth, the villagers huddled around the one TV in the village watching the nations most popular TV show 'Melrose Place', giving them a window of desire into Hollywood glitz and glamour, and a beacon to dream about and strive for... More recently, a prince in the royal family of U.A.E. paid $14 million for a vanity license plate "1". "I bought it because I want to be the best in the world." said Khouri, whose family made its fortune in real estate. What message do the kids watching TV in U.A.E receive?

The above graphic is a hypothetical normal distribution of world population. Modern developed nations are competing for profits, yet we are doing so smack in the face of declining energy surplus. When a new child is born, he has all the genetic material he will ever have - from that moment his genes interact with the environment indicating what to compete for. What will a child born in the 21st century 'learn' to compete for? Historically, we have always pursued social status, though status been measured in dramatically different ways throughout history. Currently, most people pursue money, though some compete in other ways - politics, knowledge, etc. Modern fMRIs show artificial cultural objects associated with wealth and social dominance elicit activation in reward-related brain areas (Erk 2002). Thus, the large looming problem is that the Chinese (and other rapidly developing nations) don't just aspire the wealth of average Americans - they want whole hog to be millionaires. The only way this can happen is that after basic needs are met, the definition of 'millionaires' changes (or I suppose, central banks could dramatically increase the money supply)

A hypothetical human timeline of stimulation opportunities (Click to enlarge)


I recently returned from a weekend trip to Las Vegas. On the plane home, full of disconsolate, exhausted zombies, it struck me that Vegas is a microcosm of modern society in several important ways.

1)On the plane ride to Vegas, everyone was giddy, sociable, even manic, anticipating all kinds of unexpected reward in the Babylon of 21st century. Once you get off the plane, its like you are on one extended 72 hour search for unexpected reward. Can't find it here? Let's go there. Craps, horses, poker, women, golf, swimming, booze, craps, massage, sleep, craps, women, sushi over and over. It's society compressed into a weekend.

2)I probably know more about the issues surrounding Peak Oil than 99% of people on the planet. Yet among the bright lights, freely flowing drinks, friendly company, and non-stop excitement, not only did I forget about our pending date with a global oil peak, but for about a 12 hour period, under influence from friends, Peak Oil actually seemed impossible. There is no way all this glitz and glamour could end - the vitality in the casinos was viral. The availability heuristic, and other psychological phenomenon were very powerful indeed to thus anesthetize a peak oil curmudgeon like myself. (2 hours back at the cabin reading the Drumbeat straightened me right out). My point is that few will believe until events force them too. I've known this for a while, but this little personal vignette sealed the concept.

3)There is a shared mythology in America (and spreading) that we can each enjoy fame and opulence at the top of the social pyramid. Even though everyone (I think) knows the odds are stacked against them - they have hope they will be the big winner. 78% of Americans still believe that anybody in America can become rich and live the good life (15). The reality is that the longer one gambles in Vegas, the higher the odds are stacked against you. In our economic system, not everyone can be Donald Trump by definition - there are not enough resources - it's the carrot of potential reward that keeps people working 50 hours a week until they retire at 65. All cannot be first. All cannot be wealthy, which makes capitalism, on a finite resource planet not dissimilar from a Ponzi scheme.

4)Vegas may be a canary in our societal coalmine, as the just-in-time delivery model has to run just right in a desert community importing food, water and energy. Already, there are studies showing there may not be enough water for flat consumption by 2020, let alone enough for planned expansions and a new airport. The Mirage may one day be aptly named.

Given what I've outlined in this post, perhaps the worst thing that can happen to a 'new gambler' (or child) is to hit 777 or win big on his/her first experience - its sets up a mental feedback system via the amygdyla and reward pathways that raises expectations in the future, thus making the allure of one armed bandits, etc. difficult to just walk past. A similar setpoint may occur with skiing, buying a new car, making ones first million, or any number of socially sanctioned activities using energy....


This essay has explored some of the underlying drivers of resource depletion and human consumption: more humans competing for more stuff that has more novelty. The self-ambition and curiosity that Adam Smith hailed as twin engines of economic growth have been quite effective over the past 200 years. But Adam Smith did caution in "Moral Sentiments" that human envy and a tendency toward compulsions, if left unchecked, could undermine the empathic social relationships that would be essential to his economic model and the successful long term operation of free markets. Smith lived before the creation of the megacorporation, before 24 hour global commerce and before stock options and NASCAR. Amidst so much choice and wealth, we are discovering some uncomfortable facts backed up by modern neurobiology that confirm Adam Smiths fears. In an era of material affluence, when wants have not yet been fully constrained by limited resources, the evidence from our modern American experiment suggests that humans have trouble setting limits on their instinctual cravings. And our rational brains have an equally hard time acknowledging this glaring fact.

This essay has likened the chemical sensations we receive from many socially available stimuli in our fast paced world to the same neural patterns that occur with illicit drugs. "Addiction" can mean many things to many people. I am quite certain a psychiatrist would refuse to diagnose any of us with 'an oil addiction'. But perhaps not an ecologist. The literature from economics as well as psychology and neuroscience suggest that when an addict (broadly defined) is exposed to higher prices, conventional economic theory will not hold. Since the rational actor model has now been thoroughly disproven so as to almost be an economic footnote, this should not come as a surprise.

In conclusion, dear reader, I have thrown a great deal of information your way. I hope it is clear(er) that we have both biological and cultural constraints on our behavior and that finding the next billion barrels may or may not prove to be a good thing. If you have read this far, I doubt you have serious addiction issues. An addict would likely not have had the patience to read 8,000+ words..;-)


1. If we do manage to increase societies aggregate energy gain, this surplus will be split amongst the entrepreneurs and consumers and ripple through the economic system like a deposit in a fractional banking system. More stuff to become habituated to. Thus, What Price Progress?

2. I have come to the conclusion that we cannot change our penchant to want more. We can only change how we define the 'more'. Put aside Peak Oil and Climate Change for the moment. We have it in us to ‘nudge’ how our brains get ‘hijacked’. We can choose to go for a jog/hike instead of sending 10 emails and websurfing, we can choose to have a salad instead of a cheeseburger, we can choose to play a game or read a story with our children instead of making 5 business phone calls, etc. But most of these choices, in my opinion, require prior planning. Because ‘at the moment’, our brains will fall into the neural grooves that modern culture has worn into them. It takes conscious plans to change these behaviors, and for some this will be harder than for others (for me very hard). But in choosing thusly, we are likely making ourselves as individuals healthier and happier, with the positive externalities of using less energy and slowing and eventually reversing the societal stimulation feedback loop.

3. It sounds corny, but the ratio Dopamine/Energy may be a better choice to maximize than many economic formulas. The brain is clearly not as simple as just a single one of over 100 neurotransmitters - but in our culture, dopamine looms large. However, in addition to maximizing Dopamine/Energy, we know that we will want MORE in the future. So we have to build that in to the equation, and only aspire to maximize Dopamine/Energy, e.g. keep the first derivative positive but second derivative negative (or zero). Perhaps maximizing ==>(Unexpected Reward-Expected reward)/Entropy might be a more complex but loftier goal. Food for thought.

4. In the 1970s resource concerns spawned analyses on net energy (Odum), limits to growth(Meadows et al) and criticism of the neoclassical economics model (Georgescu-Roegen, Daly), but the planet was still comparatively empty, and cheap resources still abounded. However, things are really starting to change quickly- the global rich are at least beginning to realize the implications of peak oil, even if they don’t believe it is imminent. They will gradually understand that a GINI coefficient rising towards 1.0 and accelerating ecosystem destruction will not leave them or their children much of a place to enjoy their money. This means there is a real possibility of educating local, regional and national leaders (likely via the rich and powerful) towards a different system. It's now in their interests.

5. In my opinion, the United States has a monumental (though long odds) opportunity to shift the worlds carrot away from conspicuous consumption. As ostensible leaders of the free world, we need to set an example that others will follow. The only thing standing in the way is the overwhelming pursuit of profits as our end goal, despite the rationale for the economic system being continually debunked. At a minimum there needs to be government regulation of some areas of the market. Costs that have long been externalized need to be accounted for. Perhaps a system where the market allocates and votes on 'luxury items' while government manages the commons and basic goods? I do admit that Europe is a good deal further than we are on many of these fronts. My fear is that Americans 'ingenuity' will focus entirely on replacing our energy supply with lower EROI renewables, and thus not only miss the larger prize, but win the booby prize. (An upcoming post will be on The Tragedy of the Energy Investing Commons)

6. The planet is finite: there is only so much land, oil, water, dolphins and gold. No matter how efficiently we use our resources, if there are more users competing for more stuff, we will eventually run out of goods. However, information is limitless. We can explore, research, study, and learn as much as we wish. With the caveat that 8 hours of reading be balanced by hearty physical exercise, information is one thing we can compete for that uses few resources. Look at as one example. Vernadskii dreamt of a system he called “noosphere” – a biosphere driven by human intellect, spirituality, knowledge, and understanding. This has a shot.....(but then, what would we DO with the information...?

7. There is anecdotal evidence that the typical american diet high in processed starches and sugar robs us of our baseline serotonin - the zen master of brain neurotransmitters. Lack of serotonin makes us more susceptible to cravings/behavioural changes and throws the reward machinery out of whack. Food we buy/eat is available at stores and restaurants because a)it is profitable b)it is convenient and c)it tastes good. I suspect that future changes in diet towards more vegetables and less processed food might improve our collective addictions/impulsivity. However, this is speculation as the data is sparse.

8. If we can be neurally hijacked, what does it suggest about television, advertising, media, etc? The majority of the neuro-economic sources I used in writing this post were a byproduct of studies funded by neuromarketing research! How does 'rational utility' function in a society where we are being expertly marketed to pull our evolutionary triggers to funnel the money upwards??

9. In retrospect, this has not been a post about Peak Oil. From the perspective of perpetual wants in an existing system, Peak Oil may only appear to be a crisis, but it might also be the needed catalyst for change. We, collectively, are in charge, but need to look at the real big picture, with science, hope and community.

10 Addiction is analog, not digital. Each of us has something akin to an addictive 'rating' on a scale of 1-10 (1 being totally non-addictive and 10 being full-on addict -valuing only the next few minutes in their lives over any future rewards/punishments. ) The higher the cultural composite sum of these ratings the harder it will be to access long term positive decisions. Reducing our addictive behaviours (collectively) will make it easier to face the situations likely during an energy descent.

Footer This amazing photography work artistically frames some of the impacts of the ideas in this essay.)

References used:

Whybrow, Peter, "American Mania" (1)

Abler B. et al, "Prediction error as a linear function of reward probability is coded in human nucleus accumbens", Neuroimage. 2006 Feb 15; : 164877

Barro, Robert Getting it Right: Markets and Choices in a Free Society, Economica, New Series, Vol. 65, No. 257 (Feb., 1998), pp. 153-154

Chablis et al, "Intertemporal Choice" -The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics, 2007

Cloninger, C. R., Svrakic, D. M. and Przybeck, T. R. (1993) A psychobiological model of temperament and character. Archives of General Psychiatry 50, 975–990

Cloninger, C. R., Przybeck, T. R. and Svrakic, D. M. (1991) The tridimensional personality questionnaire: U.S. normative data. Psychological Reports 69, 1047–1057

DeTocqueville, Alexis, "Democracy in America" 1831

Dudley, R. (2002) Fermenting Fruit and the Historical Ecology of Ethanol Ingestion: Is Alcoholism in Modern Humans an Evolutionary Hangover? Addiction, 97, 381–388.

Dulawa, “Dopamine D4 Receptor-Knock-Out Mice Exhibit Reduced Exploration of Novel Stimuli”, Journal of NeuroScience, 19:9550-9556, 1999

Easterlin, Richard "Explaining Happiness" September 4, 2003, 10.1073/pnas.1633144100 (Especially Table 3)

Erk, S , M Spitzer , A Wunderlich , L Galley , H Walter "Cultural objects modulate reward circuitry." Neuroreport. 2002 Dec 20;13 (18):2499-503 12499856

Ernst, M., Epstein, L.Habituation of Responding for Food in Humans Appetite
Volume 38, Issue 3, June 2002, Pages 224-234

Gerald, M. S. & Higley, J. D. (2002) Evolutionary Underpinnings of Excessive Alcohol Consumption. Addiction, 97, 415–425.

Giorodano, Louis, Bickel, Warren, Loewenstein, G, Jacobs, E, Marsch, L, and Badger, G, “Mild opioid deprivation increases the degree that opioid-dependent outpatients discount delayed heroin and money”, Psychopharmacology (2002) 163: 174-182

Horne, Malcolm, “Dopamine D2 Receptor Blocker Cures Cocaine Addiction in Rats, Future Pundit, Feb 9, 2005 Melbourne Florey Institute (10)

Kampe, K., et al, Psychology: Reward value of attractiveness and gaze, Nature 413, 589 (11 October 2001)

Kirby, KN et al “Heroin addicts have higher discount rates for delayed rewards than non-drug-using controls” Journal of Experimental Psychology 1999 Mar pgs 78-87

Madden, Gregory, Petry, Nancy, Badger, Gary, Bickel, Warren, “Impulsive and Self-Control Choices in Opiod-Dependent Patients and Non-Drug Using Control Participants: Drug and Monetary Rewards”, Environmental and Clinical Pscyhopharmacology 1997, Vol 5 No 3 256-262

Miller, G. F. (1999). Sexual selection for cultural displays. In R. Dunbar, C. Knight, & C. Power (Eds.), The evolution of culture. Edinburgh U. Press, pp. 71-91

Newlin, D. B. (2002) "The Self-Perceived Survival Ability and Reproductive Fitness (SPFit) Theory of Substance Use Disorders".
Addiction, 97, 427–445.

Popkin, Barry. "The World Is Fat", Scientific American, September, 2007, pp. 94. ISSN 0036-8733. (8)

Rescorla RA, Wagner AR. A theory of Pavlovian conditioning: Variations in the effectiveness of reinforcement and nonreinforcement. In: Classical Conditioning II: Current Research and Theory (Eds Black AH, Prokasy WF) New York: Appleton Century Crofts, pp. 64-99, 1972

Samuelson, Robert, "Ambition and it Enemies" Newsweek Aug 23, 1999 (15)

Scott, William and Scott, Ruth, “Adaptation of Immigrants: Individual Differences and Determinants” (New York, Permagon Press, 1989)

Schor, Juliet, ""The Overspent American"

Schultz, Wolfram, "Reward", Scholarpedia

Schultz W. Behavioral theories and the neurophysiology of reward. Ann Rev Psychol 57: 87-115, 2006. Podcast

Shermer, Michael, The Mind of the Market: Compassionate Apes, Competitive Humans and other Tales from Evolutionary Economics"

Smith, Adam "The Theory of Moral Sentiments" 1759

Smith, Adam "An Inquiry into Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations"1776

Sowell, Thomas, “Migrants and Cultures: A Worldview” (New York, Basic Books, 1996) (9)

Tancredi, Laurence, Hardwired Behavior - What Neuroscience Reveals About Morality

Waelti, P., Dickinson, A. and Schultz, W.: Dopamine responses comply with basic assumptions of formal learning theory. Nature 412: 43-48, 2001

Wicklegren, Ingrin “Getting the Brains Attention”, Science,10/97 vol 278, pp 35-37

If humans have evolved an addictive nature out of a need to deal with scarcity, then that will come in handy. I would be more worried if humans had evolved to only handle excess.

Nate - I think you may have become addicted to writing. More so than I've become addicted to reading, unfortunately.
Otherwise there's much I agree with in there.


Your curve representing legal versus illegal drugs and their energy footprint is crazy. For one nicotine can be consumed at 18 while alcohol is 21, and there is no legal limit to how much nicotine you can consume. Heroin and cocaine are both highly concentrated derivatives produced largely with hand tools in third world countries. They are transported long distances but their weight versus distance is equal to coffee at least and coffee being legal is able to have many obvious large farms using modern equipment. How is food not the most legal thing on the chart? You just drew a curve and willy nilly placed items on it.

The next curve even though you state hypothetical is still wrought with problems. Horseback riding is at least as old as a bread butter ale combo and since we evolved as tribes of familial groups a cousin would not be an amazing stimulation. In fact most people married cousins until recent history.

A good scientist forms conclusions based on observed data not the other way around.

The presentation was nice, but like much of your other work I see you connecting dots that may not be actually connected.

Respectfully yours,


The two graphics you mention were clearly labeled as thought experiments/hypothetical. At least they made you think.

As to the rest of the ideas presented here, they were heavily researched and referenced. This is a (more colorful) draft of a paper being submitted to Journal of Behavior Ecology, a field which is just now connecting these dots.

Thanks for the feedback.

Another word commonly used in this situation is 'notional', meaning the data or graph is not intended to communicate empirical findings insomuch as it is a concept or visual framework. I understood what you meant.

Oilrig medic,this is the sort of pedantic nit picking I expect from climate change/peak oil deniers.Please read the article as a whole and with as open a mind as you can muster.That way you may be able to educate yourself in unfamiliar concepts.

Give it a break - his point was completely correct, his comments over several years have been valuable, and labelling someone pointing out factual errors (which you didn't even bother to discuss) as using 'pedantic nit picking' reflects pretty poorly on the person saying it, at least in this forum.

The charts were labeled as 'hypothetical', which to me meant notional. You, however, appear to have an axe to grind, and seem to prefer to persist in your misunderstanding.


When you write a paper, any graphs or pictures jump out and stick in the mind of the reader. I just felt the things I pointed out detract from the papers credibility as a whole. When someone is talking to me about something I don't know if I catch a few obvious errors I start to suspect it all. That being said most of the article is weel written and all addiction pathways are the same no matter what the chemical. As long as you feel rewarded you reinforce the behavior to get the reward. However US consumption culture is not the rule for the world or for history. It is really a blip on the radar. If we can take the carbon out of the footprint by switching to Nukes + alternatives we will be OK in my opinion.
Pedantically yours,

Hmmmm ... I always thought the two primary mental modes were greed and fear ...

Anyway, not to be nitpicky, but most of the people I know and myself included find modern life to be indescribably aggravating, harsh, unforgiving, hostile and boring. There is little in the way of novelty or stimulation. When we have had enough, we Americans 'go postal' with some of the billions of handguns and machine guns we collect. Or, we start bands ...

On the other hand, going to Venice (or Florence or Rome or any number of pre- oil places) is very stimulating, interesting, educational, filled with novelties, stimulations, surprises, delights, etc. I guess this is the difference between civilization and mere culture.

The good life does not exist within piles of junk labeled 'Made In China'. It exists in escaping the rat race. This concept is the best way to sell conservation to the zombies.

If Peak Oil destroys the rat race forever, more power to it!


i think you need to check out 'century of self' a multi part documentary on how humans have learned to hijack these innate behavior's in other humans to get what a small amount of people want.
this has been called manufactured consent and i would think it ranks up there on the addiction scale.

Not just a recommendation to Nate, in case he hasn't seen it, but all readers of TOD.

The Century of the Self, by Adam Curtis - Available for download and online viewing from or alternatively from Google Videos

I have been told about Adam Curtis before but will add to the front burner...I'm currently in 'build my library' mode. (Amazon is very pleased)

Heh, been doing the same for the past two years. Esp. good ref books. Falling dollar has helped in this a lot as I'm in the Euro zone.

Unfortunately Adam Curtis videos are not available for sale anywhere, not in any form, afaik. They've been requested many times from the BBC, but apparently it's too cumbersome/costly to clear the samples for all the stuff he's used. So the only sources remain the online copies, some of which are of not very high quality.

Re Adam Curtis Century of Self: Available on DVD from:

Yes, but that guy is apparently selling illegal pirated copies off the same stuff he downloaded from the Internet to begin with. Not very nice. Adam Curtis videos have never been released in commercial form anywhere - legally that is.

Quite probably the best documentary ever; the first 2 parts at least.

I would also highly recommend "The Power of Nightmares" also by Adam Curtis. The rise of the American Neo-Conservative movement is compared with the radical Islamist movement noting strong similarities between the two.

The film relates how Dr. Sayyid Qutb - a founder of modern Islamic thought - visits Chicago to learn about the American education system and becomes disgusted with what he saw as a corruption of morals and virtues in western society through individualism. Among other things, he is appalled by the amount of water wasted on maintaining lawns!

The film also presents how the Neocons - Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Straus, et. al. invented a myth of overwhelming Soviet superiority in arms (called Plan B) which they tried - and failed - to sell to Ronald Reagan. They got a second chance under Bush and invented a new myth, al Qaeda.

Although shown widely around the world the film has yet to be aired in the United States.

Seconded, both great series, both present a completely different view on things, and entirely credible it seems. I've not seen any criticisms anyway.

Actually I find Adam Curtis's 2007 documentary "The Trap" to be his most mature work and most relevant to the current discussion. Century of the Self hangs a little bit too much on Freud. "The Trap" is about competing notions of freedom. Oil plays a key part in our experience of freedom in North America and Europe.

Excellent article! I'm off for a bike ride.

There is a broken link on point 7 in the musing section.

Insightful again, and I am going to go for a run.

The only thing standing in the way is the overwhelming pursuit of profits as our end goal, despite the rationale for the economic system being continually debunked.

Profit is the measure of price minus cost. Lets take the Peak Oil crisis to define "profit" in a sustainable framework. Perhaps defining profit as the difference between the value customers willingly pay minus the total cost to compete. The more value added the more profitable. The fewer resources consumed, counting all restoration and maintenance, the more profitable. Create a metric where people see their next best hope for a paycheck, profit, reflect the near and long term.

As you note, we are doomed to be habitual; with great care we can choose our habits. Culture is the mirror in which we see ourself. Perhaps we can create a metric that reflects the long term. Who we pretend to be, we gradually become. Peak Oil will be harsh and force us to search our mirror for who we think we are. This is an opportunity to shape the image we see as was noted by Ben Franklin:

To be thrown upon one's own resources, is to be cast into the very lap of fortune; for our faculties then undergo a development and display an energy of which they were previously unsusceptible.

With your insight into how our brain works, perhaps you could lead an effort to frame such a metric for profit?

"What gets measured gets done."

It seems that to a great degree we indulge these things simply because we can. Fuel is cheap, so spend a few bucks and go and do these crazy things. But as we all know, just because we want something doesn't mean that it is possible. For example, just because I might want to play 1st base for the Red Sox doesn't mean that it is ever going to happen. People will ultimately give up many of these things simply because they can no longer afford to indulge their fantasies. Many of us talk about the unsustainability of Las Vegas, for example. As flights become rarer and more expensive, how many people will continue to travel there? Bus trips from L.A., I imagine, but that won't be enough by itself to sustain the place.

My brain must be wired differently. I have been to Las Vegas, and it bores me. Gambling doesn't interest me, and everything else about the city is just fluff around the gambling. The entertainment is 2nd-rate, the food is nothing special. Any attractions other than gambling are uninteresting and overpriced. Yet when I am there what interests me is watching people in the casino. I have seen elderly people with walkers and fixated gazes slowly making their way across a room to get to the slot machines. I once saw a woman pumping 5$ tokens into a slot machine (3 at a time), and while waiting for the dials to stop spinning, she would pump in 3 more tokens into the adjacent machine.

In Australia gambling is a big industry.Casinos in all state capitals,huge nationwide lotteries,poker machines in clubs and pubs,lotteries to fund charitable causes,horse and dog racing and so on ad nauseum.State governments have a very significant tax revenue out of gambling.Paradoxically they also fund programs for "problem" gamblers.Some of the tax on poker machines is used to fund community initiatives.
The result of all this is socially destructive and is probably nearly impossible to wind back due to the ratchet effect.Not just gamblers are addicted to gambling.

Food for thought galore, Nate – thanks.

But in choosing thusly [i.e. reducing our energy consumption – CO], we are likely making ourselves as individuals healthier and happier, with the positive externalities of using less energy and slowing and eventually reversing the societal stimulation feedback loop.

Scarcity, in the fullness of time, will do the choosing for us. Whether we will be 'healthier and happier' is another matter.

Take the caption to the cartoon a few paragraphs further up:

"I hate to admit it, but a man with a big carbon footprint makes me hot."

Therein (at least for males of reproductive age) lies the rub. A big carbon footprint correlates closely with high energy consumption which correlates closely with income and/or wealth, which correlates closely with the male's attractiveness to the female sex. Hence any male who lives a life of voluntary simplicity is likely to less successful in love and, therefore, less happy. Nice low-footprint guys finish last.

The crooked timber of humanity just isn't going to buy into the simple life. It's a Darwinian cul de sac.

Still, there's no need to worry – if we don't choose the simple life, the simple life will choose us. But in the meantime, men (on average) will keep on going for broke in their competition with other males for sexually attractive females.

I suppose it's all wimmin's fault, innit?

This can't be true:

Hence any male who lives a life of voluntary simplicity is likely to less successful in love and, therefore, less happy. Nice low-footprint guys finish last.

Here's some food for thought. Since most of the 6.5 billion humans currently inhabiting the planet are not the offspring of males with big carbon footprints and some of them are even happy. The empirical data does not support your theory. You are going to have to revise your theory to fit the data.

Yes. Another point-NYC is the most energy efficient USA city-supposedly money as a measure of personal value is as big there as anywhere, so the premise of large carbon footprint matches economic competition doesn't hold up either.

Generally speaking, men who are rich will have larger property, faster and less fuel effcient cars and take more international flights; this equals a higher carbon footprint.

In pre-historic times this would equate to catching a bigger dear or catching the most fish. This is why women are attracted to rich and successful men; because it trigger the sub-conscious process that this man can provide for me and my family.

Men on some level know this and since wealth in modern times equates to a high carbon footprint the problem highlighted is completely valid.

The key is not changing society; that is too unrealistic. These neurological tendancies have built up over hundreds of thousands of years only the widespread adoption of tradional Yogic practice or some other transformative spiritual practice could these tendancies be removed. The key, realisticly, is removing carbon from our energy production and transport infrastructure; which I believe is not only possible but will happen due to the current and continuing high energy prices.

Yes I think your analysis is right and after the oil based economy fades away then women (and more importantly their parents (parents have a big say in whom their daughters choose) who want the women and any offspring "provided for") are going to still be interested in the men with the access to the most energy--- then it will be the most land or the people who manage to install themselves in positions of power and control other people and direct flows of energy their way.

Look at this interesting word "power"----it has several meanings: in physics it's energy flow rate but in politics it's also the authoritative strength of an entity to exercise control.

I think we all secretly admire power wherever we see it: fast cars, race horses, Presidents, etc. Even if we don't like it. We are drawn to it.

FMagyar, you wriote:

... most of the 6.5 billion humans currently inhabiting the planet are not the offspring of males with big carbon footprints ...

True, but they're the offspring of males with bigger carbon footprints than the 'losers'. That's my point --- it's a matter of relative, not absolute, size. A Chinese village boy with a scooter has on average better chances on the sexual/marriage market than his schoolmate with a bicycle, for example.

In the USA, the scooter wouldn't get you far, of course.

It is too bad there aren't many women on TOD to respond to these generalizations that all females are available for sale to the highest bidder. To say that most of us are here because our ancestors had bigger carbon footprints is ridiculous.

Not all females -- but females on average prefer successful males. I'm just stating the obvious, that's all.

Basically women want rich, good looking, tall, entertaining, exciting, muscular, friendly, guys who their family/friends/parents also like and who will cater to them. You generalize all this to say "Carbon Footprint".

Im not 'generalising' -- just saying there exists a correlation between wealth and 'carbon footprint'.

I think he likened 'carbon footprint' to whatever behaviour culture incrementally favored, not actually using the carbon itself.

In any case, here is a great primer on the topic:
A Review of Sexual Selection and Human Evolution: How Mate Choice shaped Human Nature

Also to be recommended:

The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating
by David Buss.

Reviewed here:


Good article. Am I imagining having seen it before somewhere else previously though?

Excellent discussion about the maximum power principle too:

Thanks very much for that. Another hour spent that really improved my way of thinking about things.


PS. The link above doesn't seem to go anywhere.

And are attracted to guys who "smell right", measured by differences in their immune system responses. Speculation is that evolution might choose for such an ability because (1) offspring of parents with dissimilar immune system responses are likely to be resistant to a greater range of diseases or (2) if men who are genetically close "smell bad", some amount of inbreeding may be avoided.

Why can I remember useless trivia like this, but not facts that would be important at work?

Brian T. "Basically women want..."

You have got to be kidding! If you are not, then you may not be smart enough to be posting here.

Enlighten everyone, Einstein.

One woman pops up to say she thinks this type of guy is a turn-off. Some sizable proportion of us are educated and thoughtful, and prefer men who are similar.


Maybe this is a solution, in all seriousness.

It seems the crux of nates post is "men try to outcompete each other by burning oil to get the chicks".

There's two sides to this:
1. The men doing the burning
2. The women accepting the men doing the burning.

A big campaign to get women to like eco-friendly men?

Yes, I'm shocked, shocked to see that there aren't too many women here reading this.

More seriously, it might be worth noting that evolutionary psychology, or any postulation of why we do things from an evolutionary standpoint is not science. That's not to say it is bad, or wrong, but it is narrative, no science, because it does not meet the criteria of falsifiability.

This is a very entertaining read, and Matt Savinar has written something quite similar, and equally entertaining, if shorter, arguing that the whole reason all you gents are over here at TOD postulating depletion rates is because you are trying to look sexy to women by compensating for your thinning hair, bulging middle and lack of spear-throwing ability by proving that you are the biggest, hairies dudes on the website.

I'll restrain my skepticism, and leave y'all to have at it ;-).


As regards the female attraction to successful men, it has been empirically tested by measuring the physical signs of attraction to men dependant on varying levels of economic success. The sample was large enough to remove any subjective bias and it satisfies the criteria for science. So while the reason for this dynamic may be a subjective interpretation the dynamic we are discussing here is not just narrative it is fact.

As regards my spear throwing abilty, I prefer a 12-bore shotgun. Evolution is a wonderful thing.

Hi Sharon. I've long enjoyed your writings, but in this case disagree:

More seriously, it might be worth noting that evolutionary psychology, or any postulation of why we do things from an evolutionary standpoint is not science. That's not to say it is bad, or wrong, but it is narrative, no science, because it does not meet the criteria of falsifiability.

I suppose if you're an utterly strict Popperian this would follow, but I think there's a useful difference between "falisifiability" and "practical falsifiability". Falsifiability works well as a tool in situations or theorems that lend themselves to reductionism, but perhaps less well when describing the confluence of qualities emergent from complex evolving systems, and the human brain is little else. This piece by Nate is about the best short scientific article I've seen bring some rigor and logic to these core questions. He presents a lot of good information in what I consider a salient way. IMO it would be unscientific to disregard it simply because it is currently impractical to falsify. Indeed, boneheads the world over contend that evolutionary theory itself is invalid due to being unfalsifiable. I agree this article is good narrative, but that doesn't make it bad science.

This is a very entertaining read, and Matt Savinar has written something quite similar, and equally entertaining, if shorter, arguing that the whole reason all you gents are over here at TOD postulating depletion rates is because you are trying to look sexy to women by compensating for your thinning hair, bulging middle and lack of spear-throwing ability by proving that you are the biggest, hairies dudes on the website

Matt obviously isn't getting enough. (I'm sure he'll agree).

Nate makes some good points.

Fair enough, Greenish - I'm not sure we wholly disagree. I'm actually very fond of and respectful of narrative - but I do think we have to be careful about the lines between the bits of this that are disprovable and for which there is evidence, and those that are based on a story we are telling us "human beings respond this way to stimulus, which makes sense to us because for millions of years we did this..." - again, as I said, there's nothing wrong with it, and narrative is cool. But it is narrative - we are making large presumptive leaps when we assume that because we have this bit of evidence in our neurology, it evolved that way because of X or Y experience. I think sometimes evolutionary psychology is probably quite right - but I also think that there's a tendency to treat evolutionary psychology as though it is truth - and we simply don't know enough to claim that in almost all cases.


Having read and admired your articles for quite awhile, I'd bet we agree on a lot.

And inasmuch as Nate's work, in this and other articles, shines a harsh (if humorous) light on specific human misperceptions, illusions and delusions, I'd guess he's more aware than average of logical fallacies and the trap of inductive reasoning.

In a forum like this, a narrative is useful to string together stuff that most people would never pull together on their own. The readability is improved by including a bit of speculation; but I think this material stands up well without it.

A compelling argument is a beautiful thing and can have value even if it seems difficult to falsify. For instance, if I look into random data noise like leaves or an abstract pattern, my mind - like yours - will tend to pick out faces. The evolutionary answer - the asymmetric risk/benefit of seeing faces that aren't there vs. not seeing faces that are - is compelling because it does have predictive ability. The fact that I have stated it in reverse order does not mean it is unfalsifiable, it means I formulated it sloppily just now. I'd say it's falsifiable because if we DIDN'T tend to see faces that aren't there, then in the absence of a reasonable alternative biological explanation, I'd say that prediction would be falsified. This wouldn't satisfy Popper, but I think it's useful, and that the stuff Nate brings together here is useful in the same way all our best theories are useful: to provide predictive ability and a rational basis for understanding. Newton's physics was ultimately proven incomplete, but it wasn't a mistake to use it.

I agree that we need to be careful with what we represent as absolute truth, but as members of a globe-girdling delusionally dysfunctional pyromaniac ape empire we could do a lot worse than make the substance of Nate's articles recommended reading for all. I'll make that motion, do I hear a second?

Thanks for the kind words Greenish. But if 'all' becomes the new target audience, I wouldn't second your motion, not without first changing to a pseudonym. This forum is about one of the most tolerant I know of, but in the US, most of the people that don't grasp these issues also react quite strongly in opposition to them. It is an open question on both the supply and demand truths surrounding peak oil (both of which we are getting closer to understanding but still have some distance to go), whether 'all' could/should be made aware of the inner layers of the onion, or whether that would actually accelerate resource grab.

If you could press a button and have everyone on the planet instantly know what you know (or what I know), would you do it?

And by the way, the information in this essay about habituation and addiction completely stands by itself outside of any evolutionary explanations, but as with everything, adding the anthropology and biology give current research findings a richer and more robust scope. I was a bit lazy with putting in the references by number, which I will do on the next iteration, but other than the concluding few sections, these are not my ideas.

Regarding logical fallacies and our human delusions and cognitive foibles, there is certainly no need for more writers on these, as the NYTimes bestseller list is overflowing with them: Talebs "Black Swan", Ariely's "Predictably Irrational", Thaler's "Nudge", Burton's "Believing You are Right Even When You're Not", Marcus' "The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind", Tavris' "Mistakes Were Made But Not by Me", etc. etc. These are all highly referenced contemporary works pointing out why we 'think' and 'act' differently than social science models suggest. The problem is that none of them integrates energy or ecology, which makes their topics interesting as opposed to urgent.

"The Political Brain" by Drew Westen offers crucial insight into how the brain processes political messages. Simply put, the idea of the mind as a detached calculator that makes decisions by weighing the facts bears no relation to how the brain actually works.

Yes, the way in which this sort of information is disseminated seems as critical as the message itself. Whether or not it represents science or narrative, it is a very compelling meme to people like me.

The more compelling an idea is, the more potential effect it will have. This is great if the adoption of the idea benefits the values we espouse, and changes society in the ways we feel it needs to change. But as you say, we need to be careful not to be the cause of effects we haven't considered.

I'm not sure whether it's fortunate or unfortunate that most people don't seem to take action based of logic, but on feelings instead.


Nate I got onto this post late.
I found it highly entertaining, concise and factual. Thanks for sharing it with us. I look forward to all your writing.

Most people I talk to on the subject assume and believe, that it is our altruism which sets us apart from animals.
It's a myth of course. If humans were altruistic we would essentially all be equal, sharing and living in harmony, a veritable Garden of Eden.
Imagine what the Earth would be like if we did, truly care for each other, the planet and therefore our descendants.

Are there any truly undeniable acts of altruism? You would wonder what would happen in a packed auditorium full of men, women and children which caught fire and there was only one door out. The majority of escapees would be men, most of the children would be trampled in the stampede.

As we evolved we stood up, freed our arms, grew our brains, developed speech and began to communicate.
Our communication abilities allowed us to share our feelings and ideas. We learned to conspire.

We conspired in order to further self interests, to better our life and indulge in pleasures.
Over the last century or so, each succeeding generation expects more pleasure from life than the preceding generation.
They expect a better car, more often, a bigger house, more alcohol, exciting entertainment and travel. If that means having less children so they can indulge more for themselves then so be it.

People now applaud the idealists who say, lets build renewables.........nuclear, windmills, solar, electric railways, lets get a Manhattan Project underway, we can use all the FF's now our descendants won't need them because they'll have renewables.

The western lifestyle is one of FYJ. We are able to exploit our selfishness in the extreme. There is absolutely no consideration for the future unless it concerns us. Early thinking was we that we could even take our possessions and status with us when we died. We have evolved and are now smarter than that, we know that everything we need will be there waiting for us on the other side, including 76 virgins, (although they wouldn't have remained that way for long when I was 24). Why worry about the future when our future is in heaven?

Maybe it should be an edict for religions to proclaim, that if you do not leave the planet in a better or just similar state as to when you were brought into it, then you will not get to heaven. Now that would be a religion I would sing the praises of.

Maybe it should be an edict for religions to proclaim, that if you do not leave the planet in a better or just similar state as to when you were brought into it, then you will not get to heaven. Now that would be a religion I would sing the praises of.

That would be a great institution, if they could pull it off - but it's a long way from 'earth was made for man to have dominion over', etc.

By the way, we ARE altruistic, but primarily within groups not between groups
(see reciprocal altruism, Trivers, and new paper by D.S. Wilson and E.O Wilson)

Hi Nate

The soldier who throws himself on a grenade and sacrifices himself for the others around him.
I often wonder about that.
If we were all truly altruistic, in that situation I guess every soldier would be throwing himself on the grenade at the same time because they would all be thinking the same thing.

How can altruism be reciprocal. If I give up something in the expectation of a return in some way, that certainly is not altruism. Even if I give up my life to save my wife, it could be so that she can look after the children. If I give up my life trying to save my child, the payback is passing on my genes.

That system of passing down genes urge, starts with immediate family (offspring, siblings, parents, grandparents, uncles and aunties and weakens as we progress to cousins, second cousins, groups, communities or tribes and even on to countries if the ideals are strong enough.

So there are degrees of altruism and it comes down to how lenient you wish to be with the perception.
We display more co-operation within groups and that should not be confused with altruism........IMO.

If I donate ten bucks to charity, is that altruism? What about a hundred bucks, my home, my job and future?
Where do we start and what is the ultimate, if the ultimate is altruism, what is it? Do a lot of little altruism acts make for a big one?

I think we like to regard ourselves and our species as being altruistic, but overall its just selfish co-operation in disguise.
We are not what we like to think we are, we are not better than other life-forms, we just grew along a different branch of the evolution tree . We are simply the result of evolution, no more no less.
Unless of course we develop faith in a belief of being created, having a soul and progressing to an after life.

Hey hey Nate,

I also got here late and I wanted to add a few things on relative fitness that I didn't see mentioned in the post or the discussion.

first up social dominance, who's in charge anyway? Your post and the ensuing discussion have focused on the male side of the relative fitness game; what men do to attract the fairer sex. But the rules have changed now that the ladies are bringing home the bacon. To get a complete picture we need to look at both sides of the equation.

next, child bearing later in life. For most of our evolution we had children early in life. I believe that hunter gathers reproduced in their mid to late teens. In modern times it has been pushed back a bit to early twenties, and at present mid to late twenties is the norm in developed nations.

Lastly, social status and high-cost signals are rough gauges for relative fitness. I believe, although I have no evidence for, that evolution has targeted these cues at adolescents and not adults. I think that having children later in life results in different mate selection based on a person's ability to gauge relative fitness and compatibility directly and conscientiously.


Social status applies to females to. But classic sexual selection in nature applies primarily to males (male male competition /female choice)(except for some species like phalaropes, etc.) And we are midway between tournament and pair bonding species suggesting that male competition was ubiquitous in our past. (males are bigger than females on average as opposed to pure pair bonding species where they are same size).

In modern humans there is no doubt that females compete, probably almost as much as males, though expressed in diffferent ways. I doubt there have been studies on it, but I'm guessing female competition (amongst themselves for better access to higher males) uses less energy than male/male competition in order to access higher females.)

Transferring all of this to the human sphere is dicey, though tons of intersting research papers have been written recently on it.

"...the whole reason all you gents are over here at TOD postulating depletion rates is because you are trying to look sexy to women by compensating for your thinning hair, bulging middle and lack of spear-throwing ability by proving that you are the biggest, hairies dudes on the website."

Ouch, ouch, ouch! :-(

But in a lot of ways, your right. I have a fetish for intelligent women, so my only game is to try to prove that I have brains, since I am not a tall athletic type, and age has not improved my prospects...
So I use TOD to keep my wits sharp in the great mating contest for nerdy brainy women! :-)

As far as cars go, the ad photo by BMW at the start of this discussion always cracked me up, certainly one of the weakest ads that BMW ever did, a real sloppy bit of work for a company that normally does much better ads. Guys, let me tell you a little secret...if a car is smooth, relatively quiet and comfortable, women very seldom have any idea how powerful or fast it is and don't care (I have had women friends who thought that Mercedes was built by Ford, OUCH!, so cars to enhance status with women does NOT other words, the perfect smooth silent car to impress women would probably be a comfortable electric car, and it would have the pluses of security if fuel ran short (you companion and you could still travel when others could not, how's that for status!) and clean (smooth transport, no carbon, no guilt) The future of status is changing, the auto makers and the advertisers just don't know it yet!


Roger: Mercedes has better ad wizards

That's a funny ad, nice surprise,

My all time favorite auto ad and the most artistic I have ever seen is stil the great Honda ad for it's clean Diesel engines in the U.K. called "Hate Something, Change Something" with Garrison Keillor of "Prarie Home Companion" fame singing the song...check this out, it's the most artistic car ad I've ever seen!


Tut Sharon,

Since I discovered Peak Oil (and I've shaved off my beard and reduced my belly size.




I'm not a female but I have field research to report. I'm a 50-something male who's recently been seeking femaile companionship on several major dating sites. My observations:

-essentially every profile includes at least one photo of some exotic local
-essentially every profile lists travel as a major 'relationship' goal
-one woman's handle is 'AddictedToTravel' ( I am not making this up : (
-I recently analyzed a group of matches sent to me; regarding the desired income of prospective matches, 31% wanted over 75K, 15% wanted over 100K, and another 15% wanted over 150K !

If you think women in my age group are seeking PO-aware practitioners of ELP you are in for a rude surprise!

I would like to add a notion regarding Americans and risk-taking. IMO many middle and upper class Americans are taking anxiolytic/antidepressant meds; these drugs have skewed peoples' risk/reward equation way to the risk side. How else to explain negative amortization pay-option ARMs?

Errol in Miami

You speak the truth,Errol.My advice would be to stay away from the dating sites.They are just a cyber version of the night club meat markets.
Re psychoactive drugs - it would be interesting to know just how many people in a population are on this garbage.A significant part of my working life was as an ambulance paramedic and I found it rather discouraging,to say the least,to observe the number of people on the "Prozac".
We are a sick society and it is no wonder we are making some very sick decisions.

I think that you can find plenty of women who want wealthy, high earning, tall men, but it is hard to seperate out nature from nurture here - do they want it for evolutionary or biological reasons, or because the culture so strongly tells them that these men are more desirable than others? Might they, in the absence of so much cultural pressure, prioritize other, equally valuable traits in men, that also code "good provider" for example, evidence of strong cultural values towards monogamy, which, after all, offers the mothers the best chance of survival of their offspring (quite literally in the US, where infant mortality is much higher in poor single and divorced mothers than in partnered ones). The same might be said of men's relationship to women.

The fact that we have biological preferences is undoubtably the case - but the way those preferences get expressed, or the range of those preferences get prioritized is fairly obviously quite varied. Others have mentioned Orthodox Jews, the Amish and other religious groups with large family sizes and strong resistance to the cultural norms. What's most fascinating about those groups is the number of people attracted to them - Amish converts are growing quite rapidly, and the Lubavitcher Chasidim have been hugely successful, in the latter case, in attracting middle and upper middle class, educated, secular Jews, both men and women. That is, they have been extremely successful in finding people who have been trained to a set of cultural and sexual norms, and completely diverting them from those norms - most of both groups go on to marry Amish or Orthodox men, who don't look like GQ pictures (who like some TOD readers, not all, of course ;-) have beards and bellies).

You could argue that this comparatively small sample represents something unusual - and that may be true. You could also argue that their success in a society that tolerates very little dissension from sexual norms is actually quite remarkable, and potentially duplicable (not suggesting everyone should become Amish or anything like it, or that large scale childbearing is a good thing) - that what's fascinating is that anyone buys this idea given the strong cultural pressure towards sexual norms, but they do, and that gives a sense of the power of alternate aesthetics and cultural systems.

As for dating, my observation is that generally speaking one wants to find partners who actually think your limitations are an asset - that is, if you don't make a lot of money and are concerned about ecological issues, it probably would make much more sense to take those characteristics somewhere where they are assets, to an environmental singles site (TOD:Match? ;-)) where women who like those things hang out, than to cover random dating sites where your lack of a big wallet and weird preoccupations are something someone will have to put up with.

Sharon, who took her own advice and got lucky ;-)

I,ll tell ya how to find a mate,mate.

Go about your life persuing your interests with PASSION, putting yourself "out there" as it were and you will come across someone attractive to YOU and you to them, then fall deeply, madly, passionately, completely in love and be a man about it.

Women (and men for that matter) really just want someone to love and be loved by.

IMO passion trumps everything else.

Unfortunately, if you're like me and all of your interests are solitary pursuits and traditionally feminine (knitting, spinning, weaving) this approach has limited value.

From this female's perspective, it's just as difficult for an intelligent, PO aware woman to find a man as it is for the men to find a woman.

At least in the competition for the most flashy women (-especially those that the current society considers hot), displaying conspicuous consumption and risk taking gets their attention. Now getting hot women probably doesn't equate to happiness, most of these women have been trained to get as much as they can from such shallow men, -then it is You got no more money honey, I got no more time. So while true happiness in life, is probably maximized for the more practical people, all the attention getting cultural cues go the other way.

I think there are a lot of ascetic Buddhists and others who are happy. You may be less successful acquiring sex, but that doesn't necessarily mean you will be less happy.

Of course -- a very good point. However, while those 'ascetic Buddhists' may be very happy, they tend not to reproduce. Sexual selection isn't in their favour and that's why the ascetics will always constitute a small minority.

Listen-in the USA right now the poorest guys are fathering the most children so why not just drop this whole ridiculous premise.

The dysgenic effects of the welfare state are undeniable, point taken. This doesn't mean that the premise has to be rejected, but perhaps that it has to be 'updated'.

Again, I'd recommend that you do some reading on the subject yourself:

Guess again, it's the toughest, meanest biggest dudes on the block that are fathering the children in the projects.

No different really from how the geeks in silicon valley struggle to get dates even though some of them make well into six figures and drive lambourghinis.

There is a pretty funny youtube spoof about a highschool football quarterback compared with a balding accountant and how many children each one of them had fathered. Watch the first 4 minutes of Idiocracy

Reminds me of the line from "Hot Shots! Part Deux".

"These men have taken a vow of celibacy, like their fathers and their fathers before them."

Except that one of the subcultures with the highest rate of population is growth and the biggest families are: the Amish. Not your typical big carbon footprint guys.


Perhaps the big footprint theory will have to be revised to account for modernity and the advent of easy contraception and recreational sex. The Amish. The Ultra-Orthdox Jews. Devout Muslims, etc. Four kids every three years.

So it's the true believers who are the winners, as opposed to the laid-back secularists, regardless of their energy consumption. Blessed are the uptight, for they shall inherit the earth ...

... must mull over it.

Within those subgroups, it's still the high-status males who gain the most conquests. You know what they say: big carbon footprint, big ....

Even a relatively poor person in the US may seem rich to some woman born in another country. Which just goes to show it's not the size of your carbon footprint, it's how you emit it.

They will gradually understand that a GINI coefficient rising towards 1.0 and accelerating ecosystem destruction will not leave them or their children much of a place to enjoy their money. This means there is a real possibility of educating local, regional and national leaders (likely via the rich and powerful) towards a different system. It's now in their interests.

The squalor of society never seemed to crimp the style of the wealthy elites in Latin America. They just hired more guards.

Excellent article!

It's a better path to understand the addiction, admit it before one hits rock bottom, and either begin the cold turkey process or become addicted to something else.

After you first wrote about this addiction and wealth idea, I started to wonder how sustainable societies coped. How did humanity, living in a world that did not change for 5,000 years not self destruct? And I figured that such lessons must be contained in ancient religions, which would codify coping mechanisms. I am an atheist, so I started reading a bit of comparative religion (very light reading).

It seems to me that many religions have traditions of self deprivation. Lent, or Passover. Or fasts. Or morning meditations that deprive one of sleep. Or vows of poverty or silence. Pilgramiges that shake you out of your normal world. Hermiting in a cave, etc.

Do you think such behaviors allowed one to readjust the brain chemistry? Essentially, say, when the fast was over, you could more greatly appreciate the same bread you had always eaten?

In a sense, the common phrase, "Absence makes the heart grow fonder" codifies the idea. How long of an absence is enough?

Are there other mechanisms aside from deprivation that we might expect to find codified into religion?

Can we deliberately train our reward pathways. Some people I know get great pleasure by seeing a very clean counter top. Or crossing the last item off a todo list (so much so they are motivated to keep todo lists). Can we teach this kind of appreciation to ourselves (or our children). So they do take great pleasure in the rooting up of potatoes?

How? How would you codify a "way of living" that achieved this end? What does the science hint will work?

I don't know the answer to your questions but I do know that I get more pleasure out of working in my vegetable garden,hiking, and kayaking than I would ever get out of driving a fast car around Las Vegas. I guess my pathways have been rewired somehow or maybe it is just a function of getting older.

I'm in the same boat, kayak that is, :-)
Fortunately my girl friend seems to like me well enough despite the fact that I don't own a big gas guzzling car or boat. We both enjoy kayak diving on the coral reefs where we live.

I think it was just a few months ago that I read about the discovery of something in dirt that had psychoactive properties. It may explain the simple joys of gardening and why small children love making mud pies. Getting down and dirty may be its own reward.

Several years ago I read an intriguing article in New Scientist about this lot:

"Jambho Ji, an unmatched visionary of his times, had not only completely understood the complex bond between man and nature, but also used a powerful medium, religion, to help masses imbibe the fine principals of co-existence with nature.

Jambho Ji prescribed 29 golden commandments or rules, an eclectic collection of wisdom distilled from the best of religious and social practices across the world, for one to be called as Bishnoi."

Was the red 777 put on the population explosion graph as an attention grabber? It worked.

Was the red 777 put on the population explosion graph as an attention grabber? It worked.

I have to confess to being perplexed by the 777. It was only after reading the article that I knew what it meant.


Excellent synopsis of the human nature element in solving the wicked problems we face (peak oil being just one symptom of the whole 'disease').

In my own, somewhat parallel, investigations I have come to conclude that the real source of the problematique of human nature is the relatively low level of sapience (wisdom, judgment, moral sentiment biased toward the good) operating in the human species compared with the complexity of our modern world. Sapience can be characterized as the cognitive processing capacity of the brain for the components included parenthetically above. Sapience is derived from and related to the psychological constructs of intelligence and creativity (c.f. Sternberg, Robert J. (2003). Wisdom, Intelligence, and Creativity Synthesized, Cambridge University Press, New York.) as a means for using tacit knowledge to shape decision processing (judgment). It is largely coordinated in the medial and polar prefrontal cortex of the brain but involves large areas of the neocortex. People who perform well in various tests of wisdom or judgment are found to have low susceptibility to addictions. Part of the reason is probably due to the rich recurrent connectivity between the PFC and the limbic areas involved in affective processing (emotions and drives/rewards).

The problem is also an evolutionary one from the standpoint that sapience evolved in humans to handle the world of the early Holocene, as you have indicated. But the world of today is simply too complex and dynamic (at high rates of change) for the sapience of Homo sapiens to provide sufficient override to the limbic centers stimulated. It is true that cultural conventions and concepts that can help influence decisions can be learned, indeed these are part of the tacit knowledge base used in judgment processing. But these would come from a wise culture, which we clearly do not now have. So it is hard to see how to bootstrap such conventions in our current situation.

I have suggested that the human brain is due for an upgrade! Either through selection mechanisms (which may develop naturally in a world coming apart at the seams) or through some as yet unknown genetic engineering we should at least consider boosting human sapience (rather than intelligence + creativity = cleverness, which is what got us into this mess!) — to what I have called Human 2.0, or Homo eusapiens. At least it might be food for thought.

see also: Research Interests

Using my own sapience, I would think that a WISER project would be to downsize and scale back the level of complexity of our society to something that we are actually adapted to handle. We have let our man-made environment get away from us and out of our control, and that was most unwise. It might just kill us all.

There is nothing more rediculous and sad than an animal living in an environment to which it is not adapted.

George & Nate,

very interesting points on sapience and everything else. This touches on some issues I've pondered myself. With the risk of a long off-topic post, here goes...

I've often wondered the same issue in regards to human failure with long term systemic decisions. This stems from my design research and educator background in design, and also due to my long term interest in human reasoning and human error.

Problems we humans have difficulty with need not even be related to Wicked problems (ref: Rittel). Plain systemic problems with simple feedbacks suffice most of the time.

Now, why do we fail so easily with even quite simple problems that have easy to spot feedbacks or fairly well known patterns?

This has been discussed a lot in psychological literature on expert research. My personal favorite is a small classic by two Canadian researchers Bereiter & Scardamalia titled 'Surpassing Ourselves: An Inquiry into the Nature of Expertise'. The concept of fluid expertise or lack of it does explain some of our failure in transferring understanding to new phenomena and not being able to solve 'novel' problems successfully and with far-sightedness.

However, I believe it's only part of the picture.

There are many possible partial explanations, in addition to those you research and which Nate has outlined in his great post above. Let me quickly go through some of these.

  1. In regards to tacit knowledge, we seem to have as individuals an innate potential to use tacit knowledge, but only through a fairly rapid action-response loop. Klein's Recoginition Primed Decision making model is a good example of this.

    We narrate an outcome with expectations and set out on a course of action. When expectations are not met (i.e. feedback) we change actions/goals on the fly, without rational high level analysis - usually in split seconds. However, remove the feedback or force the person to actually start thinking about this (i.e. analyze rationally through the use of intelligence in the Sternberg model) and the use of this tacit knowledge fails. In fact, we often make worse decisions through analysis than through RPD style thinking, when the data available for decision making is there before our eyes.

    RPD might have had a very good effort/success ration when hunting or doing fairly simple isolated tasks. For long-term complex issues, not so good :)

  2. Now, do experts fare any better in regards to rational analysis? On the average, no. Philip Tetlock has studied this amongst politics pundits. It appears that most cannot even beat simple statistical extrapolation algorithms in their guesses about how things will develop into the future. Some individuals do fare better, and this can be attributed to certain psychological factors, like being 'fox-like'. Curiously this is not so far removed from the cognitive style of fluid expertise described above.

Now what other reasons might explain our failure in solving systemic issues? Possible avenues of inquiry, I've been thinking of traveling down:

  1. Empathic projection
    This appears to be one of the key requirements for gaining intuitive insights into how other things (people, things or even systems) would feel or function in time (ref: Bastick, Intuition: Evaluating the Construct and its Impact on Creative Thinking). An example would be Faraday trying to emphatically feel what an atom feels as forces act on it when an electrolyte is driven with current (ref: Bastick).

    However, emphatic projection nowhere on map in our current or past educational curriculum in any country or discipline that I know of. Even in Arts & Design, where I venture myself over a decade ago it is almost completely amiss these days.

  2. Narrative systems of representation

    My colleague has been studying systems of representation and has pointed out an obvious development. As we have moved away from primarily oral tradition, we have also lost narrative structures in our knowledge and any gathered wisdom that fits that structure (i.e. slowly emerging patterns that may repeat slowly over time). That is, as societies we forget very rapidly, even important lessons, because we lack processes and some might say social structures to store and keep them (alive).

    Contrast this with the Andaman Sea natives, who during the 2004 Asian Tsunami immediately knew what to do, when the the water receded. The myth about the angry sea and it's revenge that was kept alive in the society through narrative structures activated and everybody knew what to do: get to high ground. They did and survived without any tools of modern seismic warning systems or telecommunications.

  3. Definition of now
    Everybody knows the cliche about acceleration of everything in our time. The long now foundation among others has been trying to raise awareness about this for a decade. What is now? What is our time perspective? Is now 5 seconds, 5 minutes or something else?

    Now, why has our definition of 'now' been shrinking like so many claim?

    One potential clue comes from the study of psychological responses in modern knowledge work environments. We are bombarded with ever increasing amounts of sensory and cognitive stimuli. Everything and everybody is fighting for our attention, in an ever-increasing tempo.

    This bombardment, which ironically enough, is often self-enforced esp. in business environments, results in a psychological condition known as Attention Deficit Trait (ref: Hallowell, Why Smart People Underperform).

    ADT is not unlike ADHD, except that it is not a neurological disorder, but a trait developed by micro-shattering our experience of time into really short bursts through interruptions and completely destroying our ability to concentrate.

    The result: impatience, distractibility, stimulus hunger, and really bad decision making results. Distracted people are not good at estimating long term or systemic consequences it seems :)

  4. Organizational Discount Function
    I guess this is an extrapolation on an organization level of what Nate has been talking about. We all 'know' profit cycles have been shortened, demands on profitability have increased and immediacy of results have been given very high recognition.

    A story from the introduction of Peter Senge's Fifth Discipline always comes to my mind as a good illustration of how this problem manifests.

    An engineer who started studying systems thinking under Senge's guidance complained how difficult it seemed and how it didn't appear to be producing visible results. Senge gave the student encouragement and advice to keep on practicing which she did.

    After she had 'gotten' the way to systems think she met Senge again after some years and explained how integral part systems thinking had become of her as a professional and how she could not think properly without it.

    However, she further commented that introducing systems thinking to organizations would be like teaching mathematics to business people, if the whole field of mathematics had just been discovered last week. Businesses would send people to a three day course on mathematics and give them a few weeks time to implement mathematics in the corporation. Then they would measure the results for perhaps two quarters and see if it had any impact. Because it would probably have negligible results by that time, they would just scrap it and send the people to another course, like astrology for example.

  5. Cultural epistemic inertia
    Structures of knowing resist changes imposed on them. A classic tale of this is from statistics. You'd think it's pretty facts driven, being a mathematical field and all.

    A not so well-known researcher found out that the most used reliability measure scale, Cronbach's alpha is mathematically quite bad. It can give totally meaningless results beyond it's intended scale and results that can lead astray.

    The researcher proved this mathematically in rigorous manner, developed a better measure of reliability, proved that as well and sent a paper for publication in the foremost peer-reviewed statistics journal.

    Back came an answer with a reply that went something like this: Your paper will not be published. We can't find anything wrong with it, but it is not customary for us to accept that we have been wrong for all these decades.

    Funnily enough, you still can't find a mention of this even in Wikipedia, although it's now been known well in the statistics circles for years. So much for the 'truth always wins' :)

    So, our organizations are part of the problem. I've tried introducting McLuhan's tetrad and some other really simple conceptual tools to a few places and I can tell you it is hard work.

    People are not open to new ideas, esp. when it requires considerable epistemic re-engineering on their part.

    There are other things of course, but this has turned quite longwinded already, so I'll just post some quick pointers:

    • our (evolutionary biological?) tendency towards polar dichotomies (can't find my ref now... will try and provide later)
    • our apparent incapability to do even simple conditional probabilities or Bayesian Reasoning effortlessly - even when we are trained in them
    • multiplicity of biases we are susceptible to, which can be especially damaging in information noisy environments

    In summary, sometimes I wonder how we are even able to think as far-reaching and complex issues as some are able to - and have a decent success ratio. In some ways it really is a mystery.

Excellent article, still working my way through it. I did note that on the email screenshot the "Farm Girls" one showed as being read.

Hell yeah!
Found me one too!

Speaking of emails: George W. writing to you is a banal event that creates no "rush" in your head?

I've been afraid to open it...

Just wanted to share my own experience with Peak Oil because I am pretty sure that most of you have had the same experience.

Was exposed to Heinberg and End of Suburbia four years ago. Peak Oil clicked with me immediately.

I proceeded to tell all my friends and family about it. The results:

My brother bought the biggest SUV he could find.
My aunts bought a huge RV.
My wife constantly talks about upgrading to a bigger house.
My mother refinanced her house in LA and didn't change her consuming lifestyle.

I also give regular lectures on peak oil at my university. After watching the students' mouths slacken and the deer in the headlights look-- they always ask me the same question. What can we do to prepare society for this? I tell them our society will not change out of personal virtue. When people can no longer afford gas they will change their lifestyles and not a day before then. Try and prepare yourself personally and tell those closest to you but don't expect people to change. The people at TOD have won out against the forces of evolution/biology but those around us seem to be caught on the treadmill.

When people can no longer afford gas they will change their lifestyles and not a day before then. Try and prepare yourself personally and tell those closest to you but don't expect people to change.

Summa cum laude -- you've summed it all up in two short sentences.

What do you tell them they will do if they can't afford food?

Very true. What is scary----running out of food before any changes are made!

The number of cars on the roads decreases as oil prices increase and what is happening should be perfectly obvious to anyone with a 6th grade education. Yet people (case in point my husband!) just become more stubborn about sticking to their modern lifestyles. People have a certain position in society and this is what keeps them going I think. Without this status they are scared of "what people are going to say"....maybe???

People who are content with their respective positions in the social or financial hierarchy are probably resistant, and slower to respond to challenges than those who have less at stake in that regard.

Some people at the other end of the spectrum, see opportunities to make relative social/financial gains from the forthcoming changes to this order, and thus embrace it.

Some people also seem to have a harder job making the required changes to their values and knowledge. It seems to me as though this has something to do with the different ways people's minds are structured. I've no evidence to support this, but I think some minds accumulate knowledge more holistically than others - and often more slowly - and that these stay more open to change.

Some minds acquire knowledge more quickly, but in a less deeply connected way. In these cases, radically changing the person's outlook requires lots of changes to be made, rather than a sweeping structural change that encompasses a lot at once.

The students will be hard to convince. I live in a bicycle-friendly university town but even here a flash car will turn heads: On a recent evening I observed a long line outside a nightclub. The door staff were deliberately holding up the line because the venue was full. However when an expensive two-seater convertible car parked up outside, the driver and his attractive female passenger were whisked inside by the bouncers without having to wait. The message to the rest of the people waiting in line was crystal clear.

On another occasion, a girl was talking about my friend M. She asked "M must be quite rich, he has that flash car and he's just bought a house?" (this was at the peak of the housing boom). I tried to explain that both the car and house had been bought on credit, and that I actually earned more than M. "So why do you only have that small car and why don't you buy a house?"

Nate's cartoon at the end is pretty accurate: frugality just isn't sexy.

I've often wondered over the last few years, if there's anything we have in common developmentally that means we seem to (more or less) get the big picture, and are prepared/able to change lifestyle in response to it.

I came to realise peak oil and the major implications in about four weeks about four years ago, and have been trying to adapt my lifestyle towards it ever since. I have always been a fairly doubtful person who didn't tend to trust things people said, and was puzzled at how so many people seemed to know things, when I was full of confusion.

My awareness of peak oil led me to a way of looking at the world that finally made some sense, even though it left quite a bit of gloom and many challenges.

What is the evolutionary explanation for people like us? Is there some kind of Bull Shit detector gene? Why is there in some cases an individual or group that breaks from the herd.

I don't know enough about evolutionary psychology.

Thanks for the article!

I found the "Just Out Of Reach" graph particularly interesting, but I'm wondering if the incomes were adjusted for inflation? Do you happen to know Nate?

Ok so we can't help it.

I forgive us.

Now give us a hug.

Not shown on the chart would be many activities falling in the lower left part, both legal and low energy: gardening, reading books, playing games with the family, going for hikes, thinking, sleeping, playing sports, etc.

It occurs to me that the way of life recommended by many religions and philosophical schools of thought tends to emphasize many of the types of things you have listed above and other things kindred to them, while forsaking many or all of the types of "addictive" things you have described in this essay. Would we have seen such approaches (memes?)repeated over and over again (in broad brush strokes, particular details and emphases differing slightly between teachings) if there were not some profound, maybe hard-learned wisdom, embedded within them?

It also occurs to me that it is hardly likely that such schools of thought would have appeared over and over again if it were true that we were absolute prisoners of the neurochemical pathways of our brains and incapable of breaking their power over us.

In fact, history if full of many examples of individuals, and indeed entire communities of people, who have quite deliberately turned their backs on the various addictive inducements offered by the world, and instead cultivated contentment with a less harmful and more healthy lifestyle. Many of these were motivated by one of a number of different religious traditions, but there are secular, non-religious examples as well. What these all have in common, though, is a conviction that our physical appetites and cravings are not reliable guides to the good life, but in fact can actually lead us astray; instead, we must deliberately turn away from their inducements, and instead cultivate in a disciplined manner an appreciation for and contentment with more simple things that might not at first glance appear to be nearly as attractive or to offer nearly as much pleasure.

It is not an easy lifestyle choice. Many who try it do fail. Difficult is not the same thing as impossible, though.

One of the more fascinating ideas out there is Timothy Breen's (a Revolutionary War Historian)observation that when there are constraints on our ability to consume, or grow wealthy in a society as a whole, what arises are what he calls "rituals of non-consumption" which then replace rituals of consumption - that is, social life shifts to *not* doing the old things, to substitution and to making accomodations. People generally report themselves quite content with that experience - that is, adjusted for the disruption of families during WWII, people were quite content with meatless and sugarless and wheatless days, gas rationing etc... They got their pleasure from the process of not doing those things, and reported similar levels of satisfaction.

Which suggsets to me that this pleasure in the not doing may be quite easily accessible. But what's pleasurable about not doing it is, in large portion, *SHARED* experience - that is, it is pleasurable to not consume lots of resources if you have a social support network, and if you get rewarded culturally for not doing so - which is why abstention and asceticism keep arising. What sucks is trying to do it without any social rewards - and the social rewards get smaller when societies get bigger, and forms of social regulation disappear - for example, the pleasure you get from not flaunting your wealth, and serving the greater good is in part due to the fact that you know your neighbors, care what they think and want to be like them/succeed them, want to look good in their eyes (and maybe the eyes of the attractive girl next door and her parents, if we're to buy this analysis). But the larger the scale of society, the more anonymity, the less incentive. And the greater the disparities in wealth, the less ascetism appeals, because to some, it looks like suffering and poverty.

I think our current situation is far less biological than cultural.


Not consuming when almost everyone else is not consuming works because it eliminates the envy factor. Also, you are referring to WWII when people felt like they were sharing in a great cause beyond their own narrow self interest. Also, extra effort in the face of crisis where one is actually in the service of others is a great endorphin rush.

In any event, I get great satisfaction from getting rid of things, a contining activity that I have been engaging in for years now. Fortunately, my wife shares the same values.

what we need then is some sort of dopamine
regulator. a nice pill you tuk after you take reading
with your meter,sort of like the ones diabetics use.
look around, if peak oil is true and right around the corner,
we are doomed. i did put solar panels on my roof, a 3KW PV system.
folks around the block all bought trucks to commute to work in.
i still see lots of jet traffic. i dont see lots of trains.
or new rail lines being laid. i dont see any gardens. i dont see much
evidence for community spirit. regressive taxes i see. low paying jobs for the many i see.
and posters on TOD? every one points out the problem. but no solutions.
sure, some went back to the farm. i wonder where they get all the free time. after milking chickens and getting the south forty in.
i have been thinking about "the grapes of wrath". perhaps that is the future for the usa. imagine if that is the best we can do. demand destruction will also destroy lots of people. everyone denies malthus.
peak oil means peak poulation. the unpleasant fact of people starving to death, freezing to death, dying from heat. large tracks of the usa are not habitable by large stationary populations. parts of maine, parts of the arizona, parts of florida. the rest of the world is no better. civilization will contract when population contracts.
folks with windmills and solar panels or hydropower will keep the lights on. but when will this happen? in 2012? sooner? later?
when will the riots start? in the usa? then and only then will peak oil be recognized. when it is too late, even though it is already too late. and folks with money, those who get it from stocks and gambling
will be the last to go.because me too & me next sed so.
there is no limit to human greed and folly. the man enslaved to wealth can never be honest.

Hello Nate,

Great article and thank you for sharing. I have printed it ou to be enable to study it and the comments in more detail later.

This is a part of resource depletion that I find "interesting", and that is PO will be perceived as a threat to many peoples perceived rights for a meaningful life (as defined by commercials/films). Resource depletion will deny them these rights so how will large portions of the population react when expectations meets reality?

In my opinion this is a part of PO (or resource depletion) that as of now is poorly understood and which also probably will result in the most astonishing outcomes when a critical mass of people are looking for a diection to vent their frustration and desillusions.

Most people in the Western world take it for a given that htey have right to heli skiing or some other energy intensive in their pursuit of happiness. I read to day that in UK everyone below the age of 16 has never experienced anything else but economical growth.

What happens when these below 16's have to adjust form a YES to a NO in the near future and how will that affect their parents and their social performance etc..

It is in all these seemingly unimportant bits which is hard to get a better understanding of how they will cumulative play out in a post PO world.


Resource depletion will deny them these rights so how will large portions of the population react when expectations meets reality?

The hauliers' and fishermen's strikes and demonstrations in Europe give us a foretaste of what's coming. And it's not just the under-sixteens who will be gobsmacked by reality. It's the under-sixties, the over-sixties as well.

Amongst other things I foresee a comeback of old-time religion, perhaps with the occasional pogrom to liven things up, flagellants whipping themselves down Oxford Street, whirling Dervishes a dime a dozen ...

... and Western Europe being turned into a giant Hyde Park Speakers' Corner where wackos and fruitcases rule the roost.

Yikes,Carolus,you did have a bad night.But you left out the witch burnings.

Thanks for this, Nate Hagens. So far I've just skimmed it, but I'm definitely going to bookmark it. I've been bothered for some time about the notion of "addiction" to oil. Does not that really say we are are "addicted to transportation" or "addicted" to a warm home in a New England winter? But this piece does seem to help make more sense of human psychology in an environment of modern energy and high technology. The direction of the piece in looking at the processes of individuals, however, is different than the way I've previously studied interaction of energy resources/usage and civilization. I've been more inclined to follow Lewis Mumford's economic analysis of how energy shapes society. His work originally in the 30s and revised in the 60s, presented in "Technics and Civilization" I believe is still applicable today, though its terms of economic analysis are very out of favor. I'll post something in my blog if anyone is interested.

I would agree that energy shapes society. But NO historic society used energy to create the types of activities they competed for/considered fun, that we have. They had neither the energy, the technology, nor the population. So it becomes important how our brains respond to these stimuli, for better or worse.

And thanks for the bookmark. I posted this on Sunday, knowing it would get far less readers than on Monday, but that some people would actually read it because they had more time. (It is quite long)

Well done. I'm extremely pleased to see these broad connections being drawn out. Yes, there is an element of inter-disciplinary story-telling here; but it is not mere story-telling, as the individual elements and smaller stories do, in fact, have a scientific and testable basis, and are generally well-accepted within their domains. There is another aspect to this "incentive salience" story, as well, that fits nicely into the carrying capacity story: Stress hormones amplify dopamine signaling, so that when the stresses of carrying capacity increase, e.g., hunger, agonistic encounters, the salience of these events also increases, and the threshold for engaging in counter-regulatory behaviors, e.g., eating and fighting, decreases. It's a sensible mechanism.

Oh, I almost forgot another fun fact: While stress hormones, such as cortisol, enhance incentive salience in the brain, in the periphery they kick-start the liver for energy production (e.g., gluconeogenesis) and efficiency (fatty acid synthase to remodel toward fat). Thus, the brain and periphery are working toward the same end with respect to energetics.

If you have access to PubMed, this review may be of interest:

Prog Neurobiol. 2006 Aug;79(5-6):247-340.

From Malthus to motive: how the HPA axis engineers the phenotype, yoking needs to wants.

And our society shapes our attitude towards energy and other material things. We have a pervasive media, which has been created to serve wealth, and the pursuit of wealth. We are told again and again that we are supposed to emotionally relate to our cars engine. And to want products that advertise ourselves as having special status. This is a touch thing to break. The average Joe is surrounded by this stuff most of his waking hours. You are considered to be foolish -or at best odd (which also means distrusted), if you don't go along with these cultural norms. Trying to get a new message across will not be easy.

Of course. When I wrote "energy shapes society," I do suggest that notion is part of Mumford's argument, and it is. But I should say that it is a poor representation of the nearly 500-page book I mention. In fact, the background of your observation, "NO historic society used energy to create the types of activities they competed for/considered fun, that we have..." is addressed by Mumford in full measure. The historical development of "Technics and Civilization" is the subject of the book. Mumford's economic approach and some of his language may be considered somewhat archaic and certainly out of favor today. But I find his creative thinking and deep mining of historical evidence fascinating and useful.

Hi Nate,

You might want to substitute Steve Jobs for Bill Gates in the Aspiration Gap. He has enough money, and Bill Gates has never been able to get over the fact that Steve Jobs is seen as a visionary while he is seen as anything but.

I take it you like sushi:)

the global rich are at least beginning to realize the implications of peak oil, even if they don’t believe it is imminent. They will gradually understand that a GINI coefficient rising towards 1.0 and accelerating ecosystem destruction will not leave them or their children much of a place to enjoy their money. This means there is a real possibility of educating local, regional and national leaders (likely via the rich and powerful) towards a different system. It's now in their interests.

Somehow I doubt the majority of the rich and powerful will modify their behavior and become altruistic. Certainly there are exceptions, but one point I got out of your great article is most humans are not motivated by common sense and the common good. I fear the majority of the rich and powerful will use their money to fight to maintain their standard of living at the expense of others as resources disappear. Maybe they deserve their own category in the Americas Addictions picture:(

Perhaps someone can find and share information with us that demonstrates this behavior; pro or con.

Mate - in your Philosophical Musings point 10, where would you place yourself on a scale of 1 to 10?

I think I am definitely higher than 7.

If you're a 7 then I'm an 8.

I value the future more than the present. Am I in dopamine contango?

LOL. No -that would be dopamine backwardation. Or denial...

Or in the rarest of cases, the strongest form of maladaptive altruism, between and among species...(which in your case I suspect is the truth)

So how does such altruistic behavior and intellect get spread through the gene pool?


Your question is answered in:

Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior
by Elliott Sober (Author), David Sloan Wilson (Author)

Extract from Amazon review:

In Unto Others, philosopher Elliott Sober and biologist David Sloan Wilson bravely attempt to reconcile altruism, both evolutionary and psychological, with the scientific discoveries that seem to portray nature as red in tooth and claw. The first half of the book deals with the evolutionary objection to altruism. For altruistic behavior to be produced by natural selection, it must be possible for natural selection to act on groups--but conventional wisdom holds that group selection was conclusively debunked by George Williams in Adaptation and Natural Selection. Sober and Wilson nevertheless defend group selection, instructively reviewing the arguments against it and citing important work that relies on it. They then discuss group selection in human evolution, testing their conclusions against the anthropological literature.

In the second half of the book, the question is whether any desires are truly altruistic. Sober and Wilson painstakingly examine psychological evidence and philosophical arguments for the existence of altruism, ultimately concluding that neither psychology nor philosophy is likely to decide the question. Fortunately, evolutionary biology comes to the rescue. Sober and Wilson speculate that creatures with truly altruistic desires are reproductively fitter than creatures without--altruists, in short, make better parents than do egoists.

'The Selfish Gene' by Richard Dawkins (published in 1990) is a breakthrough work on genetics that validates the usefulness of altruism and intellect in an evolutionary setting. He turned the classical theory of organisms using genes to reproduce themselves on its head, postulating that "our" genes build and maintain us in order to make more genes. He also introduced the idea of memes (ideas) that self-propagate.

So how does such altruistic behavior and intellect get spread through the gene pool?

Well, if you do it well enough, you get altruism groupies. Bet you think I'm kidding.

So how does such altruistic behavior and intellect get spread through the gene pool?

Well, if you do it well enough, you get altruism groupies. Bet you think I'm kidding.

Happens all the time... :-)

An excellent post,Nate.Thankyou for the work you have put into it.
Not so funny coincidence that I am reading it on the morning that I heard that Bush at the G8 had again refused to involve the US in climate change abatement unless China and India agreed to be part of it.Seems like an argument as to who is going to sleepwalk over the cliff first.
Your post reinforces my thinking that humans are on the cusp of either The Great Destruction or The Great Enlightenment.

Well let's try and figure out how to nudge it towards the latter!

Hey hey thirra,

The two are not mutually exclusive. I happen to think that The Great Destruction will the catalyst that drives us to The Great Enlightenment, but I really hope that I'm wrong.


Nate Hagens any comment on this addiction and our current population level.

It seems to me that our unwillingness to control our own population is rooted in this addiction problem.

We are addicted to passing on our addiction to our children.

At the religious level very few religions actually none I know of encourage the use of contraceptives.

This competition for future generations of people that think like you do seems to be driven at its core
as a sort of pleasure.

We are happy if everyone around you believes the same way you do and unhappy when they have opposing views.
Religion/Government and other groupings are designed to maximize the happiness of belonging.

Smallville or Leave it To Beaver if you will.

At the religious level very few religions actually none I know of encourage the use of contraceptives.

There is a good reason for that, I'll set you a challenge to figure it out ;)

At the religious level very few religions actually none I know of encourage the use of contraceptives.

There is a good reason for that, I'll set you a challenge to figure it out ;)

I can't really speak for any faith group other than my own, but I'm a member of The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) The political lobby at the US national level is the "Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL)" The following is their position, in general terms, from their website here:

Population and Consumption:

We believe it will be impossible to improve the lives of all the peoples of the earth if the population continues to grow. The failure to confront the problems of population and over-consumption will endanger the finite home planet that all people share.

We are gravely concerned about the rapid human population growth and increasing consumption. In 1960, world human population reached 3 billion; in 2000, it was 6 billion.

We therefore support access to responsible family planning services and education, although we oppose coercive population control. We urge the federal government to:

* improve educational, economic, and political opportunities for women everywhere, to both improve the lives of women and children and reduce birthrates
* provide adequate financial and institutional support for responsible, effective, universally available, medically safe, and non-coercive family planning in the U.S. and throughout the world. (We acknowledge that Friends are not united in their understanding of abortion and access to birth control by minors; FCNL does not lobby on either issue.)
* promote the education of children and adults in the U.S. about the current growth of human population and its effects; support the UN in its development and funding of similar programs internationally
* encourage research to improve the safety, reliability, and affordability of contraception.

Although most population growth is occurring in the developing world, the average person in the U.S. consumes and pollutes many times more than does the average person of these developing nations. This over-consumption not only threatens the global environment, but also sows the seeds of war and reduces the resources available to meet the world's needs.

We urge the federal government to:

* encourage, wherever legislative opportunities permit, reduction of high levels of consumption and the associated pollution of the environment
* encourage teaching school children and others to recognize and critically evaluate the pervasive advertising they are exposed to every day
* promote life cycle environmental cost analysis or a similar process to bring the environmental impacts of raw materials, production, packaging, use, and final product disposal to the forefront of manufacturing and purchasing decisions for companies and consumers
* promote the education of children and adults in the U.S. about the effects of ongoing pollution and consumption of resources.

It's important to understand that Quakers develop policy from the bottom up, by consensus decision making, so public statements such as these reflect the conservative end of the range of opinion within the Society of Friends. I.E its a position that everyone can "live with".

I stand corrected all major religions should adopt this pose.

I'm Catholic and my wife is Buddhist so we have combined the two religions and go to the temple once one year and the church the next year. I thought that Catholics where pretty slack but a lot of Buddhists are very competitive on the attendance scale :)

I think one reason I gave up on organized religions is that they are not developing living manifestos like you just printed for the Quakers.


One must love the quakers, and I would contend that the posted doctrine is directly linked to making a world where people bear fruit and not just multiply. The great religions are mainly focused on increasing the pyramid and not making a world where all have chance to flourish. A shame that needs to be rectified.

Baptist born, but I admire the Catholics sense of community.

And Bob I used to live in Utah so yeah I probably understand better than most that breeding more members of your Church is a way to power.

Not that I have anything agianst the LDS members but I don't agree with LDS policies any more then I agree with my own native religion Catholicism policies on birth control. They are both playing the same game as far as population goes.

Hello Nate,

I am way out of my feeble expertise here, but...

I wonder if what we eat has a large effect upon how we act, and if this further extends into a culture. Consider Morocco, their history, and high phosphate concentrations:

An example of wild dopamine excess in a male-dominated supportive culture [15 page PDF Warning]?
Sexism and Rape Culture in Moroccan Social Discourse

In March, 1993, Hajj Mustapha Tabit was arrested in Morocco for abusing his power as a police commissioner by abducting and sexually assaulting hundreds of women over a period of 13 years.

The reaction in the local Moroccan press is examined here, demonstrating a structure of discourse that blamed female victims, elevated the male offender to a kind of cult status, and generally contributed to the perpetuation of a sexist subjectivity in a nation that was only beginning to deal with crimes against women in any organized manner. The specifics of the case study are placed in the general context of women’s struggle for emancipation in Morocco.

It would be interesting to know if the Moroccans eat a lot of melons, and other fruits & veggies, with high concentrates of their native phosphorus, and if that has had any long-term biochemical effects that has extended into their culture:,25197,23966235-30417,00.html
Watermelon gives Viagra stiff competition
Mechanism of action
Part of the physiological process of erection involves the parasympathetic nervous system causing the release of nitric oxide (NO) in the corpus cavernosum of the penis. NO binds to the receptors of the enzyme guanylate cyclase which results in increased levels of cyclic guanosine monophosphate (cGMP), leading to smooth muscle relaxation (vasodilation) of the intimal cushions of the helicine arteries, resulting in increased inflow of blood and an erection.
Could the Moroccon Male, and his culture, be naturally oversexed by his native topsoil?

Bob Shaw in Phx,Az Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

I have no idea but am convinced that food/nutrient intake impacts our behaviours in ways that science can't yet measure.

Watermelon gives Viagra stiff competition

Oh lord and damn, wouldn't you know it? about the only one food in the world I absolutely cannot stomach (have not tried many insects, though).

I think any serious study of human history has to look through the lens of nutrition. More broadly, human history can be viewed as a series of relationships established between man and plants/animals. Books such as "Food of the Gods" by Terence McKenna look at the role of specific plants throughout the course of history.

One thought that came to my mind is that lots of people have trouble visualizing different realities. Let me give you an example. Lots of people around the country are trying to sell their houses, and realtors will give out ideas for things that people can do to dress up their houses. One common example that comes up these days is adding granite countertops (which I consider a pointless extravagance, but that's a common example that comes up these days).

A purchaser could easily do this on their own after settlement, of course, but lots of purchasers don't have the ability to visualize what the house would look like with the granite countertops. So the seller ends up doing it.

A similar example comes up when I start having online conversations with people about "car free living" or how the "car culture" is dying. Lots of people cannot imagine a future where we wouldn't need cars. They have excuses - they need a car to take the kids to day care, or they live too far from work. The fuel efficient cars are "unsafe", or they are "too fat" to fit into a compact car. Or they carry too many tools. Or that the transit system isn't very good (they are unable or unwilling to visualize the possibility that it could be improved). It goes on and on.

I (and others) start to talk about a world where good transit is common and cars are rare. People simply cannot visualize it. They always have reasons too - "The U.S. isn't as densely populated as Europe" comes up often. Almost as if this is supposed to be a deal-killer of some sort, and thus by implication they are saying that in their minds the U.S. will always have a car culture no matter what the rest of the world does. They start to trot out the concept cars that occasionally make a splash in the news. Some fuel cell vehicle, or a 200mpg thing of some sort. That's the hope that a lot of them seem to be holding out for right now..

Ericy: Don't hold your breath waiting for cars to go away. 70 gallons of gasoline a year will do you fine in most urban areas right now with a Prius (4-5 mile commute one way) and the mpg will improve somewhat in the future. Gasoline usage isn't any issue if you don't have a long commute.

If it was only 4-5 miles a day you could even ride a bicycle. Most people drive far more than this a day however.

That is exactly my point-often posters talk about biking to work, going car-free etc. The people who can bike to work are not going to have a problem paying for gasoline or exceeding their ration. People will bike for exercise or personal reasons, but not because of gasoline prices. The persons hit by gasoline prices cannot bike to work. Add it up and it looks like the burbs will be dead long before the urban areas free up their auto congestion problem.

From the looks of the "needs" chart, greed is an innate monotonically increasing function of humans.

An excellent book on these matters is "No Contest" by Alfie Kohn. Gives tons of empirical evidence supporting the notion that selfishness is cultural and not biologically innate.

I never implied that selfishness was biological vs cultural but that resource competition and 'fun' have run amok. Clearly many cultures have HIGHER status for those that give MORE (e.g. potlatch indians). But even culture itself derived from a biological template. As a social species we are constantly on the cusp of cooperation and competition. It is within the power of our culture to change the breakdown of each.

Oh, and lest I forget to mention it, kudos Nate on working the "latex vac bed" into this article. I always learn something new. What an odd species.

for those who missed it, go back and click on the 'extreme' link

As if the troubles with the economy were not enough, look at the problems they are having in Big Sur CA.,25...

Nate, as much as i enjoyed reading your post and agree with most of the ecological and psychological origins that drive modern humans toward high energy consumption, I was left with this feeling that the cards our overwhelmingly stacked against us in spite of our ability to dissect so thoroughly the origins of our dilema. We all want a smooth transition and apply our cerebral cortex to figuring out how to move toward a cultural transition of sustainability but I can never shake away the fact that 6.5 billion heading toward 9 billion only leaves us one real solution which is to allow our species to die off down to a sustainable number with the far less energy that will be available from our environments post peak. At the end of the day as much as we have to understand and strategize our dilema we also have to recognize the inherant contradiction in doing this. Of course no politician or government will embrace this but how about entering into the chapter of human die off with as much humility and grace as possible? This is not defeatist but rather acknowledging what few have the courage to voice out. Understanding the big picture is part of what gives one the courage and your post thus has merit. But we are kidding ourselves with all the time we spend dissecting this issue when it is truely beyond the scope of humans to effectively mitigate or solve it. The best we can do is to contain the suffering durimg the die off, perhaps. And preserve enough knowledge so that once we pass through a population correction we can then live within carrying capacity with available technologies. Beyond that there is not much else to really be trying to figure out here if your going to confront the raw truth of where we find ourselves as a species.

Different Realities

I haven't taken the time to reload this thread so there are likely a bizzilion other posts that might be germane. In any case...

I seem to live in a different reality than many other people. I live in the real boondocks; We stopped getting broadcast/satellite TV years ago; We don't get newspapers; We aren't conspicuous consumers; We are also old farts pushing 70 and have been married almost 50 years - with no kids by choice; etc., etc.

My point is that I read an essay like this and can't really relate. Is the world "outside" really like this? I'm like an Amishman in an English world. It's not like I haven't done some of this stuff - heck we had a house in a yatch basin where we could dock our boat in the "front yard." But, for me, it was devoid of meaning/purpose.

If what Nate says is true, prepare for the collapse - but, of course, you can't in your reality.


I agree Todd. This is not my world that Nate and the posters are describing. But I do know what they are talking about.

I think the thread here is popular psychology - interesting things to talk about but not serious. To get serious, one has to pass through the realms of anthropology and sociology.

As Sharon said upthread, "our current situation is far less biological than cultural." One has to compare cultures, see how they work, to say anything meaningful. Without that awareness, the work is hopelessly culture-bound.

Still, the opinions and insights here are interesting for what they say about the culture.

It depresses me in the same way that watching US television or going to shopping malls depresses me. Time to go off and read 19th century novels, I guess.

The phrase "addicted to oil" is just more meaningless drivel written by Dubya's speech writers. It is a slimey way of placing all the blame for America's high oil consumption on the citizens, and none on the government. And yet it is the government who had the policies that allowed population to grow by 50 percent from 1970 to 2005 - and who allows it to continue to grow by one person every 10 seconds. It is the government who does the zoning whereby businesses are centralized and housing sprawls ever further away. It is the government that left fuel economy standards unchanged for over 3 decades and it is the government that gave fuel economy standard exemptions to SUVs. It is the government that spends trillions on military armaments and can't find billions for high speed rail. And it is the government that claims that glocal oil production won't peak until after 2030.

Oil is used primarily for transportation. Thus if you want a bogus phrase, at least change it to "addicted to travel" or "addicted to transport".

You nailed it.

Don't even give his speech writers too much credit. It was a sound byte all over the place before he supposedly gave it credence.

Well, IMO, yes and maybe not quite. I agree that the phrase "addicted to oil" is extremely silly, because under present circumstances, the alternative is usually to become a hermit. Attaching the label "addicted" to anyone who wishes to do anything more than stare at four walls (or some nondescript agricultural field) for their entire life simply drains the label of any and all meaning. Even if it wasn't fully original with GWB, the phrase is just another of the malapropisms the Bush family is famous for. OTOH, the USA is still sufficiently (not perfectly) democratic (small-d) that blaming it all on "the government" is not quite enough.

The (local) government did the zoning thing - and would do it again in a heartbeat - because the middle-class majority perpetually obsess over "property values", and rightly so since that's where their hallucinated income comes from: many of them produce little of social value, just useless bureaucratic bumf, or else products whose manufacture has now moved to China because it ought to have been fully automated by 1970, but wasn't.

The (Federal) government did the population thing in part because the middle-class majority demanded infinitely abundant dirt-cheap "services", perish the thought that they should mow their own damned lawn or just get a condo, no, just put the tab on the never-never.

The (Federal) government did the CAFE thing in part because the middle-class majority wanted big vehicles, which they proved by walking through the loophole in droves, something no one forced them to do; and in part because the middle-class majority perpetually obsesses on "jobs", and rightly so when it comes to lush, magical, retire-in-place Total Zero Moron "Jobs" in auto factories and the like, paying a fantastic $150K in wages and fringes, in return for absolutely no investment in education, training, effort, or anything else whatsoever beyond a pulse, and since the ADA law maybe not even that. Perish the thought that they might have to get some education and or training to make the big bucks.

The (all levels) government did the train thing because hardly anybody in the middle-class majority had much use for trains, seeing as how planes are faster over American intercity distances even after 9/11, and seeing as how, until recently, their time was too valuable - at up to the previously noted $150K/year and beyond in return for nothing of interest - and even with the train so heavily subsidized as to cost essentially nothing - to squander on waiting and waiting for trains traversing any distance, whose drivers and their managers are still incapable of grasping that "depart at noon" means when the big hand and the little hand are both on the twelve.

It's kind of complicated, if it wasn't it would have been settled long ago and we wouldn't still be discussing it...

The (Federal) government did the population thing in part because the middle-class majority demanded infinitely abundant dirt-cheap "services", perish the thought that they should mow their own damned lawn or just get a condo, no, just put the tab on the never-never.

From what I have read, the current legal immigration policy which started in 1965 (immigration was mostly shutdown in the Great Depression), was initiated by one man - Teddy Kennedy. His initial interest was in getting more Irish into the country. Then he and his staff decided to open things up to the whole world, including countries that had been excluded from the earlier wave. He stood in front of Congress and told them that his new immigration policy proposal (which I think is officially 20,000 people per year per country, excluding "family repatriation") would not change the face of America. Since Congress is primarily trained as lawyers and weak on arithmetic, they passed it. And because the immigrants are primarily of a different race, criticizing it in public is considered improper by most people. The illegal immigration of Mexicans fleeing poor Mexico for a higher standard of living in the US, was also not requested by the citizenry. Many people are in favor of it because it saved them money on their patio. They are unable to connect the dots over to the costs of illegal immigration, be it building things like schools and roads, or bilinqual education, or increased hospital costs, crowding/congestion, etc.

The (Federal) government did the CAFE thing in part because the middle-class majority wanted big vehicles, which they proved by walking through the loophole in droves, something no one forced them to do;

The mandating of higher fuel economy was an excellent response to the peaking of US oil production and the rise in the cost of gasoline from that and temporary supply problems from imports. Unfortunately, the planned regular increases in the standard were derailed by repeated and persistent lobbying and pleading from US auto makers who cannot compete on price with Japan on compact cars. That plus the decrease in oil prices and short-sighted wishful thinking kept Congress from doing what it originally intended to.

The (local) government did the zoning thing - and would do it again in a heartbeat - because the middle-class majority perpetually obsess over "property values", and rightly so since that's where their hallucinated income comes from

The situation where jobs continue to be created in a single location and housing continues to sprawl outward has always baffled me. The standard explanation is that cities want the higher tax revenue they can get from business so they zone for more business. Which doesn't explain why the outlying areas are all residential. Why don't they over zone for business as well or why isn't industry looking to locate some sites there? In any event, the current status quo where young college graduates are told that there is affordable housing 50 miles away, won't continue. You will either see industry moving away from the centralized model (haven't seen that) or them pleading and bribing the local politicians to do a big increase in local housing density (I am seeing this).

When I saw the picture, I wondered about what was intended by the advertising artists who created this picture. Clearly they intended that the viewer associate the pleasure of coitus with an automobile. Because the female figure was disfigured, it was male pleasure that was intended. OK, alpha male enjoys car like he enjoys sex. Got it! But why did the female not have ample breasts? The conventional view is that alpha males prefer females with ample breasts for sex. And why did the artists choose to have the female's breasts covered during coitus? In what automobile market is covered breast copulation the social norm for alpha males? I was puzzled by what they were trying to say. I can't say I got answers to any of my questions. ;-)

To those who haven't yet listened to it - I also recommend Nate's interview on Reality Report from June 2008:

Jason Bradford, Reality Report via Global Public Media: Nate Hagens and the Maximum Power Principle

It sheds some extra light on this article and on various other issues (oil speculation among other things).

I second that recommendation--
It is excellent.

Hi Nate,

Very profound and deep post.

Here is the final Ethical Question, Means and ends etc.

"Is it Ethically and Morally better for a culture, if a member has done the Right thing for the Wrong reasons, or the Wrong thing for the Right reason"??

The answer to this conundrum decides who gets their ticket to heaven.

The more I study plants the more I think we are just very dumb plants. Their DNA unwrapped is a meter long, ours only about a foot long.


Reindeer writes: "I think we are just very dumb plants"

Animals more closely resemble fungi than plants because we enclose matter for energy intake (in our stomach) rather than drawing nutrients out of soil, air or water. However, plant life can be described as a symbiosis between mycelium and the plant itself, and, of course, microbes easily outnumber cells in the human body. So you could describe a human as a hotel too.

Nate, you said:

2. I have come to the conclusion that we cannot change our penchant to want more. We can only change how we define the 'more'. Put aside Peak Oil and Climate Change for the moment. We have it in us to ‘nudge’ how our brains get ‘hijacked’. We can choose to go for a jog/hike instead of sending 10 emails and websurfing, we can choose to have a salad instead of a cheeseburger, we can choose to play a game or read a story with our children instead of making 5 business phone calls, etc. But most of these choices, in my opinion, require prior planning. Because ‘at the moment’, our brains will fall into the neural grooves that modern culture has worn into them. It takes conscious plans to change these behaviors, and for some this will be harder than for others (for me very hard). But in choosing thusly, we are likely making ourselves as individuals healthier and happier, with the positive externalities of using less energy and slowing and eventually reversing the societal stimulation feedback loop.

As I'm pretty sure you are aware a big chunk of the "wisdom literature" of our collective history is about dealing with what we could call the "hedonism / materialism trap" and strategies for getting out of it, or even avoiding it entirely.

As well, every functional culture I'm aware of has developed cultural institutions, the most obvious of which are "religions", whose practices provide practical toolkits for achieving this. (I feel the need at this point to add that while many of these institutions are theisms there are many that are not, and they seem to work just as well) Uncounted millions of people have, and continue, to do this very thing.

I'm wondering why you didn't really mention this in your post as far as I can see.

Absolutely. We need to change our institutions to be more inline with who we are, given our means (energy, water, land, etc.) Institutions are the key. I totally agree - post was already 7,000 words long and I had strayed in too many sub-topics already, but you have a good point.
HOW to get institutions to change though is the $140 per barrel question.

As well, every functional culture I'm aware of has developed cultural institutions, the most obvious of which are "religions", whose practices provide practical toolkits for achieving this. (I feel the need at this point to add that while many of these institutions are theisms there are many that are not, and they seem to work just as well) Uncounted millions of people have, and continue, to do this very thing.

Alas, most great religions have one very negative feature which, unfortunately, is essential for their achieving greatness: increase and multiply -- or, more precisely: increase and multiply and bring up your kids to believe in this mumbo-jumbo and, in due time, further increase and multiply until kingdom come. No sweat about overpopulation -- do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own ... just make sure you don't wear a condom 'cos God gets really browned off if you do and you'll be in BIG TROUBLE on judgement day. Etc. Etc.

I'm not denying the ethical value of religions but Zero Population Growth certainly isn't high up on their to-do lists.


First of all, excellent post. I think for the past few millenia, humans have been driven by the dopamine positive feedback loop.

However, I don't think it can be as simple as trying to eliminate stimulus to moderate the dopamine response. Laws can't stop genetics, though they've certainly tried. No, what's necessary is evolutionary change or human ingenuity to allow for increased energy usage.

Sure we'll moderate our conspicuous consumption some to account for new constraints, but we'll still be trying to maximize our energy output within the means we have (resulting in violence for some). In the end however, if resources aren't expanded or human genetics aren't changed, we'll still run headlong into the dead end at the end of the road for the human race.

Just remember, if you're you're looking for governments to fix our problems, you're going to be disappointed. Governments won't make the necessary changes fast enough or even in the right direction (ethanol anyone), but economies will, or atleast try. Watch for ingenuity in humans striving to come up with the next million dollar idea, not the next billion dollar governmental boondoggle.

"In my opinion, the United States has a monumental (though long odds) opportunity to shift the worlds carrot away from conspicuous consumption. As ostensible leaders of the free world, we need to set an example that others will follow."

Completely agree.

"The only thing standing in the way is the overwhelming pursuit of profits as our end goal,"

There's another thing standing in the way: the American "city upon a hill" mentality, which makes it difficult to recognize that your previous ways were wrong, which is the basic step of the "metanoia" process, whether it is social or personal.

Alas, it's a bit late, but finally the penny drops:

In Europe, we habitually regard a restless spirit, a moderate desire for wealth and an extreme love of independence as great social dangers, but precisely these things assure a long and peaceful future in the American republics.
–Alexis de Tocqueville, "Democracy in America", 1831

Despite its age, that's one of the pithiest definitions of Eurosclerosis ever. It reminds me why, although Europe is a very fine place indeed to visit, filled with fascinating monuments both to the dead past and to the abundant dead of the dead past, it seems to be of only modest interest other than as a largely bygone historical artifact (perhaps so drained of spirit that it will slouch into a destiny as a minor backwater province of Gazprom, who knows?)

What's strange is that the passivity observed by de Tocqueville has come to be extolled as some kind of virtue - at least from comfortable academic offices with nice views, in places offering tenured positions, reasonably effective medical care, reliable food supply, and hyperabundant airline tickets for attending perfectly dreadful "conventions" and "meetings". The overarching irony is that such things do not fall from trees, but can be provided only in environments that nurture work, ambition, and restless spirits, rather than café-layabout sloth.

The theory, of course, seems to be that magical, arbitrarily assumed calming effects of the dull, boring, backward, harsh, utterly pointless peasant existence of the dead past should reduce not only war and strife, but also eliminate that now-fashionable bogeyman, competition for resources. And yet, somehow, oddly, it failed to work out that way. Instead, the twentieth century, and to a considerable degree a number of others, became living hells of war and strife. And yet, mysteriously, that reality goes unnoticed by today's politically-correct academics as they spin their other-worldly yarns out of whole cloth drawn from their woolly minds.

Oh, well. C'est la vie.

Nate -

A very well done and thought provoking post .... as usual.

If I understood your post correctly, the main theme here (in admittedly over-simplistic terms) is that humans are sort of hard-wired to pursue things that make them feel good and will repeatedly engage in the same behavior as long as it makes them feel good. No argument here.

Perhaps what you have not given enough attention to is the flip side of the above: that humans will do their best to avoid things that give them discomfort, fatigue, and pain. And that is usually a good thing.

For example, I would hardly describe it as 'addictive behavior' if a farmer prefers to plow his field in one day while sitting in an air-conditioned tractor rather than trudging behind the ass-end of a mule team for five days.

As another example, I would hardly describe it as 'addictive behavior' if a single working mother saves up to buy an old clunker so she can avoid having to get up an extra hour earlier and wait in the freezing cold to take two buses to and from her job.

Though in both cases the preferred option involves the consumption of fossil fuel, the selection is perfectly rationale as it reduces discomfort, fatique, and pain. Fossil fuel in both cases is used in a practical utilitarian manner, not for pleasure.

Why should one prefer to clear an acre of land with an axe if one could use a chain saw, and why should one prefer to dig the foundation for a house with a pick and shovel if one could use a backhoe? Let us not forget that for all the problems our use of fossil fuel has caused, it has also liberated millions from a life of grinding drudgery. (I became sensitive to this notion last week when I couldn't get my chainsaw started and had to take down and cut up a very small tree with an axe and bow saw and am still sore as a result.)

Does anyone here get the sense that man's destiny is not in his own hands?

While we all sit about planning the future, the future will unfold as it will, making fools of us all.

I am skeptical about how large a part addiction plays in conspicuous consumption. There is a difference between addiction and neurotic behavior. I used to suck down coffee all day at work. I freely grant that this was neurotic behavior. However, if went on backpacking trip for a week I did not 'need' or miss coffee for a femtosecond. Drinking coffee was neurotic response to the stresses of my work environment but the minute my environment changed the 'addiction' disappeared. If a natural disaster occurred which wrecked our economy and forced us to direct most of our efforts towards obtaining basic things like food and shelter, how many people would sit around moaning and groaning about not being able to go to the mall or take a weekend road trip to Reno? If our social enviroment changed in a way that made conspicuous consumption impossible most of our so-called economic addictions would vanish.

A number years ago the company I work at in Silicon Valley offered a very attractive buyout package to employees who were eligible for retirement. I knew several people who were eligible, but turned down the package because they were afraid of boredom in the retired state. Wanting to something useful with your life is not addiction. The problem is that we have culturally defined 'usefulness' as the constant accumulation of wealth. Alxandr Solshnitizn, in The Gulag Archipelago, wrote about how he and a team of prisoners built stone walls in Siberia. They worked in a disciplined, organized, dedicated manner, and took pride in the quality of their constructions. People like creating stuff and feeling that they are contributing to society. We have to find outlets for such creative urges which do not put pressure on people to constantly consume more resources.

I do not deny that some people are addicted to accumulating wealth and power, but I think that they are a lunatic fringe. Most people who are on the growth treadmill are there for two reasons. First, personal security depends on storing up a large amount of wealth and the percentage of people who feel wealthy enough to be secure to the end of their lives (I am assuming ignorance or denial of peak oil, otherwise no one would feel secure) is quite small. Second, people have a creative, constructive urge and paid work is the primary outlet through which many people seek fufillment of this drive.

I have a friend at work who is a very successful engineer. I have asked him what he would do if he made a killing in the stock market and became financially independent. His answer is that he would continue to work as an engineer because that is what he good at and enjoys doing. He is not ignorant about the destructive and wasteful nature of our economic system. He has remarked to me before that our current economic system has no real justification other than the fact that we all need jobs. He is status conscious in the sense that he wants to have his superior skills and accomplishments acknolwedged and recognized. But that salary increases are the only possible acknowledgement that would make his life worth living is nonsense.

I think our primary problem is cultural inertia rather than addiction. In order to change the growth emphasis of our economy deep structrual changes in our economic and political institutions are required. These kinds of wholsale changes are very diffucult to get started on. Samuel Butler wrote about the nature of such changes in his essay God the Known and God the Unknown:

MANKIND has ever been ready to discuss matters in the inverse ratio of their importance, so that the more closely a question is felt to touch the hearts of all of us, the more incumbent it is considered upon prudent people to profess that it does not exist, to frown it down, to tell it to hold its tongue, to maintain that it has long been finally settled, so that there is now no question concerning it.

It is not difficult, indeed, to show that, instead of having reason to complain of the desire for the postponement of important questions, as though the world were composed mainly of knaves or fools, such fixity as animal and vegetable forms possess is due to this very instinct.

Whether the organism or the surroundings began changing first is a matter of such small moment that the two may be left to fight it out between themselves; but, whichever view is taken, the fact will remain that whenever the relations between the organism and its surroundings have been changed, the organism must either succeed in putting the surroundings into harmony with itself, or itself into harmony with the surroundings; or must be made so uncomfortable as to be unable to remember itself as subjected to any such difficulties, and there fore to die through inability to recognise [sic] its own identity further.

Under these circumstances, organism must act in one or other of these two ways: it must either change slowly and continuously with the surroundings, paying cash for everything, meeting the smallest change with a corresponding modification so far as is found convenient; or it must put off change as long as possible, and then make larger and more sweeping changes.

They will deal promptly with things which they can get at easily, and which lie more upon the surface; those, however, which are more troublesome to reach, and lie deeper, will be handled upon more cataclysmic principles, being allowed longer periods of repose followed by short periods of greater activity.
So with politics, the smaller the matter the prompter, as a general rule, the settlement; on the other hand, the more sweeping the change that is felt to be necessary, the longer it will be deferred.

The advantages of dealing with the larger questions by more cataclysmic methods are obvious. For, in the first place, all composite things must have a system, or arrangement of parts, so that some parts shall depend upon and be grouped round others, as in the articulation of a skeleton and the arrangement of muscles, nerves, tendons, etc., which are attached to it. To meddle with the skeleton is like taking up the street, or the flooring of one's house; it so upsets our arrangements that we put it off till whatever else is found wanted, or whatever else seems likely to be wanted for a long time hence, can be done at the same time.

Thirdly, it is more easy and safer to make such alterations as experience has proved to be necessary than to forecast what is going to be wanted. Reformers are like paymasters, of whom there are only two bad kinds, those who pay too soon, and those who do not pay at all.

The moment for making 'cataclysmic' changes to our social structure is coming. Let us hope that we succeed in adapting to the new environment which our own excesses have created.

I agree that cultural inertia is a greater problem than addiction, though that study I liked to did show that the majority of Americans have at least one addiction (if one includes the internet). But the 'fringe' group you are talking about are by far the largest energy consumers. I can't tell you the number of people I know/have known that said they would stop when they got to "X" dollars and now have many multiples of X, and consume like kings. In turn this sets a carrot for their neighbors and peers. Not all people succumb to this, but on average, we try and compete for status, as culture defines it.

To parse these concepts into a 7,000 word essay is just about impossible, but there do exist biological constraints on our options, for better or worse. The message is without acknowledging what these are and embracing them, we are at big disadvantage collectively.


Maybe we just have a disagreement over semantics. Human beings like to have their uniqueness acknowledged. We are not ants or bees. This liking can easily be channeled into competition for status. The ease with which this channeling occurs must have some basis in our genes. If this is the implication of what you are saying, I agree with you. In my mind this assertion is not the same thing as saying that the only way in which our desire to be known, understood, and appreciated, is through the competitive acheivement of status. Possibly, I am deceiving myself.

i don't think addiction is the right word. as joule's above comment points out oil is an energy multiplier of a order or two or more, that alone is grounds to value it.
[ i also like the title change re status; power is obviously in there too.]

most of us don't question the entire milieu we are born into. we needed leadership to have dealt with this impending crisis.& in general i feel our corporate culture & system of government is most responsible.

addicts implode/explode into death, or very, very significant loss with little heed to escalating warnings & close calls & increasingly tragic consequences. i agree we will soon be in these kind of consequences, but feel many of these very tragic circumstances are unavoidable now & many will wake up - not sure to what- & recognize depletion when this is communicated in a caring yet clear direct manner.of course i expect poor leadership in this arena -like we have had.[ & it would crash the markets??]

the word addiction had special meaning to GWB. in a way it's use at least in that context seems to me confusing given his administration's record on oil. carter's sweater speech ; now that was intervention-like.

still mulling this over; our infrastructure in the us will make these changes like breaking an addiction[or worse]. maybe the problem i have with addiction is it normally applies to individuals & this problem is mostly about our social network& how we will interact/live [or not].

thanks for u'r 'social/psychological contributions to this site [& eroei, ..]!

I think you're making this a little bit too complicated. Addiction is about extremities and "disorders" of our natural appetitive drives which are supposed to support both our individual survival and improve our chance to reproduce.

Oil has been a crucial enabler of the satisfaction of all appetitive drives including sex but not exclusively motivated by sex. With cheap energy, need- and wish-satisfying products have become cheaper to make and therefore more plentiful. With the enhanced mobility associated with oil, more need- and wish-satisfying objects are within our easy grasp.

So oil has made more of us "high status" and "kings" and "queens". It is an experience of power that is addicting which puts us in closer touch to those other substances and attractive people that actually interact with our brain chemistry.

Cheap oil in combination with a vehicle shortens the distance between the desire and the fulfillment of the desire...

Additionally vehicles have become "a second skin" that allows individuals to either express, rapidly change, or hide their identity. You may not like your own appearance but you can adopt a new appearance by acquiring or modifying a vehicle. The most important message that a vehicle sends can be status but that is not the only message.

Also large vehicles enable people to create a personal or family space which is very convenient for large families to interact while simultaneously doing something else.

Cheap oil has made it all possible. So it is no wonder that we would feel attached to it if not in a strict sense "addicted" to it.

Someone need to do a study of what "handsome" and "beauty" features are like in terms of energy usage...

i.e. what is the relative energy intensity of taller and bigger bodies, thick hair with lots of body, good bone structure, big brain, pretty face, big breasts, hips, penises, etc.

Sometimes, I wonder how close humans really are to peacocks...

Do we squander a lot of energy attracting mates?

There's a part of the limbic system in the brain called the amagdyla, apparently it's connected with the "fight of flight" impulse humans would feel (including adrenaline rush) at danger or even if challenged on some level.

Apparently MRIs of the amagdyla reveal physical differences in this organ in scans of men and women volunteers. It is also generally known that men would choose "fight" more often while women choose "flight" (doesn't mean cowardly of course, perhaps the superior choice oftentimes!)

I think that energy use (such as a man displaying a big car) could possibly be interpreted (unconsciously) by another man as a challenge of some sort. And this would lead him to buy a bigger one ("fight" rather than "flight").

Or choose a job that required a move "up" to an expensive metro area, thrusting him into big mortgage, etc.

Or buy a bigger TV. And then a bigger one yet.

Is it his own fault or did his amagdyla make him do it?

To clarify further: a quote from The Entropy Law and the Economic Process:

"The sun will continue to shine on the earth, perhaps, almost as bright as today after the extinction of mankind and will feed with low entropy other species, those with no ambition whatsoever" (p. 304)

I think you could even think of this sentence in another way (along a continuum within the whole human species), that maybe within the group "mankind" the less ambitious people will do well post peak while the highly ambitious (competitive fighting types) will not.

Let's look at an example using a situation in a recent Drumbeat: shops in England are instructed to start stocking extra food staples because of a truckers strike. The highly paid corporate lawyer in an expensive London suburb and who must drive his expensive car to the expensive status-y supermarket will feel the sting of this problem, his food is more expensive and in short supply, and he also has a very high mortgage, he signed on because he was damned if others would be millions of pounds in debt and not him, he was going to be in the same class, live in the capital etc. (fight not flight)

In the same country there is another lawyer, not ambitious at all. He lives in a rural backwater and does routine legal-practice kind of stuff for the farming community there. He has a garden and he fishes on days off. He trades his fish for other food. He hardly needs to use his car because it's an old village with small roads, so a bicycle is usually OK. The supermarket problems will hardly impact him at all because he trades eggs and chicken with farmers and grows his own veggies. He owns an old house that is fully paid for (maybe he even inherited from his parents). The gas shortages won't impact him as much as the rich lawyer in London. Life will continue as before. Boring? Or richly rewarding, enjoying the community and nature?

And which one has the more typical male amgdyla? Probably it's the one in London, I would argue.

Maybe if people can think of ways to change the male amagdyla then peak oil as a problem will have less of an impact on all of us, including the women who must live with the decisions that the male amagdyla makes.

i.e. what is the relative energy intensity of taller and bigger bodies, thick hair with lots of body, good bone structure, big brain, pretty face, big breasts, hips, penises, etc.

I'm pretty certain this hasn't been done, though it is an interesting question. I would predict that those with the attributes you mention (taller, more handsome, bigger brain, penis, etc.) would use LESS energy, as they already have a natural attractant subsidy, whereas people on the short side of things might need to overcompensate with cars, condos, gifts, etc. Of course on average....;-)

Now that is an interesting way of looking at things.

If humans are able to compensate for their lack of physical endowments with things like cars, condos, postings on TOD (why not?), or plastic surgery, personal trainers, etc. then that really make the equation of curbing energy use hard to do --- unless there is another kind of competition that takes the place of the present games....

Think at some point, instead of giving a diamond, we might be able to give a barrel of oil?

Or Vaseline?