Towards 'The Greatest Good'?

Below the fold is a guest post by Cornelius, a scientist at an East Coast university (with whom I spent some time with when studying in Vermont).

Here are the guidelines for the Wed night/Sat. Campfire slot - please consider submitting a post if you have expertise/experience/big ideas on either the supply or demand side of our energy future to: or

The Greatest Good

As events seemingly continue spiraling out of control with each passing week, we find comfort in the routines we have come to know, until those routines themselves are disrupted. Food, education, transportation systems, entertainment are all functioning despite the economic malaise. Many of us, genetically predisposed towards a new happy etch-a-sketch each morning, look on the bright side of things - we listen to optimistic rhetoric that new technology, better leaders and the human spirit will solve the myriad problems facing humanity. Others, schooled either in hard knocks, or in hard science, see the upcoming clash between natural resources and natural growth in human material demand.

Since I had an open invitation, I decided to take a step back in addressing the problems we face and just asking a question. All this education, banter and effort on the website (one of my favorite destinations when I'm online) is for a purpose. The writers seem to believe that by pinning down the date of peak and future decline rate of oil and articulating the pros and cons of various energy alternatives that somehow the world will be made better. Perhaps so. But towards what end?

Famed conservationist Gifford Pinchot is oft quoted saying 'the greatest good for the greatest number' and in forestry circles it is a philosophical question to 'define' what he meant. (The actual quote is "Conservation is the foresighted utilization, preservation and/or renewal of forests, waters, lands and minerals, for the greatest good of the greatest number for the longest time.”). But I think this is a worthwhile line of questioning/defining to pursue, especially as difficult choices are going to be made with increasing occasion, and to know ones purpose before a decision is made is basic strategy.

In my field there are definitional differences regarding sustainability. "Weak form Sustainability" is centered around an assumption that human-made capital can effectively substitute for natural capital and the services from ecological systems. "Strong form sustainability" is related to the carrying capacity based on Net Primary Product (NNP) derived from the amount of vegetation produced annually over a given land area.

With this as a backdrop, we have a new, hopeful, science leaning administration in Washington, who will soon be making important decisions; ostensibly to create jobs, bail-out certain 'key' industries, stem the advance of climate change via reduced carbon emissions, etc.

But what is the goal and what should it be? Using Pinchots tag-line 'greatest good':

Greatest good for the greatest number of people? (Happiness? 'utility'?,etc.)
Greatest good for greatest number of Americans (in direct contrast to those in other countries)
Greatest good for greatest living biomass?
Greatest near term good?
Greatest good for greatest long term number of people on planet?
Greatest 'perceived' good - reality be damned?
Greatest good for those in power?
Greatest good for the advancement of one species (ours) over others, even if subconscious?
Greatest good-will?
Greatest proximity to steady state?
Greatest number of genes into next generation of family and friends or like-minded folk?
A multicriteria matrix of all the above?
None of the above?

There seem to be cracks in the mortar of 'greatest economic growth' mantra, and things are going to change whether our politicians will them to or not. But sorting through the answers to the above questions, either outwardly spoken or inwardly felt will precede our actions. Our new president has voiced that Americans will have to think differently on how we use energy. Before that he/we might have to think on some bigger questions. What is 'the greatest good' and how should we dispassionately arrive at it?

Creating new options?

What is "good"? Most human answers would be considered environmentally sociopathic to an intelligent alien. Environmental realities can seem 'evil' on their face to us humans. So maybe agreeing what constitutes "good" would be a "good" place to start, and good luck with that...

And what of precautionary principles and resilience? "Greatest" could thus perhaps use a little defining as well, since on its face it might imply being at the utter bleeding edge of some yield or tradeoff.

I think we do need to question the tacit notion that it is optimal for human flesh to constitute the majority individual-species biomass. Increasingly, we are the forest, and perhaps it's in that context that forestry can be most informative to our predicament.

Inasmuch as the "greatest good" must necessarily be a human value judgement, perhaps we would be well-advised to just apply the principles of forestry to the currently overgrown monoculture of plague apes.

What is "good"?

I defy anyone to define "good" except self-referentially. With only a tiny bit of experience, we discover that we can't even define "good" -- in either material or spiritual terms -- for our spouses, parents, or children. How then, are we to decide what is "good" for Ethiopia or Gaza or Iraq -- let alone the entire human race, and certainly not the whole planet.

Perhaps we should start from a position of humility, not some ex armchair-cathedra above-all-the-fray position.

If we get off our computer screens and out into the world, we will see things that need to be done, right there in front of our eyes, and we will be forced to make value judgments and take action at a local level that might have some chance of doing some local "good".

Enough already, of trying to sort out what is best for everybody, or to "save the planet." That is either arrogant, or stupid. I try to follow Gary Snyder -- "Find your place on the planet. Dig in, and take responsibility from there. "

Of course you can define "good". If you can't define "good" then you can't define "bad".
Fast and slow, hot and cold, hard and soft, sweet and sour, big and small, high and low, dumb and smart, faith and doubt, heaven and hell.
What is a definition for any of those...............opinions vary because we are not all the same.

Religion needs hell and the devil to be able to define heaven and god, without a bad place how can you know what a good place is or could be. The badder a place can be made to look the better the good place can seem.

Everything is not black and white. We need relativity and opinions. That is what has developed human language.

Our human nature and personalities means we see things differently. We need consensus to tackle a purpose. That takes us from rigid laws of the ten commandments to the miasma of gray in law we have today and jury panel's.

Psychopathy and vested interests is what prevents a consensus on what is good for the planet.
No one wants to give up more, suffer more or die sooner than the next person. The same applies to communities and countries.
If we could all TRUST in the greater good..............

All we need to do is align our needs with the needs of the planet and other species so they don't conflict. Easy as that.

But we're here because of conflict. Our ancestors chomped their way through the ancestors of all the other species that didn't make it.

Other species feel this conflict intensely right now. If we reduced human resource "needs" by say 95% (and don't hold your breath waiting for our politicians to propose any such radical self-denial) there would still be conflict with all other species.

I agree, though I wish it weren't so.

When I realized that there is a finite amount of energy and resources in the biosphere, and that they are almost all utilized, I realized we cannot avoid conflict. Life has evolved to fill every niche available, and when we acquire new resources, we are pushing competitors out. Farmland destroys previous forests and prairies, sustainable hunting and fishing requires the replacement of predators. Even in the burning of deadwood, we're using energy that fungi and bacteria would have utilized. There's no way around it, and it doesn't make me feel especially good, but nothing is free and everything is taken from something. That knowledge was a part of growing up for me, and I still think about it whenever I garden.

"..still be conflict with all other species."

That's a very simplistic and war-driven model by which to view our role in the ecosystem. To a hammer, everything looks like a nail. (That's the viewpoint I'm talking about, not necessarily you personally.)

We aren't even really in constant conflict with our own food-species, we have to insure that they survive, and are healthy, as well as the system which all of us depend on.

There is conflict, but as a presently traumatized society, we have been obsessively dwelling on it, and frequently forget how much we are also here only because of cooperative efforts, and from the ways in which we have managed to not entirely decimate the living world.. we just have to identify the positive actions that sustain us AND the natural support systems, and decide which actions, from population to pollution and over-production, over-extraction .. have created the massive problems that put us INTO complete conflict not only with the natural world, but even in conflict with our own survival, it seems.


There's an old saw that 'You don't have to clean up the river, just stop throwing garbage INTO it.' .. quibbles aside, that's a decent first step, and the improvements would be enormous.

Major up-greenie. I sort of miss the rating system we lost with the latest "improvement".

Conflict doesn't sort out "good" -- only "strong". Or perhaps "lucky."

Not a very profound philosophical position. And I don't think it is the best that human beings are capable of.

I think of this problem as containing a number of strands that are all inter-related, but separating them helps us humans cope with the myriad variables.

The major categories are:

1. Climate
2. Peak Energy, particularly oil
3. Pollution/Sink issues
4. Capital Markets
5. Growth, population and economic growth
6. Politics

Looking at this list is depressing. If a stated reasonable goal for sustainability (my kids have a future) is a world where a) climate change does NOT wreak havoc, humans have sufficient energy, ecological services can cope with our waste; and b) our capital markets can operate in a low/slow growth environment, we can migrate to economic growth that does not require use of natural resources beyond their replacement rate; and our political systems are no longer hijacked by special interest lobbies (eg the coal and oil sectors); then I have to conclude that there is virtually no chance of humans making any meaningful progress in these areas.

One of our senior politicians here in Australia, Barnaby Joyce, described Australia's halting efforts at controlling our prodigious CO2 output as "eco-fanaticism that will cost jobs" (sigh). That he has a voice on this issue; and people take him seriously, indicates that Australia lacks the will and imagination to grasp the opportunities present; and that we will remain followers as the world continues to implode (see Mike Rupert's latest blogs).


Greatest good for future generations?
Greatest standard of living? (for who? sustainable?)

I'm not sure that a "Greatest good" measurement is the metric that you want to use. Perhaps it is, but it is both subjective and relative, which makes it both difficult to define and to measure.

Maybe you need two types of goals. A long-term, general mission/vision (e.g., greatest sustainable standard of living for all people, or whatever), and a short-term, more specific and quantifiable metric or set of metrics that mark milestones towards the long-term (e.g., energy use, emission levels, Gini coefficient, quality of life metric... whatever makes sense given the long-term goal).

The long-term goal would be an aiming point. Being long-term, presumably it would encompass an inherently sustainable concept. Of course, the current long-term goal is growth, so sustainability is clearly NOT a requirement of long-term human planning (so far). The short-term goals provide a way to measure progress and break the Herculean into measurable and understandable metrics that people can latch onto. The short-term goals and metrics would change over time to reflect progress or lack thereof.

Now, how do you arrive at the goals, long or short? Good question. Wish I had a good answer.


What you are really asking is, What is the purpose of life? Without first defining that, it is impossible to ask your other questions; what is "good" or what the "goal" should be.


We are all on a spaceship (Earth) traveling through space. There is no escape.
We have too many people and not enough food and water (resources) or air (climate change) to attain our destination (sustainable life).
The point of no return has been passed (population overshoot).

The problem we know and the solution we know.
The solution is such a big problem though. We cannot face it nor apply it.

It is because we are enslaved by our human nature.
Self preservation at all costs (every crew member has a reason why they are important) will result in continuous engineering and technical solution attempts.

Each attempt will further deplete the spaceship and deny future generations a fighting chance, even when the time eventually arrives and the population sufficiently declines due to limits being reached.

Each (seemingly) successful attempt will enable those alive to thrive, breed and consume, further adding to the problems of (food and water) resource depletion and (air quality) global warming.

Our solutions will not really be solutions, they will simply be attempts by those with agendas and self interests to continue a semblance of BAU.

Each attempt will further deplete the spaceship and deny future generations a fighting chance, even when the time eventually arrives and the population sufficiently declines due to limits being reached.

Each (seemingly) successful attempt will enable those alive to thrive, breed and consume, further adding to the problems of (food and water) resource depletion and (air quality) global warming.

I don't believe these are as inevitable as you describe them.

We hear countless examples of how we can be affecting the ecosystem less harmfully or more helpfully, and this does not guarantee that we will then just populate to outstrip all resources. We've done that in this setup BECAUSE we had all this energy to do it with.

Examples of more positive interaction with nature.. Joel Salatin's 'Grass Farm' (see omnivore's dilemma), with multiple species of plants and animals deployed to support the grasses and treat the wastes of one as an input for another. Positive for healthy animals, foods, soils and groundwater. Labor intensive, but that's jobs.. Also, countless approaches to build and renovate homes for far better use of resources and energy, proximity to community, shops, work.

There are tons of efforts we can apply that do not add to the waste or resource depletion, provide meaningful work and more meaningful lifestyles (regaining consciousness after the Video slumber of the last 50 years..)

For me, the 'Greatest Good' gets into parsing out the materials, habits and energies in our lifestyles, and bit by bit learning to 'Do No (Do Less..) Harm'. There are so many ways to work WITH the energies and materials around us without wasting them away. Population, I'm guessing, will simply mirror the available energy supply.. it has no choice. It will go down, maybe way down.. but not away. But we, in the meantime, have lots of other choices we can be making.

I just spent the afternoon blowing cellulose insulation (recycled newspaper, it seems) into the 160year old plaster walls in one more room of my house, using a homemade blower built from a few recycled plywood Political Roadsigns, some tubing and PVC pipe and a surplus blower motor. Works Great, More Filling! I can't wait to rent it out to my neighbors, or trade it for Pie and Piano Lessons! (One kid, and it's gonna stay that way)


speeking of spaceships ...

In the shadow of Saturn, unexpected wonders appear. The robotic Cassini spacecraft now orbiting Saturn recently drifted in giant planet's shadow for about 12 hours and looked back toward the eclipsed Sun. Cassini saw a view unlike any other. First, the night side of Saturn is seen to be partly lit by light reflected from its own majestic ring system. Next, the rings themselves appear dark when silhouetted against Saturn, but quite bright when viewed away from Saturn, slightly scattering sunlight, in this exaggerated color image. Saturn's rings light up so much that new rings were discovered, although they are hard to see in the image. Seen in spectacular detail, however, is Saturn's E ring, the ring created by the newly discovered ice-fountains of the moon Enceladus and the outermost ring visible above. Far in the distance, at the left, just above the bright main rings, is the almost ignorable pale blue dot of Earth.


Nice, thanks!

I was reminded by NPR this morning that the Mars Rovers are still chugging away, and it turns out that the second one launched on the same day our daughter was born! I think I have to get the action figure of it now!

"NASA's twin robot geologists, the Mars Exploration Rovers, launched toward Mars on June 10 and July 7, 2003, in search of answers about the history of water on Mars. They landed on Mars January 3 and January 24 PST, 2004 (January 4 and January 25 UTC, 2004).

..Before landing, the goal for each rover was to drive up to 40 meters (about 44 yards) in a single day, for a total of up to one 1 kilometer (about three-quarters of a mile). Both goals have been far exceeded!"

Not bad for a couple of Solar Powered EV's in subzero conditions!
(The average recorded temperature on Mars is -63° C (-81° F) with a maximum temperature of 20° C (68° F) and a minimum of -140° C (-220° F). )

===From The Tragedy of the Commons Hardin 1968===
..."The class of "no technical solution problems" has members. My thesis is that the "population problem," as conventionally conceived, is a member of this class. How it is conventionally conceived needs some comment. It is fair to say that most people who anguish over the population problem are trying to find a way to avoid the evils of overpopulation without relinquishing any of the privileges they now enjoy. They think that farming the seas or developing new strains of wheat will solve the problem -- technologically. I try to show here that the solution they seek cannot be found. The population problem cannot be solved in a technical way, any more than can the problem of winning the game of tick-tack-to"...
"...A finite world can support only a finite population; therefore, population growth must eventually equal zero. (The case of perpetual wide fluctuations above and below zero is a trivial variant that need not be discussed.) When this condition is met, what will be the situation of mankind? Specifically, can Bentham's goal of "the greatest good for the greatest number" be realized? No -- for two reasons, each sufficient by itself. The first is a theoretical one. It is not mathematically possible to maximize for two (or more) variables at the same time. This was clearly stated by von Neumann and Morgenstern, [3] but the principle is implicit in the theory of partial differential equations, dating back at least to D'Alembert (1717-1783).

The second reason springs directly from biological facts. To live, any organism must have a source of energy (for example, food). This energy is utilized for two purposes: mere maintenance and work. For man maintenance of life requires about 1600 kilocalories a day ("maintenance calories"). Anything that he does over and above merely staying alive will be defined as work, and is supported by "work calories" which he takes in. Work calories are used not only for what we call work in common speech; they are also required for all forms of enjoyment, from swimming and automobile racing to playing music and writing poetry. If our goal is to maximize population it is obvious what we must do: We must make the work calories per person approach as close to zero as possible. No gourmet meals, no vacations, no sports, no music, no literature, no art…I think that everyone will grant, without argument or proof, that maximizing population does not maximize goods. Bentham's goal is impossible."...
..."We want the maximum good per person; but what is good? To one person it is wilderness, to another it is ski lodges for thousands. To one it is estuaries to nourish ducks for hunters to shoot; to another it is factory land. Comparing one good with another is, we usually say, impossible because goods are incommensurable. Incommensurables cannot be compared."...
"Theoretically this may be true; but in real life incommensurables are commensurable. Only a criterion of judgment and a system of weighting are needed. In nature the criterion is survival. Is it better for a species to be small and hideable, or large and powerful? Natural selection commensurates the incommensurables. The compromise achieved depends on a natural weighting of the values of the variables."...

I found this line to be thought-provoking,

'Is it better for a species to be small and hideable, or large and powerful?'

-- only in that I think that we have considered ourselves 'outside of nature'.. so we ask such questions because we simply don't know our place in nature. Great parts of our civilization will declare that we are apart from it, above it, and that we can rewrite the rules that seemed to apply to the wild things.

As Bugs Bunny said, walking up the treetrunk. "I can even break the Law of Gravity. Fortunately, I never studied Law!"

We are still 'In the Garden', but we believe we left when we were expelled for gaining Knowledge. Now we're facing a crumbling garden that has had a renegade species disregarding their relationship to it.


I completely agree with the necessity of zero population growth, because even if no further resources are needed over and above the matter in each human and the bare sustenance to keep each human alive, any population increase, sustained long enough, will exhaust the rate-limiting resource required; if a substitute is found for the rate-limiting resource, then the new rate-limiting resource will be exhausted, and so on. For all cases except an infinite Universe (which can be accessed by humans), any population growth, no matter how slight, will run the Universe out of resources at some point.

See the short essay 'Fecundity Unlimited' by Issac Asimov. He calculated that at a trivial growth rate (I forget the exact number, can't find the book right now), that Humanity would consume every last atom of Carbon in the known Universe by 11,000 A.D He waived all practical considerations about travel to the stars, terraforming, sources/sinks...simply calculated how long it would take to incorporate every Carbon atom in the Universe into a standard-weight human given a certain small growth rate...he freely admitted that the rate limiting element was likely Phosphorous instead of Carbon, but he wanted to be generous in his assumptions to drive the exponential growth point home.

I take issue with your second point though. There exists a certain population level of humans that could sustainable live with every modern convenience at their disposal; personal watercraft, aircraft, 10-foot wide flat screen super-hi-res TVs, a computer for every person, and yes, ski slopes for all, and gourmet dinners afterwards. What is maximum number of humans who could live like rich, active Americans? Not 6.5 Billion, certainly. Not 3 Billion, I think. One Billion? 100 Million?

I make no pretense at calculations, someone with more time on their hands can take a stab at modeling that operations research problem. I do contend that there exists some much smaller population level that, given enough automation assistance and with enough population to support the variety of skills needed, could live like kings sustainably. Why? Because each person only has 24 hours in each day, therefore there exists a definate limit to how many resources each person could possibly consume. Beyond that, there is a maximum utility for each luxury...your marginal utility/enjoyment drops off beyond a certain size of TV, beyond a certain number of hours on the slopes, and beyond a certain quantity of fine food and drink...even better there are opportunity costs between all the choices, leading back to the 24 hours in a day thing.

So, in sum, a fixed, small population leaves latitude to enjoy some material luxuries, which in the extremis you have defined as anything beyond 1600 calories per day, just sleeping, getting up to pick and eat berries and tubers, and staring at the clouds...occasional sex, then back to sleep.

And what kind of life is that? I might as well be a squirrel.

Sustainability is the necessity, not dehuiminization. Doomerism to the extreme...a road to nowhere. Reducing population and keeping it fixed at a small level is key to sustainability.

MoonWatcher It is probably worth pointing out that the ideas expressed above are not mine but were written by Garrett Hardin more than 40 years ago. "Tragedy" became the most reprinted essay in the history of science. I understand that there were 20 or so drafts prior to publication. The re-writing followed intensive proofing, discussion and criticism by Garrett's wife and others. Later Garrett suggested that a better title would have been The Tragedy of the Unmanaged Commons. I prefer the original title.

where tick-tack-toe is spelled correctly

---I would agree that other things being equal, smaller populations might have more goods per capita.

Incidentally, Planned Parenthood is having a Madoff problem.

i used to think & attempt to live in terms of greatest good in a broad ecological sense; that was before i learned of peak oil- about 3 yrs. ago.

since then i now think of family/friends, & sometimes immediate local[can see, walk to, etc.] primarily in a survival sense. i have gone thru a stage of focusing on much larger community only to conclude i was not only wasting my time & energy, but it was needed by family/friends for the nastiness to come.

what i take from this post is a reminder of what my values have been & which of them applies here[pre-bottleneck] and which values i will maintain under what circumstances - in the bottleneck.

i'd love to be there post-bottleneck, but am skeptical that'll be in my lifetime. perhaps a sense of groupness that will be needed & develop in the bottleneck will also help us define & live/maintain 'greatest good'.

I agree with those that are asking for a definition of "GOOD"

I struggle daily with trying to define it for myself within the context of who we are as humans, where we came from and where we are now and why. For me the path to this knowledge is through science, art history and culture.

I submit that without going very far afield from the usual topics discussed on this site there is no way to answer it. I recently revisited these discussions by some of the brightest minds across a variety of fields and specialties. I suggest that it might be a good idea to stop and listen to these talks and accompany them on their intellectual journeys. When I first listened to these talks I hadn't yet spent any time on the Oil Drum. I'm now paying attention from a new perspective. If any of you take the time to listen to these speakers I would be interested to sit around the fire and discuss what you think.
Especially how this deeper level of understanding can be applied to enlightening all of humanity and helping us survive by understanding who we and what we really are.
Best wishes for a sustainable global society.

Easy ... Hard ...

Let's leave out the hard.

There are 6.3 billion of us. There are a lot of machines, also a lot of livestock. How many people do those machines and livestock represent? An additional 12 billion humans? 20 billion humans? If a gallon of gasoline equals the work of a strong man for a year, how many humans are represented by a gas guzzler? By an industrial feedlot?

The question of greater good is divided between humans and machines. We humans are substituting machine convenience for other species and also for ourselves. Our reasoning is that something that lasts a few years then falls apart has more value than something that has endured for millenia. We have had our fun with the toys, at this point, something has to go ... us or them.

It's really not that hard choice to make. We need to learn how to live without machines.

Steve, have you really thought through what you said here?

We need to learn how to live without machines.

Why don't you come up with a good reason why we should eschew levers for instance, or screws.
How about tackle and pulleys gears and inclines?

I accept that we may need to power them in ways other than we currently do but I see no reason to attempt surviving without machines.


"something has to go ... us or them. .. It's really not that hard choice to make. "

No, it is not a choice we have to make.

We do have to see where certain types of machines represent the worst downgrading of the environment, with the extreme examples being Mountaintop removal equipment and Throwaway Diapers, perhaps.. but saying it's 'us or them' is like saying 'You're either with us, or with the terrorists'.. come on, we need to be thinking with a bit of detail, here, and not just in broadsides.

We have tools that will be absolutely invaluable in prying our way out of the corner we've hacked and slashed ourselves into.. to mix a few metaphors there. We do also have to relearn a lot of old skills that our 'Countertop Chocolate Milk Makers' have been doing lately, as completely unnecessary uses of technology and mechanization.

But let's keep the radio communications, the printing presses, the tablesaws, the electric pumps and generators, the Sonographs and MRIs.. and a few other things, and simply discover and relearn how to use them wisely, and with an informed regard for the Natural world. I reject that this is impossible to do.

Greatest good for greatest sustainable long term number of people on planet?

That's it. Let's leave this place better than we found it. Hard to do now, but we can pull the plane out of the nose dive. Some could spend pages quibbling about what 'sustainable' meant, but I'll leave it at this simple statement.

Well it may not be exact but it gives a clue as to sustainable here. Give yourself some slack for accuracy, if your more than a one and a half planets, I guess your lifestyles not sustainable.

I recommend the following to help provide some levity: George Carlin on saving the planet. (Spoiler: " "Why are we here?" Plastic.")

If that offends anyone ... too bad. It's supposed to, after all.

The relevance to this story?

That there is no point in trying to measure the "greatest" good. There is no such thing. There is the good each of us believes in, and it is personal to each of us. We may share a similar idea of what is good with others--or think we do--but there is no objectivity. There is no science of goodness, any more than there is a science of happiness. Maybe less so. Good is not measurable in units. Good is a value judgement, which depends upon meaning, which depends upon a mind to create it. Good is imaginary. Without human imagination, good would not exist.

We can't engineer or manage our way out of the coming crises. We can prepare ourselves, mentally and in other ways, for uncertainty and the possibility of traumatic change. We can adapt. But we can't control it.

We can organize with those who are like-minded If we organize, we can act collectively, and influence the larger world to some extent, perhaps more so than individually: in greater proportion than our numbers. Otherwise, we can watch what happens and be ready when the time comes to act. But we can't pretend to know how the world or society should or should not be.

The real proof of what you believe is good is what you do. If all you do is think, then, apparently, you believe that thinking is good. If you believe that trees, or clean water, or jobs, or money, or biomass (please!) is good, then by all means, do something to ensure the continued existence of these things. But you won't decide what is good by thinking about it. You simply know it. You feel it. And you do it.

Personally, I think that the planet (not to mention the universe) will be fine with or without humans around. I think it would be disappointing if we were to go, or even if we were reduced back to ignorant, superstitious and technically unsophisticated tribes. I think that ideas are good, and ideas require a society with lots of surplus energy, so that it can afford to pay people to sit around all day thinking. But that's just me.

I'm no cornucopian, but I think that forcing ourselves to be "sustainable" is about equivalent to saying that we should stop time, find some static way to live and just stick there. That's not going to happen. Pandora's box is open. We need more energy, not less. That's the goal. Anything else is a waste of time. We've already lived the other way (energy-poor). Let's do something different. Change is inevitable. Embrace it.

Your point is well made, but I don't think Greatest Good and Sustainable are useless words, they simply need to be understood as ideals, as 'directions to head towards', not as some absolute place to be in, "we must be there and only there".

Like 'Absolute truth'.. who knows if such a thing really exists? But that doesn't mean you aren't continually refining your knowledge to be close to understanding. It's like finding the exact center of an imperfect circle. The midpoint is a mathmatical ideal, but as some of the boundaries are indistinct or changing.. we have to just gauge and regauge as we go along, to get it as good as we can.


For part of my life growing up, we had no indoor plumbing, no central heat, rather a wood cook stove for cooking and heat, and a single vehicle, an old pickup truck. We were dependent upon milk from the cow, chickens for meat and eggs, and the garden for vegetables, especially potatoes. Rhubarb grew all over the place as did horse radish; the pies were swell and the horse radish was soooo good, the pain would shoot over the top of your head and not stop until it hit your tail bone. I was up at 4:30 every morning to milk the cows and do the other chores I was assigned, rain or shine, heat or cold (and sometimes it was very cold). During my summers, I worked all day long, with a sack lunch in a big sack (the big sack was to put over my head for a little nap after lunch, keeping the flies off of my face) and was done when the sun set. At hay time, a crew would gather because many hands were required to get the hay in before bale wagons. Lunchtime was great; the hay crew would gather in the kitchen of the big house for fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, fresh bread with lots of butter, peas, and a piece of home made pie. There was always a large glass picture of ice cold milk on the table; as much as you wanted and it was so good, right out of the cow.

We had no television and no radio reception but, we had a single vinyl record by "Homer and Jethro" and we'd gather round the record player on a Saturday night and listen to our record, our only record. We'd all heard the jokes a million times, but each time we listened again we'd laugh as if we'd just heard the joke for the very first time.

I could go on and on about how different that life was from the life we all live today in the United States. There were no interstates, refrigeration was a luxury, and indoor plumbing, oh how good can it get! But, then I remember the old outhouse well, always an old magazine inside, how the boards of the seat had been worn smooth, and always looking first for Black Widows in the corner. There was the rat that lived in the wall of the house and his nocturnal scratching inside the walls drove us all nuts. We finally got him and he was a big rat. We hung him over the clothes line for all to see.

Oh how good life used to be. We had so much fun and even though we had very little, we were all in the same boat and we made our lives rich and full with very simple things. A good story, a catchy tune, a big buck deer out in the field or an old dog that had been around as long as you could remember. Sunday was for going to church, and then maybe swimming down in the river.

So, what I'm saying is all that we have now in our culture is not necessary for the happiness and well being of our fellows and ourselves. iPods are cool as are cell phones, but, they don't add a bit to our culture's happiness quotient. I know; I've lived in both worlds and frankly, I liked the other world version much better. Best from the Fremont

I've lived in both worlds and frankly, I liked the other world version much better.

I think BA set up a false dichotomy. Maintaining science and technology does not equal unsustainable, it means husbanding resources and slowing down.

Most R+D today is done solely for profit and power. Things can slow WAY down. For example, did we need Teflon? No. Are we now finding its carcinogenic? Yup. We moved too fast on that.

A more salient example: did we need the car? Nope. But we got 'em. Imagine if someone had said at the right time and right place, "Mr. Ford, while quite ingenious, that's the stupidest damned thing I've ever heard! Why don't you and Mr. Tesla work on some nice electric rail instead?"

I really have no problem imagining people living in their little hobbiton homes, sitting and talking, story telling, debating in a cozy room, then a few of them getting up in the morning and getting in the electric tram to go work at the science complex downtown - all housed in renewable buildings with appropriate interiors - and working on solving NEEDS, not desires.


Great question(s) and response(s) posted so far.

My guess right now is that we are built to think about the good of ourselves and a small tribe in a limited area and over only a few generations at most.

We are also placed into a situation that we are not built for. We have become not only the dominant species in terms of the intended and unintended consequences of our technology, we have over-taxed our habitat in such a way as there is no place to move to and replicate what we think we want as a good life --even though there are many variations on the idea of what a good life might be.

Part and parcel of this is that we have achieved numbers such that we now compete among ourselves for diminishing resources with which to establish a good life for some of us, and maybe for the delusion that some of us can ensure that a good life is possible for our own immediate heirs, even if to the exclusion of the children of "Them" from whom we steal by force.

We have -- most of us -- been drugged and living only partly in the real world, but mostly in a delusion. We have been sleepwalking with little awareness of what we and our species are really up to.

We awaken with a kind of shock whenever we pierce the bubble of delusion created by the centers of cultural gravity within our complex knot of competing cultures and subcultures: religion, politics, and commerce being the key centers of gravity.

The more we awaken, the more tempting it is to retreat back into the mediated pseudo-reality provided by the noisy competitions for power and influence within which we were conceived and brought up -- however harshly.

What our species is up to seems to be mostly about securing food and shelter and safety, and then maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. We like to live long with full tummies and hearts full of song and with some familiar, much-loved friends with which to grow old. We also like adventure and competition and the thrill of new discoveries.

When we interact with each other in a rational way as global citizens, we find that we are simply not equipped at all for the task, so far. We mostly act out of primal impulses and visceral longings and fears even if we have persuaded ourselves thoroughly that we are rational and logical for the most part. None of us is exempt from this at all, unless our brains lack essential parts --the brain stem and the limbic brain. Even then, I wonder.

The notion that we can manage the planet or even manage our species in groups much larger than a few hundred or so seems misguided to me at this point.

However, I do feel as though even though we are thrust into a situation for which we are not equipped by creation or evolution, we are bound to try to do the best we can. This process is likely to be a farce and a series of disasters, the outcome of which is unpredictable.

Most of our species will be bound to the Meta-Narratives of the Military-Industrial Complexes which inevitably grow to include and then dominate the religious and political and commercial centers of culture, as they clearly have in the USA. Note that this process has already occurred not so much by design as by a kind of predictable accident, just as a lightening strike can cause a forest fire.

This tendency to resort to violence as the best solution and the final solution for our problems leads me to be very skeptical regarding the survival of our own species. We will probably not only take down many species simply by destroying their habitat along the way, but by using nuclear and chemical and biological weapons before we are very far into this last resource war.

Eventually the sun burns out and the planet has trouble supporting life of any kind that we can recognize. But until then it seems to me that the good life involves full tummies, security, love and long-term friendships, along with a goodly dose of adventure. This includes nurturing the young and making up stories that give us a sense of connection with whatever this is that is bigger than we are and that helps us to feel like we will somehow live on, if only through fading memories and stories and the way our young manage to get along in the world we leave them.

We live in a time where we in supposedly advanced cultures are suddenly and shockingly robbed of any sense of security and continuity we have had for a few decades. The dominant cultural institutions try to perpetuate a false sense of security and of the continuity which is so vital to our mental health, but these institutions are rotted and rigid, and are crumbling at the shocks and stresses made by too many people competing for too few resources in a planet that is very much less hospitable as habitat for humanity than it was even 20 or 30 years ago.

We have had the rug pulled out from under us. A few people notice this directly. Most people around me are just glad that gas is cheaper than it was a few months ago. As diverse as the people around me are, they are mostly completely submerged in the dominant meta-narrative that might be loosely described as "The American Dream: Once More, With (Desperate)Feeling!"

The dream is actually over. Catabolic collapse is a process of self-devouring. We are in that process, and there is no way out of it -- not that we can make. The good life is to make the best of whatever comes our way, in terms of full tummies, shelter, friends, whatever security we can find in an increasingly volatile environment, and whatever help we can give to the young.

The outcomes are completely out of our hands.

My thoughts and feelings mirror yours. The only thing I would have said differently is that the outcomes are mostly out of our hands. We have control over what we do, and our actions have effects, small as they may be.

The goal:

1. The least amount of human suffering possible (lowest number of sufferers, least suffering per person)

2. Fewest species extinctions.

"Go light, the lighter the better, so that you have the simplest material for health, comfort, and enjoyment." Nessmuk The backpacker creed. Let no one know you have passed by.

I spent many of my younger years strapped to a packframe and this always rang true. Walk lightly on the earth so that others may also.

Works for me.

Don in Maine

Greatest good for the greatest number of people?

Greatest good or the greatest number of people?

I think we can say that it will be an inverse ratio - the earth can probably support 100 Donald Trumps or 10 Billion Sao Paulo slum dwellers (let's ignore food distribution for a moment).

When ‘we’ talk of population control (for example) I am always amused to hear that this will lead to the extinction of humanity – or “who decides who to kill?”
Who did the math?:
with 3 children per couple the planet will reach 12 billion earthlings by 2100
with 2 – 9 billion
with 1 – 1 billion, apparently the population in 1804. And everyone dies a natural death. Yep, back to the stone age.
It's a striking coincidence that in 1858 when the first oil well was drilled the population was 1.3 billion

Greatest god for the greatest number of people?

Isn't this discussion what Stephen Gould thought Religion was for? If not, what does it do for us?
"Work hard & suffer and you will be rewarded in your next life"?
No need to take care of this planet 'cause This World is Not My Home.

On the other hand, I see in St Peter's what pre-oil man did when given a goal (" ad majorem Dei gloriam ") and I can't but be impressed. A trillion barrels of oil up the stack and at the pinnacle of civilization Homo petrolus has produced the iPhone.

(who I spent some time with when I was studying in Vermont...

with whom I spent some time when I was studying in Vermont...

Grammar is a servant of the greater good.

and time the enemy of all....(but thanks, changed)

Grammar is not language. The study of it can destroy the acquisition of language. And it has a place. A message board is not it.

Let's not take it quite so seriously.


Oh but a well constructed sentence is a thing of beauty......



A sentiment with which I shall not attempt to quibble, for on a dark and rainy night to be or not to be grammatical will ever be the question. Verily, I grammar, therefor I am!

(If you can butcher the langauge better (hee-hee), I invite your attempt!)



The teachers who I spent some time with when I was studying in Ireland assured me that the style rule you seek to apply is nothing other than an instantiation of cultural imperialism.

As Mencken wrote:

With precious few exceptions, all the books on style in English are by writers quite unable to write. The subject, indeed, seems to exercise a special and dreadful fascination over schoolma'ms, bucolic college professors, and other such pseudo-literates. One never hears of treatises on it by George Moore or James Branch Cabell, but the pedagogues, male and female, are at it all the time. In a thousand texts they set forth their depressing ideas about it, and millions of suffering high-school pupils have to study what they say. Their central aim, of course, is to reduce the whole thing to a series of simple rules — the overmastering passion of their melancholy order, at all times and everywhere.

Well, you only wrote a sentence on style, not a book, so I suppose you can be exonerated. First offence.

Don't do it again! Tut! Tut!

I would have to vote for "none of the above".

I believe that the ultimate goal would be: "The Greatest Good for a planet that includes a significant and sustainable population of Homo sapiens."

I feel that H sap. is an interesting and worthwhile evolutionary outcome that, properly self-controlled, could be of benefit to the planet (and perhaps Universe) as a whole.

Our greatest mistake has been our tendency to act before we think. As soon as a technology is shown to be feasible, we attempt to make maximum use of it whilst ignoring most, if not all, of the potential problems that might result. Because we can utilise fossil fuels to produce vast amounts of food, we ignore the necessity to control our population in the short term, thereby creating a huge future dilemma; how do we feed the ever-growing population vs how do we humanely reduce the population to a sustainable level?

I doubt that there is an acceptable social/political/moral/religious process that can be introduced for effective population reduction. Even a globally accepted "one child per female" regime would be too slow to reduce the catastrophic effects of our present overpopulation. Quite frankly, we are neck-high in the brown and smelly, and only the Four Horsemen can provide a positive solution.

The proportion of population reduction by various means will depend on the circumstances of each political/geographical/social region. In Zimbabwe at present the main forces are famine and (civil) war, but disease and pestilence could easily soon become predominant. A similar situation exists in Gaza.

The maximum number of H saps that a fossil-energy free globe can accomodate is a hotly debated topic. James Lovelock thinks that we have so stuffed the globe that a few hundred million people living near the poles is the likely outcome. Starry-eyed Vegans think that the planet can handle at least double our present population as long as we give up eating animal products. From several years of reading the various points of view (and the back-up data) I have concluded that a population of one to two billion would be sustainable if (and only if) a fast die-off happens. Say half a billion a year for the next ten years. Any delay in a rapid reduction would reduce the ultimate sustainable number.

This theoretically sustainable population is based on the dubious assumption that H saps are the most important part of the biosphere. I would contend that for the ultimate progress of evolution, H saps should never occupy more that half of any environmental niche. At present many countries have National Parks or other protected heritage areas. These are predominately areas of minimal commercial value, set aside to pay lip-service to environmental values. What should be protected from human alteration is at least half of every eco-niche. Half of the forests, half of the prairies, half of the coastal "fisheries", half of the wetlands, half of the mountain meadows, half of the semi-deserts, half of the fertile river-bottom pastures. Only then could the local environment be considered sustainable.

Since the end of the last Ice-age, humanity has seen many triumphs and falls, but only on a local basis. For the first time we are facing a global crisis. If humanity is to move forward with a significant part of our current knowledge/science/culture intact, then I believe that the following are essential:
1. The elimination of the concept that H saps is a special "god originated" life form.
2. The elimination of the concept that "competition" is a positive force compared to co-operation.
3. The elimination of the inane concept that any one form of government is best for all people.
4. The elimination of the concept that "Growth is Good".

The "Greatest Good" concept is in itself a highly dubious construct. Within the ranks of H saps, there would be something like 6.7 billion differing ideas. Within the whole realm of sentience the concept is immeasurable.

Finally,and sadly, I have no belief that humanity will behave in any rational manner. Let the conflict begin!

I agree with most of what you say here, regretfully including the last paragraph, so I won't bore readers by writing a long similar comment. I agree that (supposedly!) intelligent life is worth preserving in and for itself.

The question of defining the greatest good is a classic debate. It is the reframing of this question in economic terms that has led to the paradigm of economic growth ad infinitum, and while in hindsight it is easy to say that the earth's resources are "obviously" finite, the development of this mantra did not come from complete ignorance or complete selfishness.

It is becoming clear, in particular due to the financial crisis, that borrowing from future generations is unsustainable (in the literal meaning of the word). Gradually this realisation will extend to the concept of borrowing natural resources, energy, or quality of life from future generations, as we become the generation that must make the repayments!

For a true economic valuation of "the greatest good for the greatest number", we will have to include both the currently unmeasurable value of natural goods and services such as clean water, unpolluted air, forests, wildlife, etc, and the currently undefined relative value of things in the future compared to things now.

The debate surrounding the Stern Review's choice of discount rate is interesting both for the practical and ethical issues raised.

helluva post, thanks.

agree, helluva.

Your note about technology adoption peaked my interest. The anabaptist sects (Amish, etc.) deliberate about the impacts of a technology on their community culture. A nice book about this is "Better Off" by Eric Brende. I had him on an early radio program of mine. Ironically, these people have a much more sophisticated view of technology than those who blithely adopt it!

To me life was always 'good' up until a certain time frame measured in about 5 years.

Growing up at the end of the depression on the farm..good.
Moving in 1950 to the then fledgling suburbs....good.
My teenage years,dated,camped,etc............very good.
Military period, flew a lot,laughed a lot....very good.
Married life,raising children..............mostly good.
Working at a job I loved and exceeded at...very good.

Then at a point somewhere near the end of my 30 yrs of work something
changed.Somewhere around the early 80s. Suddenly the lifestyle I
saw in Raleigh,NC started to change rapidly. Huge numbers of new
people moved in and I began to notice a very different lifestyle
emerging. One of extreme hubris.One of greed and ego on a scale
I had never seen. This was the beginning of the Yuppie Age.

With it came a degrading of our culture. A lessening of our morals.
Many things changed as employers discovered that these were selfish
people and the work ethic took a tremendous hit.

My employer started to tighten the screws. I was glad to take an
early retirement window after 29 years of the Goodness ,in my job,life and other activities. I was given the Rolex watch and parties in my honor. I did not have to take the "perp walk". That soon came to be though. I escaped early enough while it was still ...........good.

I moved back to the was once more good.

However those attitudes and life changes I observed above translated into all of our society in America. A sea change occurred but was slow to morph into the outback but it has slowly made inroads.

So I am now looking at the upcoming end of my life.
Live alone. Wife desires the Yuppie Lifestyle of shopping and all the rest. My children became unrecognizable to me in their lifes actions.

Now I must tend to my dying mother.Life is not good for her.

I live a lifestyle that suits me and life is .....pretty good.
My wife's is bad. My children's is bad. My inlaws sucks.

Life is what you make it. It can be GOOD or BAD.
If you are influenced by the media and listen to the garbage that fills our airwaves and all the printed media. If you believe the Yuppie Creed of 'I want it now and I will take it all and I will give NOTHING back'.......then you will find life is eventually not GOOD.

Good to me is many things that are not relevant to most. It was to others in my past. We shared,we loved,we laughed,we fought and died.

Today its all about ME,ME,ME...

We are all dead men walking but I have 'walked' enough that I can't complain. I lived a good life by and large. I now have plenty of money and many projects that interest me.

I did not divorce.My wife does not live with me. She hates the farm and Kentucky. I give my wife money without a court decree. My children will not change. They lead fairly miserable lives and I can't change that.

What is The Greatest Good? Its what each person makes of his life and how bad or good he treats our planet. Many are a waste of human flesh , sad to say for they destroy. Many used to fight this..They gave up.They were beaten and pepper spray smeared in their eyes by force. We all saw that.It was disgusting as was the police riot in Chicago years ago when the youth wanted to witness the Age of Aquarius. A watchword for back to the land and love and hair.

I won't go into what the current youth are into but its depressing to me. We have taught them NOTHING.Our culture has raised them up. The culture took my children. It gave nothing back.

Things now for our country are BAD!!!!


The only thing that comes to mind that really applies to the greater number of people, is fair.

One nation using 20%, or more, of everything? Not fair.

Corporations creating grossly rich by picking the pockets of the avg. and poor Joes? Not fair.

Presidents committing crimes and going free while avg. people rot in jail for even minor crimes? Not fair.

Corporations having the ears of our reps and not us? Not fair.

Americans voting against the bailout and congress for it? Not fair.

Paulson scaring congress into going along and not going to jail for it? Not fair.

Wealthy nations creating climate problems that drive poorer ones under the waves, then refusing to pay for relocation? Not fair.

Gerrymandering? Not fair.

Egalitarianism? Fair.

Planning with future generations in mind? Fair.

A job = a living wage? Fair.

Telling people only a few will ever be rich because only a few CAN be rich? Fair.

Telling the people climate change, the economic collapse and PO are going to lead to, at best, depression? Fair.

So, you want the greater good? You can't base it on religion, morality, cultural issues. There is only one measure that serves all people at all times:

Is it fair?


And I'll state that "fairness" is a monkey delusion which we all seek to undermine even as we rage at its perceived absence.

Egalitarian distribution ideals are demanded by rhesus monkeys and genus homo. A reasonable social adaptation for a tribe, a dangerous delusion for a global population.

If we destroy ourselves through war, it will be largely on the basis of perceived disparity of wealth. And that shouldn't matter a damn in an absolute sense. Why should we care that some schmuck has a billion dollars, if we have the basics of life covered?

Fairness to currently-living humans in overshoot: ecologically, it's a terrible idea.

A reasonable social adaptation for a tribe, a dangerous delusion for a global population.

Well, GREAT! I advocate relocalization and small population centers as part of my short and long-term plan.

Why should we care that some schmuck has a billion dollars, if we have the basics of life covered?

Because some schmuck having a billion dollars means other people are starving. I think this is obvious.

I wasn't aware the Main Post was limited to thinking of the greater good in a period limited to the next ten years, which is what your post implies.

Sheesh... Less caffeine for you!


I wasn't aware the Main Post was limited to thinking of the greater good in a period limited to the next ten years, which is what your post implies.

Sheesh... Less caffeine for you!

Ornery of me to dish this up here, I should have saved it for a controversial separate post. (The windstorm just blew in a large plate-glass window and I've been hammering up plywood while dodging giant shards in the dark, so I've got a little adrenaline running. Oahu.) In fact, I "feel" the same way about things that you seem to. But having some nonstandard wiring, I can toggle in and out of human modes of thought somewhat.

On the contrary to the 'next ten years', I think of the next billion (though I admit a particular interest in the next ten million), I'm just exactly that odd.

And I think it's unfortunate but true; our desire for "fairness" may wind up being the most unfair thing of all, as an unattainable worldview which causes immense suffering, needlessly. (I'm reminded of the epiphany of the young William Goldman in his book The Princess Bride; if you haven't read it, do.)

I like the feel of relocation and small population centers too. Sign me up. How is this fair to those who can't? It's rather implicit that those who don't do such a thing will be hosed. Yet I agree it's a good thing to advocate.

Billionaires, by concentrating wealth, may ultimately lessen human misery by inhibiting overshoot, while providing a mechanism for significant idiosyncratic innovation outside rigid cultural structure. Or they may not, but it's not simple.

In any ecology or fitness landscape, you'll find a tree with a better position and better rooting, better water; a spider which has occupied the optimum niche for feeding and reproducing, and so on; evolution would not work otherwise. They are the wealthy. The natural distribution of resources, the nature of path-dependency, the nature of genetic variation, all make the world inherently unfair to individuals. (Bet your window didn't just blow in.)

This doesn't mean not to share what one has or to be a dick about life, but I think that making pursuit of egalitarian ideals a prerequisite for "acceptable" solutions is a dangerous fallacy.

But I'll shut up about it here. If I feel ornery some other time, maybe I'll do a post on it. Or not.

wind is rising, gotta go.

My opinion on this is that we should aim for the following:

The greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of beings, weighted by intelligence/creativity/sentience

This means that we should aim for the greatest good for all living things on earth, but with more intelligent creatures (with humans being the primary example here) being more important than less intelligent creatures. This caveat is needed, otherwise the best course of action for all living creatures on earth would probably be the extinction of humans...

Any opinions on this?

Extinction might be a tad extreme (and likely to be voted down), though 200 million (give or take, or course) ovo-lacto vegetarians in straw thatch huts would likely have little if any impact. Other top predators might give us a go, though...

"..intelligence/creativity/sentience.." are abstractions that can't be quantified. Your suggestion amounts to nothing more than thinly veiled anthropocentrism.

That they are abstractions is true, but what I am aiming for here is somewhere between anthropocentrism (which is clearly wrong, as it disregards the rights of other animals) and the all living biomass is equal approach (which would result in humans sacrificing themselves for the good of all).

Instinctively this is right to me, but DD has a point - how do we define anything other than in our terms. For your definition to be correct, it would have to be amended to:
....greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of beings, weighted by intelligence/creativity/sentience weighted by each species contributing their own definition of happiness...;-)

which is impossible of course. So to include the fact that humans value biodiversity as our lives are more enjoyable for it etc. and the fact that without these complicated inter-related ecosystems we are fouling our nest, clearly we have to include somewhere in the definition a place for other species.

What of domesticated animals? They are in a bind viz human beings.

What would be the best for the cows, if they could vote? On the one hand, we treat them horribly, but if we stopped taking care of them, they would probably die out.

Nate -- do you actually think that we humans have the capacity to manage this kind of project -- trying to find and maximize the good with regard to the entire species or with regard to the planet?

I think that "the good" is limited to our experience of life in relatively small groups. We like full tummies, friends, lovers, children we nurture. We like pleasure. We do not like pain. We like to be secure. We do not like insecurity so much.

The rest of our complex cultures seem to me to rest upon shaky premises at best. We operate far outside of our base of knowledge and control. We are Stone Age Creatures who have persuaded ourselves with various kinds of Techno-magic that we are rational and reasonable and logical.

I do think that we have to make decisions beyond the scope of our understanding. That seems to be the nature of human existence. Whether or not one embraces any particular technology is not nearly as important as the actual -- as opposed to conscious or professed -- premises with which one embraces a particular technology.

There is an outside chance that our species will grow from the current delusion regarding technology as an infinite engine of progress and source of solutions.

If some of our species do survive the bottleneck of the next couple of decades, they may carry a new wisdom that we have simply not had, being punch-drunk on the relatively sudden, easy access to energy that petroleum brought to us.

I really like your post, thinking and your questions -- don't get me wrong, there! I just wonder if our species is capable of managing itself at 6-plus-billion and on a global scale. that seems a wee bit much to ask.

Indeed, it is difficult to manage ourselves at relatively small scale -- families, clans, and tribes.

Any thoughts along this line -- or is it off-topic?

Green plants have no nervous system for processing "intelligence/creativity/sentience," yet they are the primary producers at the base of the food chain. Do they not matter because they aren't intelligent, creative or sentient? What about a mentally handicapped child?

Others may differ, but I don't put plants and children in the same category.

Do [plants] not matter because they aren't intelligent, creative or sentient?

Hard to ask them what they prefer, though one might observe their growth habits and deduce an evolutionary preference in soils, water levels, sunlight, temperature, etc. If we eliminate animal food products, what's left besides vegetative matter? What about the ungulates that eat grasses/leaves/etc, do they inquire into the preferences of said vegetative matter? Perhaps an intelligence test won't work for them, as they historically have trouble making careful pencil marks inside the answer ovals...

Perhaps an intelligence test won't work for them, as they historically have trouble making careful pencil marks inside the answer ovals...

Okay, let's go with some more objective criterion for evaluating the potential for processing "intelligence/creativity/sentience" then, shall we? How about absolute brain size. Physeter the sperm whale becomes the most "important" species, by virtue of its having the planet's largest brain. Orcinus the so-called "killer" whale becomes half again more important, and Turciops the bottlenosed dolphin equally as important as Homo. Pan the chimp we'll accord .9 as important as our own species and elephants about equally so. But perhaps you'd prefer brain size relative to overall body mass as the criterion of species importance. In this case squirrel monkeys (Saimiri) and hummingbirds become more important than people.

In case it isn't obvious, I'm mocking any attempt to categorize species as to their relative "importance" according to some arbitrary anthropocentric criterion.


Without phytoplankton and plants I think the biophere would be in a bit of a pickle. I believe neither of these life forms are very "intellegent". Selecting based upon human qualities will just dig us deeper into the pit.

My opinion



I think about it every now and then. And I come up with:

First, visualize the world you would like to live in if you were alive 100 years from now

Then, work for it.

Then die happy and unexpectedly and fast.

The world I would like to live in would have a lot fewer people, and a lot more animals and other bits of nature, happily evolving with very little if any interference from people.

I would like to be “in” ( in all the meanings of that word that make sense) a group of people who share my values, and are sufficiently various to be interesting to communicate with.
These people would be smart, kind, funny, talented, skilled; feel and be safe, and have lots of opportunity to work their brains in ways amusing and helpful and not harmful to the planet’s other species. All of the other species.

These people would abhor the very idea of exploitation of the planet for merely themselves for the moment. Not a one of them would even think of blowing off the top of a mountain, dumping it into a trout stream, burning coal to get electricity to blow their hair.

These people would think of their personal death-at an appropriate time- as good- a ticket for the next kid to be born. Without that ticket, the next kid could not be born.

As one of those people, I would be able to take a walk up the hill, stick a fishing line in a lovely clear stream and pull out a trout for supper, leaving plenty and plenty more where that one came from.

Like I used to be able to do, when I was a kid.

No need to say more- my point is obvious. And,-- yes it is too, possible.

Back to work.

As others have noted, it is fairly difficult to analyze “Greatest Good” in such a general context. Here is another way to look at this idea.

As a retired computer software developer, I found the application of various modeling techniques to be very useful in developing requirements. The so called “Medical Model’ was one of my favorites. You are to imagine you have just given the doctor one of those medical Background sheets and now he/she is approaching your problem by looking at the symptoms of a rash on your arm, while trying to determine the underlying cause and then working with you on treatment objectives (available time, meeting insurance requirements, etc.). Your objective might be to get some immediate relief because you are going on vacation and then deal with a more permanent cure later. The doctor will discuss alternative solutions such as a topical cream that will give good temporary relief versus a series of radiation treatments (complete cure) that will be painful, time consuming and expensive. You may opt (Implementation) for the cream now and then, later on, radiation as your plan of action.

So, given some Background, the sequence is Problem Analysis (symptoms and causes), Objective setting, and then exploring Alternative Solutions before committing to Implementation. There are a couple of caveats – the word “problem” is often interpreted to mean an algebra problem (not just something “bad”) and the problem can also be the fear of losing an opportunity. The model also suggests an iterative approach of experiment, feedback, and refinement (if aspirin doesn’t work we'll try morphine :-) ).

The Medical Model applied to finding the Greatest Good might have a first iteration like this:

Humans live on a planet that is 4 billion years old in a known universe that is 14 billion years old. There is no information about events before the origin of the universe and therefore no information on the initial source of our existence. We do have some understanding of how we evolved from material in the cosmos and a very good idea of our evolution for the past 100,000 years or so. For the great majority of that timeframe we were just a part of the planet’s ecosystem and, for the most part, major planetary events were beyond human influence. We appear to be just another species with no extraordinary claim to the planet’s resources.

Recently, we have dominated the planet and have used its resources with few constraints. The result is an “unnatural” balance with the rest of earth’s ecosphere. This imbalance now threatens both humans, and other parts of the ecosphere, with a potentially significant die-off. We also face serious degradation of the biological diversity that has historically enabled humans to be resilient.

• One plus degree centigrade rise in global temperature which affects storm patterns, ice melting, etc.
• Wars regarding land and resources leading to high human death rates in those affected areas.
• Diseases such as AIDS which are very difficult to abate.
• Food shortages
• Abnormally high rate of extinction of other species and rapid degradation of things like coral reefs.
• Scientific evidence that many natural resources are soon going to be insufficient to maintain the current human “quality of life” – which is already very poor for half of the world’s population of humans.

• Human population has exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet.
• Natural resources are finite and insufficient for projected consumption patterns.
• The disruption of ecosystem balances is proceeding at an unprecedented rate and therefore the planet’s normal compensation mechanisms are severely compromised.
• Although human manipulation of the ecosphere (technology) has created benefits (medicine for longer life) it has often caused equal or greater offsetting harm due to unintended consequences (air pollution shortening life).

• Bring the human population and its use of natural resources back into a sustainable state in a manner that does not seriously degrade the rest of ecosphere. This would be the “Greatest Good”.
• Perform the transition in the least painful manner for humans and other species.
• Set a series of measurable goals for every 5 year increment until 2050. Set some goals for the end of the century.

Some potential solutions:
• Force the decrease of green house gases to 325 ppm by 2015 by mandatory government regulation of carbon emissions for electricity generation, transportation, industrial processes, etc. Use a scientific model to prove that the US is in compliance for its share of this reduction.
• Target global human population for 2050 at 4 billion with another goal of 2 billion by the end of the century. Target US population for 2050 at 200 million and then 125 million by the end of the century. Use an aggressive education and incentive program (more children equals more taxes). Work with the United Nations for global reductions.
• Reduce world oil consumption to 25 mbd by 2025 and 5 mbd by the end of the century. Significantly raise taxes for the use of FF, especially for individual uses such as private cars. Provide incentives and funding for numerous programs for conservation, efficiency, alternative energy and mass transportation systems.
• And lots of other actions and programs as frequently outlined here on TOD.

My sample entries for each step of the model are unimportant. What is important is the process of analysis before taking any action. A “Bush” model that operates on “Gut Feelings” would be the antithesis of the Medical Model. The first steps in the model are the most important. In my example, there is no mention of any kind of supernatural element that grants humans a divine right to more resources than other species. It does not suppose that any kind of divine plan or intervention is at work. If the parties involved cannot agree on this aspect of the problem, then it is pointless to talk about implementing some plan of action. If there is no agreement on the symptoms (which should be indisputable facts); or the causes are not believed; or the objectives don’t seem achievable or relevant – then what is the point in discussing solutions?

My sample set of solutions, taken out of context, would seem insane to many people. And I would be the first to agree that it is highly unlikely that actions like those listed above would ever be agreed to by the critical mass of people required for success. My frustration is the belief that no plan of action can succeed without some rational process like the above model. On the other hand, only a few corporations I encountered actually had the discipline to work this model to a rational conclusion – so how can I expect rationality on a global scale to work? As much as I appreciate and understand the idea of people taking small steps on an individual basis – I simply can’t see that type of action will forestall a nasty future for my great granddaughter. Maybe we are just not yet ready for the idea of a “Greatest Good”.

Here is another way to look at this. Humans likely are the only species with a mental concept of good and evil. Many if not all things we view as "good" are just programs - ie. mother love is not good, it is just the specific program we have to promote our genes. But we conceive of it as good. So rather than ask what good is, we should ask why we have a concept of good. Other animals just do what they are programmed to do. It is neither good or bad to them. Killing prey to feed your young is just what a lion does. We humans don't judge that in the same way we judge ourselves.

The concept of good and evil is either a hard wired program, a culturally induced idea or more likely a combination, the culture providing the specifics, the program providing the basics. So first it seems we should examine why we got such programs, why various cultures elaborated on them. (However I am not sure that understanding that will change anything.)

It may be hubris or delusion to think we can decide on new parameters to a basic brain program. Whatever concepts get carried forward with whatever humans survive will be what is.

I would venture that action we conceive of as good has a consequence that if we look carefully at might well be conceived as evil. Instead of good and evil we could just say actions and consequences but try to think of some things that way and your mind will balk at it.

That said, I suspect each of us will feel better at the end of our lives if we act in accordance with a good that encompasses more humans and other creatures than less - to the extent that we can envision the consequences of such actions.


I will pick up from where oxidatedgem stopped and try to keep it short, since we know there have have been libraries of volumes already written discussing these issues (but since the humanities are now viewed as old fashioned and useless, many people do not know "knowledge" still considered good?)

What we are describing as "good" Robert Pirsig used the term "quality" for in his novels "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainence" and "Lila" in which he attempted to deal with the questions of "What is 'quality'?" What situation is valued over another? What situation does 'nature' in the largest sense actually value and consider a 'quality' situation? Can humans ever really know, and if so, by what method? Does our intuitive sense of beauty act as well in guiding us to "quality" as science does, perhaps even better? Nature is constantly changing, whether humans wish it so or not. There were ice ages and great warming periods long before humans were more influentual upon the biosphere than rats. If nature is constantly changing, does this imply that 'nature' values one situation over another, and sees certain situation as high quality? Since humans are here, does this mean that nature "values" humans? If so, is it correct for humans to value themselves?

Humans are constantly pulled between the opposites of species-centric philosophy and self loathing, between worship of nature and the desire to master it. Which is the correct path, and if we are to worship nature, then must we also worship humankind as a part of nature (Humanism, "man is the measure of all things")?

This is an aesthetic argument, based on what humans "desire" to be true and what humans desire to become. A poster above sees his childhood fishing at a local pond as perfection. Other humans would see a riding in a limo in full tux with a beautiful mistress and going to the opera in Manhatten as equally so. Which situation has "quality" and can one be measured against the other? Are the two mutually exclusive, i.e., if we can have the one it will mean that in the long haul the other situation cannot remain viable?

What we see is a situation of "analysis paralysis". In our search for the perfect theory, we throw out any theory as not sufficient. Albert Camus onces said that any theory is only false to the degree that it is incomplete. The theory that contained all knowledge would by implication contain all possible outcomes and be perfect. This is the conventional definition of God.

Ralph Waldo Emerson defined three ways of gaining knowledge: The experience of prior generations (captured in books, or as Frued would say, art and artifact), personal experience and experiment, and divine knowledge (what some call intuition, others call mystical revealation, and still others call art and poetry).

Question: Can humans ever do anything more or higher quality than to learn as much as possible, and then act in the best possible way based upon the three methods described above, which teach us to act based on our knowledge of existence as we know it at the time? Our knowledge may be incorrect or false, but we cannot know that until after the fact.

The poet W.H. Auden once described the measure of a "great" culture as "Variety achieved with unity retained." It is a masterful definition and almost impossible to actually do. Would not the same definition be helpful to the world larger than just a culture, larger than just humans? Is it possible that elephants and gorillas can survive with a world that also contains luxury apartments and Ferrari's? Is it possible that the elderly and mentally ill can survive with the young and hard driving business class? Is it possible that the multi milion dollar NFL player can survive in harmony with the bookish and reflective poet?

It is said that almost anything is negotiable except my right to exist, and I must assume that you feel the same way. Because if my right to exist is not admitted to, then I will be as well off to fight to the death. After all, I would have nothing to lose. Here on TOD, the idea of doing away with whole populations, with whole lifestyles, with whole livlihood is often thrown around with great abandon. What the world needs, it is often said here, is fewer people, but exactly which people really shouldn't continue to exist is not specified. If I hear these sorts of ideas, my instinct would be to teach my children (I have none but I am using a rhetorical example) to fight those kind of ideas with all of the resources at my disposal. After all, why not? They would have nothing to lose in fighting for class preservation, and such was the birth of the class struggle throughout history. They would be acting on the best knowledge available to them at the time.

To the orignal question by our social scientist Cornelius,to quote:
"All this education, banter and effort on the website (one of my favorite destinations when I'm online) is for a purpose. The writers seem to believe that by pinning down the date of peak and future decline rate of oil and articulating the pros and cons of various energy alternatives that somehow the world will be made better. Perhaps so. But towards what end?"

Given my above comments, it would be obvious towards what end we are working and why we find TOD a fascinating and informative destination, even when we differ with other posters here strongly. If we can only act on the best knowledge we have, the only way to have a hope of acting in a more correct manner is by increasing our knowledge. If we say "acting in a more correct manner" we must mean in a manner that has more quality in ever increasing circles, from the individual (which will, with only a small number of exceptions attempt to defend individual self, excepting suicides and martydom) attempt to defend the world they desire first, then the family, clan, nation, ethnic group, species, and finally a perfected idea of existence itself. Only the tool of increased knowledge, either aesthitic and spiritual, experiential or scientific makes rational decision making possible. The goal is to learn, so that we will know how to act. If we chose not to act in even small ways, this means the knowledge was essentially useless. There will be no perfect theory, only some that will seem to have more quality than others. But we have no choice but to act, and we have no tool except to learn.

Roger Conner Jr.

For those interested in further study and discussion of Robert Persig's "Metaphysics of Quality", the link below will take you to a discussion board of his ideas and books. The board has been around at least a half dozen years, with essays, discusion, references, etc.


The question (Greatest Good) inherently induces tunnel and funnel vision thinking.

What about the inverse polarity question: What is the Least Bad (i.e. for greatest number of people, cows, etc.) and how do we get there?

What about a multivariate question: How do we keep increasing Goodness while also reducing Badness? (In other words, a combined problem of first variable maximization and second variable minimization, assuming such a solution exists if at all.)

Step back, it is possible that every good has a bad associated with it. It is certainly true that many do. The good of the lion eating a gazelle is the bad of the gazelle being eaten by a lion. The association of the shark and the remora's is good for both, but by helping the shark the remora increases the bad for the shark's victims which it shares in. On the other hand the culling of the shark's victims which is bad for the individual victim prevents overpopulation of that species.

Perhaps a better question is to remove the value laden good/bad words and talk about balance. But I am not sure that gets us much farther. The event that changed the balance in favor of mammals over dinosaurs created an unbalance that then led to a new balance. Which balance is better depends on what type of creature you are. Humans have changed the balance and possibly in so doing are sending the world to a state that won't support humans. That is of no importance to anyone but humans as it is likely we are the only species who has enough extended consciousness to understand and care. When the early aerobic bacteria changed the balance of Oxygen so they no longer could survive above ground, none of them wrote posts about how to prevent this world changing event.

However much we may include other species in our equations, it is still about us. If we like untrammeled wilderness and lots of other species around then choosing a balance that contains that is for our good. The question always revolves around us as we are the ones capable of composing the question.

I think we are talking about the GREATER good.
If we understand what is bad for the planet we should understand what is needed to correct it.

The greater good means chopping off your (trapped) arm to save your life.
Diverting a runaway train to destruction to save a town.
Rescuing the sinking boat with the most people if there is but one chance.
Isolating the disease infected (could be a house, community, town, city or even a country} from the healthy.

Some choices would seem impossible to make even though it could mean life and death, like picking which of your children to save if a disaster forced you to choose.

What is good for you does not necessarily mean it is good for someone else and vice versa.
Missing out on the last ticket on a plane that crashes with no survivors, good at the time for the passenger who purchased the last ticket, bad for you because you missed out and didn't get home for christmas.

Good and bad is relative and subject to change with circumstances, time and the times and most of all, opinions will vary on what actually is required to attain the "greater good".

We don't trust the paradigm of the greater good if someone else is making the decision and we are affected.

We need trust and consensus...........
I think it's impossible to get either, so the "greater good" can only be forced upon us by those with the power to do so.