Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 12, No. 9, September 2016
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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Unwinding the Human Predicament

Jack Alpert

This article was originally published by
Stanford Knowledge Integration Laboratory, August 2016

This is the introduction to a research program on "unwinding the human predicament," by Jack Alpert of the Stanford Knowledge Integration Laboratory (SKIL), to be serialized in this journal starting this month. This is "work in progress," and the reader should visit the SKIL website for the latest updates.


The "unwinding the human predicament" project entails a sustainability analysis of the entire human system:


The project is an ongoing analysis of current global megatrends of human population and human activity:


The "human predicament" is that current trends appear to confirm concerns that have been documented for a long time, including the landmark Limits to Growth computer simulations initially published in 1972 and updated in 1992 and 2004. What will happen as natural resources become exhausted? Can human adaptation reverse these ominous trends?


On St Mathew's Island in the Bearing Sea, the US Coast Guard brought 29 reindeer to graze on the island's moss, to provide an emergency food source for men stationed there. Several years latter the men left leaving the reindeer. The herd, grew too large for their natural moss food supply, ate it to destruction, and perished. Humans on earth are about to share that reindeer experience. We are consuming our supporting resources to exhaustion.

We are too big for our ecological niche on earth. We are consuming our renewing resources like clean water and soil to destruction. We are consuming fossil and uranium energy to exhaustion.(more)(more). The solar and wind renewable energy sources won't be able to replace them (more)(more). And we are dispersing to the point of lost utility our non renewing supports like phosphorous, and rare earths.

Baring some technological breakthrough, the earth, at the end of this century will support a lot less people. Our population, according to UN projections might rise to 9 or 10 billion persons by 2050 (more), after which, according to my calculations, might descend to 600 million who live like 17th century serfs(more). This decline, without extreme restrictions on births, will result from starvation or conflict deaths (more).

Few want to believe my scenario. Most want to believe technology will make "tomorrow better than today." When previous civilizations overshot regional and technological limitations and collapsed, they rebuilt themselves better than before. People believe they and their children will slip through this century's bottleneck and be the survivors in the next even better civilization.

My computations suggest only radical changes in human behavior resulting from a change in social organization can reduce overshoot to zero, avoid the tragedy, and implement an ever improving civilization. However, these changes appear too difficult to implement. Our genes are against them. Parts of our evolved brain are against them. Our culture is against them. Our institutions are against them. Most people see my proposed changes as expensive extravagances that obtain nothing of value -- specifically they see them avoiding no meaningful liabilities.

Thus humankind continues to muddle forward. When the media presents:

a) views of on going and projected human and environmental injury, for example, climate change, or species extinction, and
b) thousands of proposed projects to address them, the viewer fails to see that:
None of these issues reflect the full gravity of our predicament and that
Even if all these issues are successfully addressed, injuries I project for this century will not be avoided.

Little is going to change unless:

a) autocratic action or
b) a ground swell of new learning among billions of individuals, implements a civilization that modulates what is considered normal, and approved, personal behavior.

For example, we need collective human behavior which:

a) Lowers the human footprint below earthly supports. And,
b) Maintains these conditions thereafter.

If this change is to depend on collective will, rather than autocratic rule, billions of individuals have to know/believe that:

Injuries exist on our civilization's path that are worth avoiding (Part 1 of 6)
An alternate design of civilization exists that does not create these extreme injuries (Part 2 of 6)
Forces exist that produce and maintain this design (Part 3 of 6)
A social contract exists that creates these forces (Part 4 of 6)
A global constituency can implement this social contract (Part 5 of 6)
There is a process for creating the individuals that fill this constituency. (Part 6 of 6)

Follow the hyperlinks to Parts 1-6 above to see the remaining portions of the series.


The following video presents an analysis tool that determines a civilization's sustainability:

Sustainable Civilization Analysis Beta 2


Jack Alpert is director of Stanford Knowledge Integration Lab, a Lab which he started in 1978 at Stanford University. In 1992 the Lab left Stanford and became a non profit research foundation. The research focused on how people gather and process information to understand dynamic systems. Over the years the Lab has transitioned its focus to the relationship between human cognition and civilization viability. The current work is on discovering and implementing behavior that “changes our course” and creates a sustainable civilization. The author can be contacted at

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"Beware of false knowledge; it is
more dangerous than ignorance."

George Bernard Shaw


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