Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 12, No. 10, October 2016
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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Unwinding the Human Predicament:
Part 1 - Dangers that must be avoided

Jack Alpert

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

This page provides monthly updates about a research program on "unwinding the human predicament," by Jack Alpert of the Stanford Knowledge Integration Laboratory (SKIL). The introduction and overall research framework was featured in the September 2016 issue. Below is Part 1 on injuries that exist on our civilization's path and are worth avoiding. This is "work in progress," and the reader should visit the SKIL website for the latest updates.


Because of a potential for 90% decrease in energy deliveries this century,

       a) our children will experience, starvation, anarchy, genocide, and cannibalism.
       b) the global population will contract 90% by 2100,
       c) the survivors will live like 17th century serfs, and
       d) because the environment will be decimated
              there will be little chance of recovery to today's wellbeing.

Common belief is that tomorrow will be better than today. Technology, yet undiscovered, will overcome, crowding, scarcity, conflict, and destruction of the environment. Keep your job until 65, and you will retire to the golf course. Usher your kids though college and they are perfectly launched to have your experience of ever improving wellbeing.

Consider, that this beautiful view follows from wishful thinking, and the ugly view, follows from simple computations applied to carefully collected data describing reality.

For example, in the next 10 years, unless technology can make and deliver food with less energy, fertilizer, pesticide, and water, the cost of food will exceed what a billion people earn.


       The rich will use farms that grew the poor's food to make fuel or food for animals.
       Existing farm land will produce less
              soil will have
                     less microorganisms
                     less minerals, and
                    more salt.
              water tables will have dropped,
              droughts will have increased,
              more fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, water, and energy will be needed
                     just to produce today's production.
              Energy costs are increasing because:
                    energy is harder to find and deliver
                    Transportation, healthcare, and social conflict compete better
                            for the energy which was used in growing food
       Existing farmland is being
                    paved over and
       additional farmland is not as rich as land already in use.
       Mechanized farming employs fewer people.
       People without food will fight to eat
               diverting more food to support conflict,
                     producing more scarcity,
                            more conflict.
                                   more scarcity ...

The net result is a billion people, who where living on a dollar a day, starve to death because their labor in city-wages will not allow them to purchase food in their city-market.

Empty Market, Ollantaytambo, Peru. Credit: Raymond Adams.
Click on the photo to view photostream in Flickr.


If this scenario does not convince you that a billion could perish this decade, consider that the city jobs, that attracted them, exist only if current energy deliveries do not diminish. Many will lose even their meager wage.

These city-peasants cannot return to the subsistence farming from which they came because those plots are too small to support their return. Scarcity of land is why they left in the first place. They will not be able to find unused land. It all belongs to industrial agriculture serving the market in which they cannot participate.

After 2035, further decreases in energy deliveries (increases in energy costs) lowered water tables, reductions in tillable land, lowered soil fertility, and further re-directions of "what is produced" toward the wealthy, will force the additional billions that are living on 2-3 dollars a day into starvation and conflict.

A quick genocide might remove them from the competition for food. However, it will be more probable that additional resources will be diverted to keep them separated from the food that is produced.

It is not difficult to fill in the successive decades to the above scenario;
       civilization collapses,
       production of food and services decline precipitously,
       The earth supports a much smaller population.
If a small number survive
       they live at subsistence, in degraded environments, and
       will not be able rebuild their old civilization because
             environmental services and fossil energy are no longer available.

If you have been doing a head count of those injured in the above scenario, you know (barring yet undiscovered technological miracles) most of your children die horrible deaths. If they survived; they are, or probably have been cannibals.

Until you can assure yourself, that you and your children will be severely injured, you probably will not be motivated to learn about and believe in the remaining 5 steps that unwind this human predicament. However, I suggest you continue reading this narrative because these steps will help you grasp the full meaning of the liability you face and the absolute necessity of a greater change in behavior and culture than you ever imagined.


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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"Who never looks beyond
more than three thousand years,
will stay in darkness, fond
of living day by day in tears."

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)


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