Tree of Life

At the base of the Tree of Life lies the maximum power principle ā€“ sometimes referred to as the 4th Law of Thermodynamics. This principle states that life seeks to maximise energy return from the lowest energy invested. This is our genetic heritage and an inherited trait of all known life. We will consume energy until we cannot. This is our nature.

9 thoughts on “Tree of Life

  1. OK, I think I have to call b.s. on this one. I understand how, in a generally anthropocentric culture, there is a tendency to anthropomorphically apply some human cultural traits to other species in the natural world, even by some scientists. In this case, it is overconsumption, insatiableness, and gluttony (since eating is the primary method of energy return, or consumption among all species), but this tendency to maximize return beyond actual need, limited only by ability, is generally not so among non-human species, or even among many non-capitalist humans, especially those relatively few humans who retain traditional eco-centric Indigenous values and practices. Contrary to the opinions of some materialists, we are not simply physical machines, guided solely by selfish, individualistic impulses. There are still many living beings of all species in this world who have a sense of “good enough”, satiable appetites, and contentment with living within the natural, sustainable limits of their particular ecosystems. They have no compulsion to maximize energy consumption beyond actual need or use value (preparing for winter hibernation being a temporary behavioral exception, balanced out by months of hibernating without engaging in any energy consumption).

    Examples abound. Lions, tigers, wolves, and other carnivores do not kill endlessly beyond what they and their extended families or tribes can consume within the short-term future, before the meat spoils, even though they may have the ability to do so. They also don’t build enormous storage caches and stack up as many bodies of prey species there as they can, like some humans would do. What little that they might kill in excess, they are content to leave to scavengers of other species. Also, their prey species, like gazelles and deer, seem to know when it is safe for them to travel past such predators, if they know that the predators have recently stuffed themselves with food, or are still engaged in feeding themselves. I could go on about this, but I won’t.

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  2. Thank you for your insights George.
    In some ways we agree with you. Humans are not physical machines – we are complex, multifaceted and diverse beings. However, we remain always a complex entwinning of biology, ecology, social, cultural etc.
    There is something called the ‘ecological fallacy’ – applying statistical or scientifically demonstrated principles to explain the behaviour of all individuals and small groups (human or non-human). This is the incorrect application of general rules and patterns like the maximum power principle. Instead, these principles are useful in explaining the whole, not individuals and small groups. The graphs that show exponential growth in energy, consumption and population is whole of where we are at, but this doesn’t mean that every person or culture lives like this.
    Having said this, the predator species you list are all ‘confined’ by limits – there is a great graph that tracks how these type of species track their prey in terms of population numbers.
    Many human cultures have also collapsed before us – this is one reason we know quite a bit about collapse, through anthropology and history. Climate, ecology and interrelated energy limits usually have a role to play in these collapses.

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    1. Thank you for your informative reply. There is so much to ponder and explore on this topic. For the last 37 years I have lived in and adjoining an environment that is relatively free of human dominion and infrastructure, not exactly “wilderness,” but a forest and mountainous ecosystem where many wildlife species (including elk, deer, bears, American lions, bobcats, coyotes, wolves, foxes, rabbits, and many other small mammals, and also another set of species around the river in the valley) who have been able to continue in their traditional ecosystem lifeways. Some Indigenous people, to whom this place is also home, do a small to moderate amount of hunting and foraging here, too. All of this experience has made me wonder much about what the natural inner mechanisms are (in all species) that inform many of us about what is “enough” consumption, and lead many of us to not take all that we are actually able to take from the gifts of our living ecosystem. So much to learn!

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    1. Thank for commenting and sharing your article. We agree that some in the climate-environment fetishize indigenous cultures, but where has Just Collapse done this?


    2. Richard, I am not sure how you gathered enough evidence from the brief conversation above to accuse us both of “fetishizing” some fantasy about Indigenous culture, but I think that I might see a couple of points in the conversation where a person who really wanted to make the leap to that conclusion. It is not the first time that I have been accused of something like that. I taught Native American Studies for 33 years before I retired in 2018 after my last twenty years at the University of Montana, and several times over the years I was accused of “romanticizing,” “idealizing,” or even “glorifying” Indigenous history and culture. I’ve noticed this term “fetishizing” being used in more recent years, and I suppose if the term had been in vogue back when I taught, somebody would have thrown that at me back then, as well. That’s OK, and it is a conversation worth having, sometimes, but I don’t have time to go into it right now.

      I skimmed through your whole essay and read some of it more closely, and I do appreciate some of the generally little known facts that you brought out. Since you cite no references there, I don’t know if you have read this book on the history of Indigenous American demographics: Thornton, Russell, American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History Since 1492, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK, 1987. It was really a groundbreaking book when it came out and covers much of the same ground that you cover in your essay. It might also provide you with some clearer percentages of portions of tribes lost to pandemic diseases. It wasn’t 90% everywhere. For example, you briefly mentioned my people, the Wampanoags, and the town of Patuxet, which the Pilgrims occupied three years after it had been abandoned because bubonic plague (not smallpox). Even though probably more than 90% of that village died, the overall loss estimate for the approximately 20 to 25 Wampanoag villages spread out from the coast westward to what is now eastern Rhode Island was probably somewhere between 40 to 60%, the losses being heavier in the villages closer to the eastern coast and relatively light in the west. Our neighbors to the west, the Narragansetts, apparently escaped that particular plague altogether.


  3. Hi, ‘until we cannot’ would also hold without maximizing throughput. Depletion of resources would be accellerated by maximizing input (e.g. engendered by MINIMIZING throughput). Interesting, but mention source next time please. Arnold


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