Getting at a Tiny Portion of the Truth in Obama's Speech

In 2006 when I first met Julian Darley, author of _High Noon for Natural Gas_ and the founder of the Post-Carbon Institute, the world was excited by then-famous "Jack" oil field find in the Gulf of Mexico. Both of us were watching the way the world was interpreting the data - people were claiming that there might be 10, 12, 15 billion barrels of oil - five miles down underneath the ocean. The media was excited, ignoring the fact that large oil field potential reserves are routinely revised - and almost always downwards. The public and the media, without enough knowledge of oil production assumed that the "Jack" find reserves were substantiated, realistic, and practically here. They missed the part about a decade to bring the field fully online, the enormous sums of money involved, and the huge technical challenges of drilling five miles under the ocean. Darley, framing the issue brilliantly, observed that "this isn't salvation, this is digging around in the couch cushions for loose change."

We've now learned (the hard way) a great deal more about the possible costs and hazards of deep water drilling, but most of us haven't learned the essential things we need to know about energy resources, including the fact that oil discovery peaked decades ago, and that our current oil situation pretty much is digging in the couch cusions..

Unless you've heard the words "peak oil" and had some reason to investigate them, and found yourself launched into a crash course on drilling rigs, geological formations, tar sands, unconventional oil and liquids, seawater pumping and extraction technologies (and how many people do that), it is really hard to understand why so many people are so very worried about our energy resources. Indeed, it is more than that - the knowledge that a solar panel isn't equivalent to a barrel of oil in any easy way is counter-intuitive, as are many other necessary concepts.

The idea that nations and institutions routinely inflate their reserves for political and economic gain isn't too shocking - but most people assume that oil reserves are easily fact checked, and that agencies with the word "International" in them are confirming these facts. That we aren't, and in fact that the most famous of these, the IEA was recently accused by a whistleblower of inflating reserves under pressure from the US and other nations not to cause economic panic, is not something everyone knows. So when a company says "billions of barrels" we relax, secure in the knowledge that those crazy people who say the oil might end must be wrong, and think that oil can't really be a problem.

Last night, Barack Obama actually came close to talking about peak oil. He didn't use the words, but he used the language that peak oil analysts have been using for years, and it was clearly implied. He said:

One of the lessons we've learned from this spill is that we need better regulations better safety standards, and better enforcement when it comes to offshore drilling. But a larger lesson is that no matter how much we improve our regulation of the industry, drilling for oil these days entails greater risk. After all, oil is a finite resource. We consume more than 20% of the world's oil, but have less than 2% of the world's oil reserves. And that's part of the reason oil companies are drilling a mile beneath the surface of the ocean - because we're running out of places to drill on land and in shallow water.

For decades, we have known the days of cheap and easily accessible oil were numbered. For decades, we have talked and talked about the need to end America's century-long addiction to fossil fuels. And for decades, we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires. Time and again, the path forward has been blocked - not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor.

The consequences of our inaction are now in plain sight. Countries like China are investing in clean energy jobs and industries that should be here in America. Each day, we send nearly $1 billion of our wealth to foreign countries for their oil. And today, as we look to the Gulf, we see an entire way of life being threatened by a menacing cloud of black crude.

We cannot consign our children to this future. The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now. Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash American innovation and seize control of our own destiny.

Obama here begins to make mainstream some very basic concepts. First, that deepwater drilling is simply not the same thing as sinking a well on land into proven reserves - it is a much chancier and costlier experience, and depends, among other things, on high energy prices. He uses the language of the end of cheap oil. He points out that we've been talking about a transition to renewables for decades but haven't gotten very far, and that we have to make substantial changes quickly. He even mentions WWII and acknolwedges there will be costs to this shift.

What Obama doesn't get (or doesn't think we're ready for) is the other 90% of the relevant knowledge. That starting a transition to renewable energies now, 30+ years after we should have, has real costs - and presents real limitations of what we can potentially replace. Obama leaves out the insights of the Department of Energy's "Hirsch Report" which observed that a smooth and stable transition to renewables would take 20 full years *before* the oil began to peak.

Obama isn't ready to admit what his own Army knows - in the JOE report released this spring, the US Army warned of a peak oil crisis - and soon. Their projected rapidity of scenarios for a PO transition should highlight the reality that we simply aren't going to replace this quantity of oil with renewables in 2-5 years.

By 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 million barrels per day," says the report, which has a foreword by a senior commander, General James N Mattis.

It adds: "While it is difficult to predict precisely what economic, political, and strategic effects such a shortfall might produce, it surely would reduce the prospects for growth in both the developing and developed worlds. Such an economic slowdown would exacerbate other unresolved tensions, push fragile and failing states further down the path toward collapse, and perhaps have serious economic impact on both China and India."

Obama doesn't explain that most renewables are less energy-dense than oil or natural gas - that it isn't a 1-1 transition, one solar panel or wind turbine for X barrels of oil, but that we need more renewables, and have to run faster and faster to keep up. Obama doesn't explain that at every stage in the renewable transition, we depend on stable prices for oil, coal and natural gas - that we don't make solar panels with solar panels, but with fossil fuels, and that shifts in price can change the economic equation dramatically.

It would have been too much to ask for all this information - the best presidential speeches are pithy. And it would also be too much to ask Obama to admit that it is only now, when people are asking "where the heck were you during this spill" that he's committing publically to fulfilling his promises, only now that he's talking about our energy limits, after approving increased offshore drilling and discussing the way the magic oil off our coasts would fix our problems. It is only now that we've already started sacrificing that he's ready to call for sacrifice. And it all depends on language that implies that we can keep everything largely the way we want it to be - that costs will be largely economic, that a clean energy economy is something that will look like our own, that this isn't going to hurt too badly, that the economy can recover and we can have a low-cost transition and a "victory" that gets us all the things we dream of.

And there was a time when all that was true. When Jimmy Carter was making essentially the same speech Obama just did, only in a cardigan, that was entirely feasible. It was almost certainly doable in the 1980s, and probably into the early 1990s. Now it is not. And Obama didn't tell us about the most basic problem - that the speech he just gave is precisely the kind of speech that has been part of the process of not doing anything. That when George W. Bush said we had to get off foreign oil, and Bill Clinton said we had to get off foreign oil that they too talked about clean energy economies and incentives and making a better world for our kids.

And it isn't that they didn't necessarily even mean it. It is that the oil-addicted culture of America is so deeply dependent on fossil fuels and the economic growth they power that no leader, left or right has ever been able to figure out how to do this shift meaningfully - once we passed the critical moments at which we could have powered a smooth transition, the reality of making words energy - the economic and personal costs, the change required in our culture, those were too big to conquer.

The speech that needs to be given hasn't happened yet, and every year it gets harder to give. It begins with the classic acknowledgement that good physicians give "this is going to hurt." And it explains why - why the greater good comes from endurance. It begins acknowledging that everyone wasted a golden opportunity, and that now our choices are governed by material physical realities - that we face the pain of living with what is possible, rather than what is desirable. It includes both a call to build what renewable energies we can, and also the acknowledgement that we will not be living anything like the present American way of life. It involves a real call to sacrifice - the kind of sacrifice past generations endured in incredibly difficult times, the kinds of sacrifice that cost them a great deal, but for a vastly greater goal. It probably involves unpalatable words like "rationing." It will involve admitting fault and responsibility, and then moving on, telling the public what they need to know, but also engaging them in the project of creating a future for their children and grandchildren.

Winston Churchill could have given that speech - in fact, he did, among other times in his "Be Ye Men of Valor" speech - with its blunt acknowledgement of the deep unlikelihood of success and the odds against them, it helped galvanize everyone into great sacrifice at great stakes.

Our task is not only to win the battle - but to win the war. After this battle in France abates its force, there will come the battle for our Island -- for all that Britain is, and all the Britain means. That will be the struggle. In that supreme emergency we shall not hesitate to take every step, even the most drastic, to call forth from our people the last ounce and the last inch of effort of which they are capable. The interests of property, the hours of labor, are nothing compared with the struggle of life and honor, for right and freedom, to which we have vowed ourselves.

Abraham Lincoln could give that speech, indeed, he did in his Second Inaugural Address:

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Unfortunately, it remains to be seen as yet whether any man or any woman can give that speech in this generation and before the realities thrust upon us make our speeches moot.


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Brilliant. Who can make this argument these days in a Capitol inundated with bribes? At least Obama said part of the argument, but not all of it. Its like saying, "I'll only halfway shoot you. Thats how centrist I am."

Thanks for the link, Sharon. I just went and listened to Obama's speech. Is it just me, or does anyone else find it significant/interesting that the words "unleash" and "resilience" passed the president's lips, and the word "transition" several times - all in the context of the nation's use of energy?

I didn't vote for Obama, but I am *SO* grateful that I can at least stand to listen to the voice and words of our president, after a long 8 years in the desert.

Kate - Yeah, he TALKS a good game, but is he actually going to DO anything? He knows what happened when Jimmy Carter dared to suggest that Americans conserve, and he knows much of the public is even more rabid about the issue now. Is he likely to throw away his own very successful career for the sake of a doomed effort at real change? This Congress clearly will not impose any serious limits on anyone; if they somehow did, supporters would be thrown out of office in 2012, or washed out by a tide of coal company money, and the new bosses would repeal everything. As Greer says about the French Revolution, we have delayed action until the costs of acting are so intolerable to the elites that nobody is willing to take voluntary steps to ameliorate the situation; all we can do is wait for Moloch to collapse under its own weight. And that's a problem too, because I see many indications that the American people are ripe for the fascist "solution" to their self-inflicted decline, and the vision of a Nazi-like regime with 10K nuclear weapons is beyond frightening.

And there was a time when all that was true. When Jimmy Carter was making essentially the same speech Obama just did, only in a cardigan, that was entirely feasible. It was almost certainly doable in the 1980s, and probably into the early 1990s. Now it is not.

The time when all that was true, was feasible, was long before the late 20th century.

It involves a real call to sacrifice -

If this is the message: a call to "sacrifice," then the gig is up. No one wants to sacrifice any personal or familial perks for the "greater good," for the "good of society." Why should they? When one takes care of oneself & one's family society takes care of itself. If you want to win people over to a lower impact lifestyle the way to do it is to emphasize how healthy, wholesome, satisfying... such a lifestyle is. The way NOT to win people over is by calling simple living a "sacrifice."

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 16 Jun 2010 #permalink

Alas, if we all started bicycling to the grocery store next week, the entire growth-based economy would collapse, so even many people who are not employed in making cars, pumping gas, or providing medical care to run-over pedestrians and asthma victims would be thrown out of work. There would be economic hardship, hence "sacrifice," and if the government did not admit as much, industry and its front groups would be quick to get the message out in the most biased possible way (e.g., "you won't be able to go to your own doctor anymore...").

In a society devoted to greed and scapegoating, mutual action becomes impossible. Some of us may limit our own current guilt and future pain by limiting consumption voluntarily, but the Amurrican Way of Life as a whole is going to go over the cliff with the gas pedal to the floor, and Obama is not going to change that; that being the case, I doubt he means to try at all, only to give a few speeches that will make him look like he tried.

Thank you, Sharon. I'm an Obama supporter, but the speech--and your post--makes it clear that no politician can deal with this thing. He can't educate, can't supplicate, can't cajole, without giving away the central dilemma: a consumer economy based on oil is completely unsustainable, and a transition economy moving toward cleaner energy (no energy is "clean") is politically unrealizable.

By Susan Albert (not verified) on 16 Jun 2010 #permalink

Iâve been pacing back and forth after reading Sharonâs insightful analysis, and Iâm thinking that President Obama will make that next speech. He will. What weâre failing to see is that last night he held out a baton of sort. A somewhat smaller baton, perhaps, but a baton nonetheless to help us * help him * help us seize this precious moment in time.

It wasnât possible to introduce Peak Oil in full force during last nightâs speech. Why? Because the gusher is gushing, thatâs why. The planet in the Gulf of Mexico continues its hemorrhage, and President Obama couldnât go beyond introducing basic information. That would not have worked, and I think we need to trust his instincts.

Surfacing here today to declare that the next move is yours and mine will probably cause a combination of yawns of sheer boredom and spits of utter disbelief. Weâve gone LIVE, Boys and Girls, and we didnât notice. Now is the opportunity to crank it up on high and bring the matter of Peak Oil in real time.

Are you ready to rumble?

For starters, Iâm thinking it would be outstanding to see the most experienced team of national Transition Town folks pack up their pop-up tents and light sleeping bags and deploy to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida for a time. They could mingle appropriately with Gulf Coast residents and listen to concerns. Unless theyâre in place already, they would be an important presence at this time.

Next, it would be ever so splendid if we could see a global reaction of acknowledgement and support for President Obamaâs speech, using his words as a propelling platform to bring Peak Oil in the greater limelight of mainstream populations around the world.

The shift weâve been waiting for is here. Itâs today. Itâs now.

For those of us who share the awareness of the serious nature of Peak Oil and global climate change, we can continue to be supportive and patient, and tolerant and understanding of each other at home and everywhere else we find ourselves, as we join locally across the globe to prepare ourselves for a different way of living.

You know as well as I do there is no turning back. I have to trust that a framework of meaningful governmental action will unfold swiftly to help us all keep moving forward.

With a strong heart that knows and a bright spirit that shines: Letâs rock and roll!!


Your lovable community advocate,

Danielle Charbonneau
Tucson, Arizona

By D. Charbonneau (not verified) on 16 Jun 2010 #permalink

Good points.
But when we talk about the sacrifices people made in the best, we must realize that even then there was considerable resistance and politicians had to be, well "political" when addressing the public.
For example, during early 1942, U-Boats were able to see their targets at night backlit by the lights of beachfront cities and resorts of the Eastern Seaboard. Even when the Navy got around to requiring blackouts, there was resistance from coastal resorts.
If you read through McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom" you'll see that Lincoln's call for sacrifice were not universally accepted and he had to continually maneuver politically to get the job done during the civil war, despite constant criticism from the left, right and middle as well as the public.

I would like to point out the President does not rule the country! He is NOT a dictator and must abide by consensus and our principle of three branches of government.
Here we have a man that could not have a worse state of affairs at the start of his term. It has not been getting better and the Republican members are doing everything measure to block progress. The sad state of our country is on their shoulders!

I haven't read all the replies but found your post via Google Alerts. Yes, Deepwater has got people talking in more peak oily ways (see my post of 15 June 2010 on I've been researching & giving talks on peak oil for 6 years now and the thing we need to be focusing on is, I think, 'net energy' and the energy returns from various ways of geting energy. Very little research has been done into this.

There are so many pointers to the fact that we are at or very close to peak production but all are easy to deny if they don't suit your version of what's real (e.g. perpetual economic growth!) Unless we explain to people that we cannot replace the energy from oil and that we have to reduce energy demand (not just 'carbon') then people aren't going to prepare for the inevitable low-energy future. As prices rise, we will all have to adjust our ways but how much easier it will be if we do that now, voluntarily. I do not think that some eco-dictator is the answer - people HATE being told what to do, especially if they don't understand it!

I am writing a book (Net Energy in a Nutshell) which I hope will get the concept of what energy is over in a simple way. I'd love to have comments on my blog as there doesn't seem to be a box to tick to know if anyone replies to me on this site (I'll never remember to check!)

Jeremy, who said he was? We're talking about his speech, which is the president's job. Apologetics serve no one.

EdK - I'm certainly not proposing that Obama will magically create a fairy land of political consensus - but when you run for president into a deep hole, you've volunteered for the job of getting people out, including dealing with a great deal of internal conflict.

DD, actually, calls to sacrifice for a greater good work pretty well when there's a clear and present threat, and we both know that PO and climate change could be framed as an immediate and serious threat - for cripes sake, we're in war in Iraq about a fake serious threat - we can articulate a real one. Think back to 9/11 - all that frustrated desire to sacrifice, to change, to do something for the good of your country. Frame the crisis properly, and sacrifice isn't that hard.

We've been saying for years "you just have to tell everyone how great it is" - and we do that. But everyone else - advertising, tv, etc... is telling everyone how great buying crap and driving and everything else are. Just as water has no advertising budget and coke does, and thus coke outgrows water every year, that's true of "sustainable simple life" - it gets a surprising number of people but it can't move mountains.

You move mountains by engaging people in something bigger than themselves - people make sacrifices of huge sorts all the time for their internal vision of themselves as part of a greater endeavor. They send their kids to die in war or go themselves. They go to jail, march in protests and get shot. They fast, they pray, they change their lives radically for their culture. Sacrifice isn't the problem - it is the narrative of collective action.


You move mountains by engaging people in something bigger than themselves

Or with house sized back hoes. It's a shame that on something like this Obama can't be more like Bush (didn't think I'd be ever saying something like that...) - here's what we're going to do, if you don't like it you're not American enough, and I don't particularly care if you have anything to say about it, because ner-ner-ner I'm not listening.

Alas, if we all started bicycling to the grocery store next week, the entire growth-based economy would collapse, so even many people who are not employed in making cars, pumping gas, or providing medical care to run-over pedestrians and asthma victims would be thrown out of work

To quote Bill Maher over the last two weeks "F*ck your jobs"

they pray

Therein lies the problem, a five year old with a bucket and a spade digging clumps of oil off the beach for 5 minutes does more to fix the problem than ten million man hours of prayer, default position for far too much of the country - I've done my bit, I prayed, I'll do the same again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day. All while driving my kids 5 minutes to soccer in my hummer.

Ewan R - when you say to someone whose whole life was set up to coerce them ever deeper into the life of a corporate slave dependent on corporate products, "F*ck your jobs," what they hear is "F*ck the roof over your head" and "F*ck feeding your kids." This does not make them eager to cooperate with whatever you have in mind. People who are dependent on their jobs for their physical or legal survival need OPTIONS, not snarky remarks.

It depends on whether you define "pray" as something you do internally by talking, or with your hands and your muscles. The idea of prayer as a purely abstract, purely separate from action idea is kind of a mainstream protestant set of assumptions, but that isn't the only kind of prayer there is. And religion is actually extremely good at making people make sacrifices for something larger -I'm not trying to persuade anyone to change their opinion of religion, but I do think it is worth considering its merits.

I personally am only interested in forms of either hope or prayer that cause one to break a sweat.


The Archdruid has a relevant column today about how magic and ritual (including prayer) function effectively to change consciousness, but not material reality. OTOH, he adds that it works to change attitudes only if you want it to work, whereas most Americans today actively do NOT want to change their attitudes.

DD, actually, calls to sacrifice for a greater good work pretty well when there's a clear and present threat, and we both know that PO and climate change could be framed as an immediate and serious threat -

A lot of my thinking is predicated upon game theory applied to evolutionary biology, as pioneered by John Maynard Smith. It was this work, among others, that led George Williams to dismiss group selectionist thinking in the 1960s. Game theory math is a bit beyond me (Eric probably has a better handle on it, especially if he's read von Neumann) but Maynard Smith used it to introduce the concept of the Evolutionary Stable Strategy (ESS). Simply put, "sacrifice" of one's own self-interest for the good of the group isn't an ESS because it's too subject to defection (cheating) for it to not become infiltrated to the point of collapse by defectors. The potential rewards of defection are simply too great, and the sanctions against defection too weak, for "sacrifice for a greater good" to function as an ESS. William Hamilton worked out the dynamics of kin selection and Robert Trivers that of expectations of reciprocal altruism - the two seeming exceptions to the rule which aren't actual exceptions. Surely you're familiar with the game of iterated prisoner's dilemma, which addresses these dynamics (Poundstone is a good source). When does it serve one's interests to cooperate and when does it do so to defect? If everyone else is cooperating the cost to the group of one or a few defections is low, hence group sanctions on defectors are weak. When defection becomes widespread the few remaining cooperators are disadvantaged. If others are voluntarily forgoing reproduction for the sake of the population my own children are benefited by reduced competition. If others are choosing to curtail fossil fuel consumption the reduced demand drives down prices making it more affordable for me to waste gas. Etc. One may argue that humans are different, and cite anecdotal examples of individual "sacrifice" for the group good but on average and over the breadth of the population, these examples are insignificant compared with the degree & magnitude of selfish defection. If one is going to champion a Cause that does not constitute an ESS, one is attempting to buck the tide of four billion years of organic evolution. Good luck with that.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 17 Jun 2010 #permalink

Yeah but, in fact, you see evidence of altruism and generosity that is, at least, not immediately rewarded, both in humans and in other animals. You see relatively stable human cultures where within-group cooperation seems to outweigh cheating and has done so for many generations, with the aid of cultural training and social sanctions on cheaters. If the math tells you that the facts are impossible, then the math is wrong, not the facts.

If I understand where DD is coming from then I don't think the facts in any of the cases you're discussing are impossible under the math - altruism works under ESS when "sacrifice" for the good of the group isn't necessarily either a sacrifice (as it will be repaid in the long term - particularly in an ESS where non-reciprocators are punished) or for the good of the group (sacrificing for the good of ones own relatives for example - technically you should be willing to die for 2 siblings, 4 cousins, 8 half cousins (or something along those lines... been a while since I've done/read the math))

Well, why do men frequently volunteer to fight in offensive wars, whether ultimately just and defensive in nature (World War 2) or not (any of them since)? In both World Wars, many men volunteered before they were drafted, and actually fought to get IN to the military. Had an individual man dodged the draft, and let others get killed to prevent his country from being conquered, that would be obviously the best thing for his personal Darwinian fitness.

The handy thing about humans, as opposed to other semi-intelligent species, is that you can get some idea of their proximate motivations because they talk. Many people who take such actions assert that they love their community or nation enough to risk, or even sacrifice, their lives for it, and when you go back through thousands of years of history you find warriors in different cultures expressing similar motives of honor and patriotism. If the ability to feel these motivations is destined to be weeded out by natural selection, it's happening awfully slowly.

(apologies to Sharon et al for going massively off topic, and to DD for probably mangling the explanation)

Patriotism in time of war appears to me to at least fit somewhat under the punishment for non-altruism and the reciprocal altruism part of the ESS theory - men who aren't patriotic in times of war tend to be shunned, and at least up until the Vietnam era those returning from war were lauded as heroes - draft dodging and not risking your life isn't necessarily best for your darwinian fitness - also there would have, in evolutionary terms, been fitness benefits associated with going off to war and risking life and limb (spoils of war, not least of which are extra mates) as well as benefits to relatives etc (spoils of war, one of me is worth two of my brother, 4 cousins etc - keeping in mind that for the vast majority of human history our immediate social network was likely to be pretty closely related risking life and limb for the social group becomes a lot more easy to explain - with the vast upsurge in population sizes and social networks it is just that we haven't necessarily caught up in terms of best ESS for the population size we interact with - which also explains why improbable events seem so amazing to us etc etc - our brains weren't built to deal with populations of thousands, let alone millions)

Hopefully Americas obsession with God is finally coming to an end, He doesn't exist people and isn't going to save you, wake up America. Stop praying and start changing things.
Here is something I read a while back:
A front-page story in the Daily Progress here in Charlottesville, Va., recently described a group of people who said they had given up on politicians and were beginning to gather at gas stations to publicly pray for cheaper gasoline. These are people who are seriously hurting because they need gas to get to work and back home, and they can no longer afford it. I don't want to laugh at their acts of desperation, but that is exactly what politicians will do, politicians who are no doubt thrilled to see people standing in parking lots talking to the sky rather than standing in their offices talking to them.

Yeah but, in fact, you see evidence of altruism and generosity that is, at least, not immediately rewarded, both in humans and in other animals.

Only animals capable of recognizing individuals of their own species engage in reciprocally altruistic behavior, dewey. Sometimes altruism is not immediately rewarded; sometimes it never will be rewarded because the benefactor of such altruism is a defector, or dies or migrates away before the behavior can be reciprocated. Sometimes altruistic behavior is simply pathological, in the sense that it lowers an individual's fitness without ever being reciprocated. As for war, we all know that every war (so far) has been followed by a baby boom such that population lost during hostilities is more than compensated within a generation. Cite anecdotes to the contrary all you want but there's simply no denying that on average, unreciprocated altruism towards those who aren't related by blood isn't an evolutionary stable strategy and hence is actively selected against. I.e., those who voluntarily lower their own fitness on behalf of some supposed group benefit will have whatever genes that contributed to such maladaptive behavior less well represented in the gene pool of subsequent generations.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 21 Jun 2010 #permalink