Like a Moth to the 'Peak Oil' Flame?

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Dr Powerfun
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Like a Moth to the 'Peak Oil' Flame?

Post by Dr Powerfun » 11-04-2005 08:58 PM

Excerpted from


by Dmitry Podborits

Have you ever wondered why various winged insects (such as moths or nocturnal butterflies) tend to behave as if they are attracted to artificial light sources? Isn't it harmful, and often suicidal, mode of behavior? After all, what is in it for them? Why waste time and energy on clumsy bumbling about a lamp or a candle, visible to all predators, in the company of other equally hapless creatures, and risk an untimely death by burning your delicate wings with a characteristic "Zap!"?

It turns out that this behavioral anomaly is largely well understood by biologists (although there is still scientific debate about details going on). It turns out that flying insects have built-in navigational systems based on the notion of light sources (e.g., stars and the moon) being far, far away -- an infinity away, as far as each insect is concerned. If such an insect needs to fly in a certain direction in the face of adversities such as winds and obstacles, all it needs to do is to strive to maintain a constant angle to one of such convenient light sources.

This has been an invaluable and reliable navigational technique for more than 99.99% of the insects' evolutionary history, as the notion of a light source that is not, for all practical intents and purposes, an infinity away simply did not exist.

With the entrance of human-made light sources into the scene the situation for winged bugs changed dramatically. As each burning lamp or candle within a moth's view is clearly not an infinity away but only maybe some minutes or seconds of flight away, by maintaining a constant angle the moth will spiral towards the light source until it bumps into it, with all of the above-mentioned unpleasant consequences. It can be said that the notion of non-infinity, or finality of distance (to the light source) wreaks havoc with the sophisticated navigational system perfected over hundreds of millions of years and leads many a moth to their untimely demise.
The lengths to which I am going to describe the trials and tribulations of lowly insects in a blog mostly dedicated to the members of a different biological class may be surprising to some readers. After all, how is their plight relevant to ours?

Ok, it's true that insects, to borrow a phrase from the famous biologist Richard Dawkins, the author of The Sefish Gene, are "highly tuned pieces of survival machinery", and it is also indisputable that over their hundreds of millions of years of history on this planet they have seen many different creatures (some of whom may have initially shown a lot of promise) come and go.

But don't we have a key advantage over them that we are basically, much, much smarter, and are capable of learning? We evolve techniques, they don't. We invented industrial agriculture, representative government, professional boxing, telemarketing and credit derivatives. They just keep on flapping their wings as they did a hundred million years ago.

Yes, all of this is true, but I believe that we have lessons to learn from the butterflies (that would only be fitting for creatures professing to be capable of learning).

...The corollary of the above blather is that the conditions of the past form the lenses through which we view the future.

The key difference between us and earlier generations is that the finality of our "distance to the lamp" is getting harder and harder to ignore.

If you are a moth and the lamp is a mile away, then your navigational error compared to the lamp being a light year away maybe small enough to ignore. But what is the cutoff point? How close do you need to get to the lamp before you say to yourself: "I am very greatful to the moth Gods who equipped me with a navigational system which reliably allowed me to travel thus far. But I am even more greatful that they created me with the courage and the wisdom to recognize that this navigational system is no longer adequate for my current location in space and time. Thus, I hereby announce my plan to stop relying on that system and commence a transitional period during which I will mobilize myself to create a more fitting one"?

You can see that the term "creeping normalcy" and the Aesopean tale about a frog who failed to recognize the gradual temperature increase of water in the pot and who found itself cooked may be relevant here.

.. It is important to stress that our "financial" value system is entirely based on the notions of infinity and continuity, as it projects monetary expansion (underpinned by the economic growth) indefinitely into the future.
Infinity and continuity is the very fabric from which the "modern finance"-based value system is created. The recognition of its own finality, of discontinuities lying ahead, is not something that modern financial theory is capable of -- no more than a butterfly maintaining the proper angle to the light source is capable of distinguishing between finite and infinite.
As lakes of ink have already been spilled over the economic impact of peak oil, I will avoid providing yet another speculation-ridden analysis here. However, from the above it may be concluded that the modern financial theory and the modern financial practice will find themselves to be less and less correlated with reality -- just like the navigational system of a moth sufficiently close to a light source -- as their infinity-based value assessment mechanisms will be ever more warped by the increasingly "unbearable finality of being".

In the ensued turmoil, alternative valuation schemes will be experimented with, new valuations will be assigned to the presently existing portfolios, new notions of financial risk and new methods of calculating it will emerge, and new financial theory will be developed. However, the process may not be orderly. One of the prominent economists of our time, Paul Samuelson, described the process of knowledge acquisition thus: "funeral by funeral, the theory advances"...

I imagine, however, that some big discoveries in what constitutes and what doesn't constitute value, and how it should and should not be assessed, may be made in the coming months and years by the present, not some future, generation of economic theorists and practitioners.
I was still entertaining the thought of the possibly stark contrast between the current and the future ways of assessing value as I came across an article in Boston Globe describing ongoing debate between the architects, urban planners, and other interested parties regarding the future of suburban development.
The journalist who wrote the article did his best to present the views expressed by different schools of thought in a fair and balanced way; clearly, however, he wanted to finish on an optimistic note, as he concluded with remarks by this expert:

"Ultimately, says [Joel] Kotkin*, author of ''The City: A Global History" (2005), ''The problems of sprawl have to be solved within the context of sprawl. You're not going to stop it. You can't reengineer society by getting everyone to move back to Boston. Forget about it. It's not happening."

As I was reading these remarks, I imagined the following letter mass-mailed by some mysterious unknown sender simultaniusly to many politicians, economists, business leaders, urban planners and other powers that be:

Dear [name withheld]:

I regret to inform you that I have decided not to extend into the future the conditions under which your present living arrangements have evolved.

Please be advised that the negotiations regarding your future living arrangements are currently underway. I would like to emphasize that your participation in this negotiation process is not, strictly speaking, required.

However, I hereby inform you that your continued absence from the above negotiation process will result in that your future living arrangements will be decided for you.

Please let me know if you have any questions.

With best wishes, Your Reality.

Will the addressees open the envelope or consider it junk mail?

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