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George Mobus
Associate Professor, Computer Science & Systems, Institute of Technology, University of Washington Tacoma, author: Principles of Systems Science, Springer, ISBN: 978-1-4939-1919-2
Interests: Systems Science: systems science is the science of understanding how the world works. it is at the core of every other science. Given our energy and material consumption, and governance of our systems will we be able to sustain all life for the long-run. The Human Condition: the human brain has evolved , our capacity to share abstract/conceptual information, and our ability to cooperate in complex ways have advanced us to dominate the Ecos. but, should we confiscate nature to our selfish purposes? Do we have the wisdom to find a balance between our own desires, and the good for the whole earth?
Recent Activity
Non-Neoclassical (that is real world) Economics I'm at the third joint conference between the American Society for Ecological Economics and the Biophysical Economics group (not an official organization) and the first that also includes the Canadian counterpart organization for Ecological... Continue reading
Posted 4 days ago at Question Everything
In 2011 I Said... My Autumnal Equinox missive (!) in 2011 contained a “promise” that things would be getting worse rather than better. For the last two years the US economy has been showing what economists believe to be signs... Continue reading
Posted Sep 23, 2015 at Question Everything
@Ann, The human species is still pretty adaptive and has the native affordance mentality that gave rise to tool-making/use in the first place. And you are right. The most adaptive "survivors" will need to do a lot of reinventing some day. That might really be the best thing for planet Earth, though. My hypothesis is that only the most sapient people are going to survive and adapt (by definition they are the most adaptive) so they will also hopefully be wise enough not to repeat our mistakes in over-reliance on technology. ----------------------------------- @Don S. Good points all. ------------------------------------ @Robin D., Thanks for the link. ------------------------------------- @BC, You might find my early research on the brain of a "moronic snail" interesting. It is available on my academic website: in the Adaptive Agents Lab link. ------------------------------------- @Sari, Believe it or not I had a tendency to eschew math classes (enough for a minor an no more) because I wanted to use math to help me understand things, not for its own sake. I followed a different path in which I would build models (using equations) and then compute the results, draw the graph, and usually discover that my intuitions about what the math was doing were wrong. But I usually ended up seeing where I went wrong and started the process over again. When I finally got my hands on a computer and learned to program, my progress in this "test it and see" approach took off exponentially. What usually happened is that I discovered a need to understand some phenomenon that required math I did not have (like stochastic processes). So I went after the math until I could see how to use it to help me understand the problems. Rather than fill a tool chest with all kinds of tools, I waited until I found a need for a tool and then acquired it. The upside of this approach is that I was always motivated. The downside is that it wasn't until I was deeper in computer science that I started seeing the "big picture" of the relations between various maths and began to appreciate the need for a larger tool box! I suppose it really depends on individual interests. George
Toggle Commented Sep 13, 2015 on Could We Evolve into Ants? at Question Everything
I am reading an increasing number of criticisms along the lines I have been writing about of the education system in a variety of venues that have, until now, mostly advocated the corporatization approach to education reform. Many more people are awakening to the fact that the emperor has no clothes, but I doubt if this comes in time to do anything meaningful about the current system. Better to simply start from scratch I think. George
Toggle Commented Sep 13, 2015 on What is Learning? at Question Everything
@GM and also Steve Kurtz(s), I certainly agree that overpopulation is the single most cogent (final?) "cause" of all of this plight. Population combined with technology (at least in the developed countries) has spewed huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in pursuit of a high power lifestyle. I have certainly written a fair amount about these factors over the years. My point here was simply to point out that the talking heads and so-called experts on world affairs are not even bothering to dig into the ground truth of why there is so much unrest and now violence in this region. The "Arab Spring" was interpreted, by these same people, from the get-go as a quest for liberal democracy so that people would be able to pursue their desires for self-determination (presumably leading to gainful employment and food on the table). The perceived block to them achieving this goal was the dictatorial governments that were corrupt and failing to provide the necessaries of life as a good government should (you know, like in the US!) Ergo, get rid of the government or force more democratic input and the problems will be solved. Except they weren't. The revolt has metastasized and morphed into several different forms in each sub-region and according to local contexts. But they all have one thing in common. The whole region is undergoing (and has been for more than a decade) an accelerating decline in already marginal agricultural conditions. Couple this with a substantial decline in aid, especially to North African states and the effects of already oversized populations and the impact is dramatic. What bothers me, now that I think about it, is that with the kind of "politics is to blame" thinking going on, everyone will spend effort and money looking for a political (or military) solution with the thought that once that is provided things will return to "normal." But of course, with the real cause being the continuing degradation in life-support in the region, the problem will only get worse until the last refugee has exited leaving whoever can't get out to die in place. But by that time, consider what is probably happening in Europe and the US! --------------------------------------- @Andrea Muhrrteyn, Thank you for the links. I can't say I understand the context entirely but other readers might find them useful. ------------------------------------- @paul cassidy, I shall take your quirky, if not snarky, criticisms under consideration, once I figure out what you are saying! ----------------------------------- @Steve Kurtz, Just turned 70 last month. Time to get to work. George
The Resource Crisis and Climate Change Back in July, 2013 I wrote this post, MENA - A Model of the Future? in which I dug deeper into the then crisis transpiring in Egypt where a revolt against the Morsi government... Continue reading
Posted Sep 11, 2015 at Question Everything
High Anxiety over Education Judging by the number of comments that education blogs seem to get, relative to other subjects, and the number of e-mails I receive after posting something on the topic, it seems that there is a high... Continue reading
Posted Aug 21, 2015 at Question Everything
Eusociality For several years now I have been writing about the kind of eusociality engendered in human beings as opposed to hive and colony insects like ants. E.O. Wilson has studied ant societies and coined the term eusocial to describe... Continue reading
Posted Jul 30, 2015 at Question Everything
@Marco, Thanks. I have a longer version that includes a description of a target audience, basically anyone who is scientifically literate and reads science trade books. I think my audience is similar or the same as Naomi Klein's audience which is pretty substantial. I have considered the e-book option, it is on the table. And unless there is a major financial meltdown my wife tells me we are looking solid for retirement. Several people who have gone the e-book route have not been all that happy with the results because it still depends on marketing, which is not my forte. Also one tends to get more speaking engagements with a print book out. The fees would be nice but not the point. I just want to get in front of a breathing audience to tell what I hope is a compelling story. George
Toggle Commented Jul 11, 2015 on Seeking Help from Readers at Question Everything
@Don S, Thanks for the ideas. For readers who don't already know the book Don is referring to is: Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi (2014), The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision, Cambridge University Press. I highly recommend it - after, of course, you read my book!!! George
Toggle Commented Jul 5, 2015 on Seeking Help from Readers at Question Everything
If you are interested in my projects for retirement from the university I have been working on a book collection pitch for publishers and agents (for which I am still shopping!) This looks like a big project but it all... Continue reading
Posted Jul 3, 2015 at Question Everything
@David Gould, I've been getting a lot of personal e-mails from academics saying pretty much the same things. Though I'm afraid I am not familiar with "Lucy at the Chocolate Factory". Is this from the story "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"?? Thanks for the kind words on the book. Any thoughts about curriculum around the idea of systems science? ------------------------------------- @RE, What is that little symbol? I sort of get the inference, but am not familiar with its exact meaning! George
Toggle Commented Jun 23, 2015 on Happy Summer Solstice at Question Everything
@ChemEng, Indeed it does. Way back in March of 2010 I wrote this piece: A Dream of Education for the Future. In that there is a link to this piece as well: The Core of a Sapient Society. In these I discuss my concept of an ideal education that starts with learning systems science from a very early age through active learning (problem and project-based learning - hands on). For example teaching kids permaculture provides a way to expose them to principles of systems science without pushing those principles as abstract concepts. If some billionaire were to approach me to start such an education system I would in a heartbeat! Anyone out there got a few million to spare???? George
Happy Summer Solstice Peak Daylight Hours The spring has gone by so fast. I've been keeping busy. Wish I could say I was having fun but that would not be the reason time has gone by so quickly. This has... Continue reading
Posted Jun 21, 2015 at Question Everything
@All, Please forgive my tardiness in replies. Finishing up the last quarter at school was, I will just say, interesting. I also needed to finish a paper I will be giving at the International Society for Systems Science conference in Berlin in August so it has kept me busy. ------------------------------------ @Ugo, Thanks. Good points made there. ------------------------------------ @ChemEng, Things have changed dramatically over my lifetime but even more so just in the last decade. Since I posted this blog I've had a chance to talk with a number of other academics who have confirmed this observation of a dramatic downturn in student attitudes toward learning and how they perceive teachers. I'm going to turn out to be one of the lucky ones who caught the tail end of an era when "higher education" was more about intellectual growth and development and less about just getting a job. -------------------------------------- @BC, While I certainly agree that the way we are going about managing our economic activities (which is to say managing them so that the 1% get wealthier at everyone else's expense) I'm not in agreement that this "feminization" of which you speak is a cause. I'll admit there is a concerted effort to be more inclusive of under represented gender (i.e. women) in high tech degrees, for example, but isn't this more of an effect rather than a cause? Besides how could including more women in various economic sectors with more powerful voices cause education to go down the toilet??? I think the more likely cause is the invasion of neoliberal capitalism thinking into the education process and most of that can be laid at the feet of men. ------------------------------------- @RE, I'm writing about college level. I've known for a while about K-12, I sent two boys through that system. It is only recently that the dramatic effects of NCLB and standardized testing have started to affect upper division college. For as long back as I remember teachers have always bemoaned the ill preparedness of students in all grades (I've even heard kindergarten teachers complain!) so that really isn't new. What is new is this attitude of entitlement to good grades (GPA) and the piece of paper at the end without having to do any really hard work or suffer the sometimes stress of learning. That is what this post was about. -------------------------------------- @juggle, A classic. For a long time education has been tending toward commodification due to the growth of population, the consumption mentality that Carlin talks about, and the decline of true economic wealth production that has been going on since the mid-70s. --------------------------------------- @V. Cochran, That is the sad part for me. I got into higher ed in order to actually make a difference in people's lives. And even though I have pushed a lot of students over the years, many of whom did resent it, at least temporarily,I think that for most of my time in the profession I did just that. But now the pressures from above to acquiesce to student demands for "easy" and the almost hateful attitudes I have witness of late, make it impossible to do anything more. I will endure one more year so that I can exit gracefully but it will also be with great sadness that it has gotten this bad. ------------------------------------- @Don Stewart, My question to you: Do you think that broad focus Systems Theory courses can survive in the kind of environment you have described? The simple answer is no. My purpose in writing that book was to bring all of the seemingly disparate threads of systems science together under one roof and get the basics (the principles) preserved for when some small segment of a population (should one exist) will be able to start asking questions again and be ready to learn some seed knowledge to make a new start. By that I don't mean to build a new technological society, but a more human society based on understanding of how a social system is just a subsystem of the Ecos. I am looking for a medium in which the essences of the principles can be preserved with a longer shelf life than ordinary books. If anyone has any ideas please let me know. -------------------------------------- @Sari, Thank you for the kind words. I do plan to continue my efforts to record what I have learned in a series of books that will build on the principles in my textbook. The first, which is being shopped around as we speak, will be on Sapience and how it is the key to all veridical and moral decision making and so is a necessary element in our future. I have plans for books on systems science applied to governance, economics, education (of course), science and technology, and a few others. All will use my version so systems analysis to identify the critical processes, stocks, and flows, etc. in all of these. My hope is that it will start some people thinking. I will be posting some snippets from those efforts here from time to time. You are right about the really intelligent kids with indomitable curiosities and the will to bypass the system. -------------------------------------- @Michael Murphy, Yes, our culture is a prime factor in our inability to grasp what is going on. Ergo we will continue down the same path to destruction and never realize it until it is too late. -------------------------------------- @Paul Chefurka, But keep on reflecting! I've gotten inspiration from your writings in the past. Hope to continue to do so in the future. George
@Ugo, Amen to that brother! I have decided to stop using the phrase "higher education." Upon some more reflection I realize that it is neither higher nor education. Instead I will call it "extended schooling." And even that is being generous. George
The Hopeless State of Education If you have been reading QE for a while you know that I have a pretty dim view of the education system in this country and increasingly being adopted around the world. The colonization of... Continue reading
Posted Jun 6, 2015 at Question Everything
@Rodster, There does seem to be a positive (reinforcing) feedback loop between wealth representation (money) and population, but it isn't totally clear what the relation is. People were making more people long before there was even money. The biggest single factor was net energy per capita. When we went from hunting with stones to hunting with spears that took a big leap and led to the success of Homo over other extant genera, e.g. Australopithecus. About 200 years ago there was a really strong correlation between the money supply and the availability of net free energy. Debt was limited so the multiplier effect on money was minimal compared with the overall economies of the time. So, again, the relation between money and population might have been more straightforward. But today, with the extreme versions of debt-creation of money the relation is terribly distorted. Also, it seems that the more nominal wealth that someone has (e.g. "owning" a heavily mortgaged house) the fewer children they have. Wealthy nations (those still hiding their sins behind massive debt) have the lowest birth rates! So granted there is a relation, but it just isn't clear how it works. ------------------------------------- @Ian S., I got a 404 error when trying your link. Better check the spelling. The stages of civilization and engineering you describe cannot be denied, but what made the dynamic possible was the progressive finding of cheaper energy sources, that is much higher EROI sources with substantial net gains. With coal and then oil, we could afford to start out with fairly inefficient machines because the fuels had progressively higher energy content per unit weight so we could afford some slop in the efficiency ratings (and we learned a lot about thermodynamic efficiency in the process!) My question is what would be the next high energy content source after oil and natural gas? In spite of all the hype about alternatives my own reading of the data is that they are a long way off from the kinds of net energy gains that would be needed to even power a much reduced form of current technological society. In my view the jury is still out on the verdict of go or no-go for alternatives. Extreme reduced consumption and a very low energy lifestyle (with lots of liberal conservation thrown into the mix) is a certain winner. ---------------------------------------- @hitssquad, I'm talking about net free energy per capita, not raw energy produced (primary energy consumption includes the energy used to get more energy). The numbers you quote do not take into account the amount of that energy it took to obtain that amount. Subtract that amount (use average EROI for all sources as a rough approximation) from the numbers and then divide by the population to get the free energy per capita. That is the number that tells how much wealth or prospective wealth there is per person in the world. Even though the primary (gross) numbers have been climbing, the net numbers have barely kept pace. And if certain results on declining EROI hold then even net energy may be declining. Population has been increasing, even if not as fast as it use to. So with slowing net energy increase and increasing total population the amount of usable energy for the economy per individual is in decline. George
Toggle Commented May 24, 2015 on Civilization Collapse 3.0 at Question Everything
@Tony N., Thanks for the pointer. RE: Dennett's quote, the difference between prediction and anticipation is that in the former you need to see it happen in order to be successful, whereas in the latter you need to take action to prevent it from happening in order to be successful. E.g. predicting the prey will get away doesn't put food in the stomach. On your last point, another reason why localization is our best hope. Thanks George
Toggle Commented May 22, 2015 on Civilization Collapse 3.0 at Question Everything
@All, This blog has generated some good commentary but it has also seemingly generated a flood of e-mails, and requests to friend on Facebook or link on Linkedin. As far as social media is concerned I have a pretty strict policy. Facebook is restricted to family and a few good friends (that I know in real life!). Linkedin is reserved for people I actually know personally and professionally. That means mostly former students and business/academic associates. Please refrain from asking me to make a connection via these media as I am flooded with such requests and simply do not have the time to filter through them to see if any are from people that fit this policy. I would really appreciate your consideration on this. As for e-mails, I try to respond to all legitimate queries about the blog or my research/book. But the volume of these has gone up since the publication of my book. Since I still work and have plenty of emails from that arena, I am finding I too often am passing over emails from readers. So again, I request that you consider carefully whether you really need to contact me. At least carefully word the subject line so I can understand the priority I need to assign it. Respectfully, but pleadingly yours, George
Toggle Commented May 21, 2015 on Civilization Collapse 3.0 at Question Everything
@murray g., Thanks. -------------------------------------- @Desmond Smith aka Tom S., This will sound dismissive. Well that is because it is. What I read in your comments is something close to hysterical ranting. Here is what I suggest. You write a scientifically formed paper and bring it to the Biophysical Economics conference in Vancouver BC in October. It's too late to submit a paper, but bring copies to distribute around. Face the people you criticize directly and make your claims (hopefully substantiated by more than more claims that others are misreading what you wrote). Better still get published in a reputable peer-reviewed journal. And then let us know where we can read your work. A blog doesn't cut it. I don't expect anyone to read what I write here as if it were peer reviewed, except for the papers I have posted that have undergone peer review. This blog is me trying to inform interested readers about what is happening from my perspective and report on the important scientific work that applies. It is not a forum for pseudo-science debate. So I will say goodbye to you. You can post more if you like. I will let readers decide for themselves what your words are worth. But I will not be responding to you any more. ------------------------------------------ George
Toggle Commented May 21, 2015 on Civilization Collapse 3.0 at Question Everything
@xraymike, Good stuff to be sure. Downloaded the full paper and will be going over it. But either he has been reading my biophysical econ blogs (with my science papers in them) or, more likely, he too has seen the clear relationship between energy and wealth production (e.g. we both use a decay factor to show the decline of wealth as energy inputs decline). Thanks for the links. George
Toggle Commented May 20, 2015 on Civilization Collapse 3.0 at Question Everything
@Desmond/Tom S., I did read the website. Here is what I am talking about: As an example, the paper[4] from C Hall (What is the Minimum EROI that a Sustainable Society Must Have?) calculates the EROI of oil. However, it includes the energy cost of freeways, automobiles, and so on. That is a mistake, because those things are energy consumption, not energy investments to obtain energy. Hall et al have explained very reasonably the ways in which they count embodied energy in infrastructure apportioned to energy production (that portion of a road cost used to transport fuels for example). People in the business of calculating EROI have long recognized that the boundaries for energy expenditures must be large enough to take these factors into account. In this statement you simply claim that it is a mistake by saying (not demonstrating) that it is consumption rather than investment (the embodied energy). This is a strange claim given that when we build a refinery, for example, we consume resources in its construction. However those resources are invested in the future production of fuels so it is definitely investment. The next sentence is a red herring: "If you include all energy consumption as energy investment, then the EROI of every energy source is 1." Hall has never come close to trying to include ALL energy used for everything so this statement, while factually true as far as it goes does not do justice to the calculations actually done. In Error #2: It would be highly surprising if solar PV cells failed on exactly the day their warranty expired. For example, I bought a car with a 50,000 mile warranty, but it didn't cease working at 50,000 miles. Another red herring. And Hall etc did not just choose the warranty period as representing the life cycle for useful energy production. There is, however a strong correlation between warranty period lengths and actual average life times for panels so 25 years is not arbitrary. From your prior comment: Civilization is not facing declines in net free energy per capita. You proceed to speculate about the meaning of China's consumption of coal, I suspect making the same error of reasoning about what is investment vs. consumption. But you do not provide numbers or a calculation of what you mean by free energy per capita. Trust me that over the years I have seen many papers attempting to show higher EROI for alternatives and speculations re: supplying BAU with enough energy to run and even grow our economy. Most of them have long since been debunked by deeper analysis and widening the boundaries. My own efforts at analysis show that solar PV cannot yet supply enough net free energy to both supply consumption needs (which I define quite precisely) and the work needed to replace the solar system over its useful life. In order to be successful, alternative energy sources need to supply both power to society for economic work and power to their replacement industries to do so (that doesn't even get into maintenance). Once again I will point out that I have been writing this blog for many years and have both questioned my own beliefs as well as shouldered criticisms. However I do insist that when someone makes a factual claim of any kind they be ready to back it up with evidence and not just more claims. The website you suggested would not meet the standards of rigor for scientific work and therefore would not be admissible as a standalone argument against EROI or Energy-LCA work. Nor does it provide any evidence for your claims that, essentially, energy is abundant.
Toggle Commented May 20, 2015 on Civilization Collapse 3.0 at Question Everything
@Robert V. RE: capitalism. I strongly recommend Naomi Klein's latest book, "This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate." I hear more and more reasoned criticism of neoliberal capitalism and its effects on humanity. ------------------------------------- @Desmond S., Interesting comment. You make a number of claims but fail to provide any real evidence. The link you provided is pretty flimsy as well. I went through it and found most of the arguments about errors to be in error. I would suggest that if you want to have your claims taken seriously you do more than just state such-and-such is so. In your paragraph re: "falsifiability problems" you argue that large organizations have always had dysfunction problems. True enough. But it is also the case that those very dysfunctions, if not corrected, lead to demise of the organization. Most, if not all, of the historical civilization collapses have now been linked to various forms of governance dysfunctions under environmental stresses that in turn led to collapse so thanks for verifying my thesis. I suspect you are new to reading QE since you seem unaware of prior posts, including some of my scientific work, that led to this particular argument. Next time you visit and feel inclined to make unsubstantiated claims, consider not wasting our time please. George
Toggle Commented May 20, 2015 on Civilization Collapse 3.0 at Question Everything
@Steven K. When you look at the larger scope of the situation and dig just a little into any one aspect it is hard to not be cynical re: any supposed solutions, especially those that would purport to save civilization as it is. Agreed. ------------------------------------ @Rob, Libraries do seem to work well still in spite of the stresses of changing technology and lack of adequate resources. A very ancient and venerable institution, the curation and dissemination of the aggregate of human knowledge must find some way to survive as long as there are people, even after collapse or a population bottleneck. ----------------------------------- @Richard P., I'm not sure you can characterize evolution as making a mistake. That we are no longer fit for the environmental conditions that we have created (the Anthropocene) is not a mistake any more than the generation of excess oxygen by cyanobacteria 2+ billion years ago was a mistake. It just is the way things work. As for: Still, a lot is better than it has ever been in the history of mankind. Better for whom? The benefactors of technology and energy are a smaller percentage of the whole population and growing smaller as income distribution continues to skew toward the 1%. I'm not sure you could back up those claims with solid evidence. I agree that no one can see the details of the future, but seeing the big picture that is the result of resource constraints doesn't take any special ability. While I acknowledge that some "miracle" energy source might be in the offing, the likelihood is extremely small. And unless it came about, the demise of civilization is certain. Only the time frame is subject to uncertainty. -------------------------------------- @Bill R., I have not paid much attention to small city or many local community governance structures. I suspect that they are under the same pressures as the larger scale systems but because the "issues" are local, simpler, and more transparent those governing probably have a better handle on work arounds to problems. In any case, I have long advocated for re-localization as a survival strategy, for the reasons mentioned here. -------------------------------------- @Gail T. Hi Gail. That is not good news about Cuba. They had long been held out as an example of survival resulting from de-complexificaton post the Soviet Union withdrawal of support. They were touted as evidence of an ability to operate a reasonable society at a lower energy flow level. I look forward to you writing something about their situation in Our Finite World. ------------------------------------ @Don C., Actually I have written a good deal about money in the past and only give a nod to those posts in this one. Simply put, real money is not more than a tokenized information system used to regulate the flow of energy (the real physical currency of an economy). But as mentioned in the post here, that system has been so distorted by financialization that it no longer serves the original purpose. ------------------------------------ @Harry G., Sometime back in 8/2011 I started a series of posts regarding this. See, for example: The Goal - Episode 1. The posts are scattered throughout the site so you may have to do some searching. ------------------------------------ @Don S. Thanks for the plug. But I couldn't agree more that at the level of one individual or small groups some humans are doing good stuff. It just doesn't seem to scale to the scope that has the most impact on us all. ------------------------------------ @Louis A., Thank you. And you are absolutely right. One other commentator characterized my writing as showing "despair". In reality if I were really in despair I probably wouldn't write about this at all. Once we give up the notion of a technological whiz-bang future with a global governance apparatus, and get back to human basics - small-scale communities - we can build a livable, perhaps even more enjoyable, future. ------------------------------------ @xraymike79, Actually optimal foraging theory played a big role in my development of robot foraging as the basis for a learning algorithm! Neither societies nor individuals necessarily need to consume all they can. Both have natural growth limits. The difference between an individual and a population or society is that the former has built-in (evolved) regulation mechanisms that down modulate growth once those limits are approached. The latter do not. However, given that the decision agents in a social system were sapient enough, and knowledgeable enough about natural governance systems (like those in a body) it is perfectly reasonable (IMO) to expect that the same kind of internal growth-limiting regulatory systems could be employed. Unfortunately, human societies are too much like population systems and fail to install the necessary mechanisms. So we grow beyond boundaries. ------------------------------------- @Cantab, May those of us who can understand the dynamics of society and grasp the bigger picture remain sane and able to enjoy the sunrises. George
Toggle Commented May 19, 2015 on Civilization Collapse 3.0 at Question Everything