Calamities of (human) Nature

By Phil Plait | January 9, 2011 12:02 pm

I’ve been reading the web comic "Calamities of Nature" off and on for a while, but after this one I’ve put it in my feed reader. Click to see the whole comic.

I might quibble about the number of zeroes in that panel — it depends on what you mean by "understand", versus "have an idea about" — but the rest of it is right on (so to speak) the money.


Comments (27)

  1. Zucchi

    I don’t know if it’s an “easy problem”. Another answer might be that, while scientific knowledge can be gained by a tiny minority of the population working devotedly in their particular fields, solving great social problems like poverty and inequity requires an effort in that direction — or at least a lack of opposition — by a majority, or at least by those controlling use of resources.

  2. Navneeth

    Now, only if we could model poverty as a spherical cow in vacuum…

  3. Since Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 “Great Society,” the US has invested more than $20 trillion on poverty. Two material observations are forthcoming over the past 35 years:

    1) Subsidizing poverty renders it a vocation. Its numbers explode.
    2) Confiscating from the productive and awarding to the deserving, less postage and handling, destroys a nation from the inside.

    The solution to ending poverty is to end charity. Every American is entitled to one annual mean GDP/population-lifetime tax-free, amount set at the moment of first draw. (Currently ($1.5299×10^13)/(3.11×10^8) = $49,200.) Use it to attend school, cover medical expenses, provide shelter against a rainy day… or buy beer. That is all you ever get from the public trough.

    No external aid whatsover. If a society wants 21st century population density sustained by 14th century beliefs, let the universe pass jugdement good and hard. Government cannot award people what it first has not stolen from them. What one man receives without effort is confiscated from another who labors. My paycheck is my property, to be used as I see fit. Robbers will be shot.

  4. Uncle Al:

    Your conclusions are supported by what? How is it even remotely possible to conclude “what might have been” if Johnson’s “great society” ideals had not been implemented? For all you know, things might have been worse. The country could have erupted into civil war, destroyed itself, and been taken over by Sierra Leone. Or, things might have been pretty much the same.

    You have no way of knowing, other than pulling speculations out of a hole.

  5. Gerald

    Nice! I remember reading this particular comic and thinking, “That reminds me of the Bad Astronomer!”

  6. Rev. Brown Note

    Uncle Al, would rather watch children starve than be fed.

  7. Chris W

    Uncle Al,

    If the playing field were level, I’d be the first on board with your ethic. But those born into poverty, etc., don’t have anywhere near the opportunities to labor for just pay that those born into comfortable environments enjoy. And in a (God bless this) capitalist society we make our money because others are willing or forced, by circumstances and not just innate laziness or failures of ambition or intelligence, to labor for less and let us reap the profits — and this makes us responsible in some way (naming the amount is a matter of conscience) for the poor. Rhetoric of “stealing” what’s ours masks the fact that the paychecks we receive come at the expense of others.

    Putting politics aside, though, your statistic on poverty is (self?) deceiving. There are too many factors to bother naming that complicate the apparent correlation between these two hand-picked facts about poverty — but, even if by some miracle they were indeed correlated, you are nowhere near the tidy cause-and-effect relationship that would be so comfortable for the already-comfortable to believe. I think you need to keep digging at this one, and I hope you do.


  8. Gonçalo Aguiar

    “There is no human nature. There is human behavior” – Jacques Fresco

  9. Ron1

    @3. Uncle Al

    Interesting post which leaves me to wonder, out of curiosity, what year in the 1300’s were you born?

  10. Laogai

    “And in a (God bless this) capitalist society we make our money because others are willing or forced, by circumstances and not just innate laziness or failures of ambition or intelligence, to labor for less and let us reap the profits […] the paychecks we receive come at the expense of others.”

    Our paychecks don’t come at the expense of anyone else. Some people get paid more than others because what they can offer society is desired more, or by more people, so other people will pay more to get them to do it.

    The creation of wealth is all about solving problems people face, giving people what they want and need. We help solve problems for other people, and they solve problems for us. Currency represents the imbalance between what we have done for society, and what society has done for us. And the more educated and technologically capable people are, the greater the number of them so educated, the better it is for everyone, the better off everybody will be.

    The solution to poverty is not charity – that is at best a temporary stop-gap, put in place until a more permanent solution can be found. The solution to poverty is to enable people to help others – by education, infrastructure, liberty, and information. The solution to poverty is to create more wealth – which means to solve more problems people want solving.

    We are already on the path, but have a way to go yet.

  11. Chief

    #10 “paid more than others because what they can offer…”

    Hmm, wonder about the CEO bonuses handed out for minimum work or just before the company folds, etc.

    Unfortunately one of the major causes of a persons block to getting ahead and out of poverty locations/status is that of those who control the management/government functions and are unwilling to stop thinking of things as a me only world and prevent others from stepping up. The individual person really only wants to enjoy life, with family and give back to those around him/her.

  12. Ema Nymton

    Holy crap!

    Uncle Al is a worthless fvck!

  13. Gary Ansorge

    There are several things society could do that would minimize poverty.

    1) guarantee free access to air
    2) water
    3) food
    4) minimal shelter
    5) education(to the limits of your ability and desire)
    6) General health care(excluding the high end, such as organ transplants)

    Anything else you desire, you have to work for. I’ll just note that the Scandinavian countries have nearly NO poor and THEY’RE not bankrupt.

    Even in low tech tribal societies, everyone had equal access to food, water(air, of course, was free and presumably clean) and shelter. Everyone also contributed to the tribe, according to their ability. It worked well for us for several hundred thousand years,,,then we invented hierarchical civilization and the poor we have had with us ever since.

    Suck on THAT Al,,,you old reprobate,,,

    Gary 7
    PS. It’s not literally the fault of civilization that we have poor folk. It IS the fault of a hierarchical structure, since those at the bottom of the pyramid define what we mean by poor.

  14. Astrofiend

    Uncle Al, while I agree with some of your sentiment, namely that endless charity is not the answer to poverty, I’m sure you are aware that the dividends of labour are not equal for everyone in the world. Kids in China put in 18 hour days for remuneration consisting of food and shelter alone, if that. Kids in Africa toil endlessly just to get polluted drinking water and one measly meal per day. I’m sure you haven’t worked that hard to accrue your wealth.

    This is why I’m such a fan of the concept of micro-loaning (particularly in countries like Africa and South-East Asia. People get loaned small amounts on low interest – as low as $20, by various banks or private ‘shareholders’ through aid organizations to set up a small business like a food stall, shop, car wash or whatever. They then make their own cash, pay the loan back, continue their business and get off the public purse. The default rate on the loan repayments is actually supposed to be extremely low, because most people in these situations DO want to do something with themselves. Obviously it won;t work with out-and-out bludgers, but I think it is a fantastic way of addressing poverty (after all, you need money to make money) using the very finest principles of capitalism. Honest, hard workers win, which is what capitalism is supposed to be about. Mind you, I still think that there is a place for charity – if you’re such a scrooge that you aren’t willing to give up even a little out of your plenty to feed some starving kid in Africa, or some mentally ill homeless guy who probably got that way as an ex-vet forgotten by his country, then it must be a sad life you lead.

    Anyway, back on topic – the comic is reminiscent of a Feynman talk, where he said (to paraphrase) that society often wonders why scientists devote their time and money to such esoteric topics while there are fundamental and basic problems for humanity that require great minds to work on them. Feynman’s answer was that 1) social problems are very much harder to solve than scientific problems, and that 2) he believes that scientists working on non-scientific problems are just as dumb as the next guy.

    Being a scientist myself, I couldn’t agree more.

  15. Pete Jackson

    I don’t think there is any fixed answer to the poverty question. Initially, charity (government or otherwise) really helps people to live more productive lives and to contribute to the economy. Only problem is that if this aid is readily available, the number needing it tends to keep growing until the limit of available charity is reached. Only by cutting people off can you really find out who can make it by themselves versus those who cannot. I don’t mean to make any moral judgments here, I’m just presenting a what seems to be an observed fact of human nature.

  16. David

    Poverty is a relative term. Does a person living in the jungles of the Amazon live in poverty? His lifestyle is very primitive but he probably has a home, and he has a reliable food and water supply. Is that poverty or are we talking about a persons living conditions relative to the average living conditions of others in his society?

    You can’t compare living conditions in the U.S. to conditions in a more primitive country. Compared to the developed world, yes, most of the world is living in poverty. But that’s not a fair comparison.

  17. QuietDesperation

    I did too much volunteer work in college and saw people who were given every chance in the world, and the information they needed to make the right choices, still make all the wrong choices. There’s just some self destructive element to human nature that I doubt we will ever escape. It’s beyond ideology or economics. Sorry to be a downer, but that’s how it is.

    I’ll just note that the Scandinavian countries have nearly NO poor and THEY’RE not bankrupt.

    Well, poverty rates are low but “nearly no” is a bit of hype for most values of no. 😉

    The assumption that low poverty rates in Scandinavia are a result of political/economic decisions is a lazy one. I’d venture to guess that Scandinavians living in the USA also enjoy a low poverty rate. The reasons are more historical and sociological, and have a solid foundation of work ethic and mutual cooperation. And if you look closely, the foundation does have some cracks.

  18. Of course, the historical and sociological reasons had a direct influence on political/economic decisions. In just a couple of decades, Sweden moved from one of the poorest countries in Europe (in the late 19th century, a third of the population emigrated due to famine etc) to one with the highest standard of living in the world and, simultaneously, with the smallest gap between rich and poor. This is essentially the result of the economic and political policies of the social democratic party (which of course has roots in historical and sociological tradition).

    One has to distinguish as well between absolute and relative poverty. The former is clear (though one has to correct low income if the prices are low as well). The latter is usually defined as earning less than x% or the average income, so if everyone’s salary increases by a factor of a million, the fraction of the poor remains the same.

  19. Skrim

    Inequality and poverty aren’t things that will EVER go away. I mean really – it isn’t possible for everyone to equal, and in any society, some people will always be richer than others (who will inevitably be called ‘poor’ since their relative wealth is lower).

    At best, you could try and decrease the gap a little.

    On the bright side, absolute wealth is higher today than ever before. To quote Matt Ridley, “today, of Americans designated as ‘poor’, 99% have electricity, running water, flush toilets and a refrigerator, 95% have television, 88% a telephone, 71% a car and 70% air conditioning. Cornelius Vanderbilt had none of these.” Or “ask how much artificial light you can earn with an hour of work at the average wage. The amount has increased from 24 lumen-hours in 1750 BC (sesame oil lamp) to 186 in 1800 AD (tallow candle) to 4400 in 1880 (kerosene lamp) to 531000 in 1950 (incandescent bulb) to 8400000 today (compact fluorescent bulb)… An hour of work today earns you 300 days’ worth of reading light; an hour of work in 1800 earned you ten minutes of reading light.” (Quotes from the book ‘The Rational Optimist’)

    Of course, no one cares about the overall upward trend, the inexorable continuing rise of human civilization, since humans are hardwired to look only at relative status (read: wealth) with other contemporary humans in their society, and not with other societies or time periods.

    But my point is that it’s not as if science and technology have done nothing to improve the human condition, as if scientists were just self-centered academics working away in their ivory towers trying to work out arcane mysteries for their own amusement. No. It’s that the whole game has been kicked up a notch or twenty, thanks in a large part to science.

    Poverty will always exist in some way or the other. It exists even in animals, if not in the form of money – some individuals are always lower on the pecking order than others, and LOTS of species have hierarchies, not just humans. But what we humans have uniquely is a sort of mass empathy, the genes for which originally evolved probably to help the overall survival of the tribes humans used to live in (and therefore the tribe’s common genes), but who’s phenotypes later manifested as general empathy towards all humans as we began living in larger groups, towns and cities. And hence we can feel for those less fortunate, and want to help them. And that may not be a bad thing, I think.

  20. Steffen

    The Economist had a very interesting infographic some time ago about world hunger (unfortunately, it’s in the subscription section now, therefore I cannot post a link).

    The percentage of undernourished people in the world is shrinking continuously. In the 70s, more than 35% of the world populace was undernourished. Now, it’s less than 15%. I remember the devastating hunger catastrophes of the 70s. The situation is much, much better nowadays.

    A second article in the Economist (also, unfortunately no link), addressed overpopulation. Interestingly, fertility rates are falling worldwide, with astonishing speed. In England, it took more than 100 years to reduce the mean fertility ratio of 8 children/woman to less than 2 children/woman. In Iran, the same took less than a generation. Nowadays, mainly only some sub-saharan countries have very high fertility rates. It is very doubtful whether the world population will ever come even near to 10 billion. And lets see what the future brings … some people are even talking about a coming economic boom and emerging middle class in the ‘forgotten continent’ (= Africa). With a better economy and better education, even sub-saharan Africa will shake off the yoke of religious superstition, like it happens everywhere.

    Countries like India, whole continents like South America are completely different now compared to 50 years ago. Brazil is developing a strong, well-established middle class.

    The world IS getting better. The problem is: It is getting better slowly and gradually, therefore nobody seems to notice. It is not something which can be done overnight, but rather something which needs to be built over decades. And it is happening.

    (Side note: Of course, I don’t want to say that everything is nice and merry. Global Warming. Increasing religious fanaticism. Dwindling resources. And a lot more.)

  21. QuietDesperation

    Of course, the historical and sociological reasons had a direct influence on political/economic decisions.

    But more importantly they have a direct influence on the day to day actions and decisions of individuals. Too many people insist on looking at poverty as strictly as failure of whatever system they are living in, and ignore the dimension of personal responsibility. No, that doesn’t mean you go down Uncle Al’s path. It’s just something that needs to be factored in by certain ideological types who think you can wave a magic money wand and make all the problems go away.

  22. Richard Wolford

    Our paychecks don’t come at the expense of anyone else. Some people get paid more than others because what they can offer society is desired more, or by more people, so other people will pay more to get them to do it.

    Oil Company CEOs.

    Position refuted.

  23. Gary Ansorge

    22. Richard Wolford

    Oil company CEOs, bankers and a few others get paid a lot more for their labor than the average Joe, however they are also among the best educated and experienced at their particular occupation. Note that oil companies(and banks) will not continue to pay these high wages if the CEO takes the company down an income slope. Of course, a truly savvy CEO will have their “golden parachute” but that’s just negotiation,ie, if you want ME, I want some guarantees, just in case the unexpected screws the pooch.

    I see no advantage to screwing the least able in society just because they’re less talented than others. Note that in less inflated times, ONLY the top ten percent paid ANY income taxes(in the 1950s, annual income below $10,000/yr was untaxed, except for Social Security and 90 % of the population made a lot less than that yet were able to buy a house, a car and raise a family).

    Raising the tax rate on very high earners is in line with the way we used to do things. It’s only since the late 1960s that most people were earning enough to pay income taxes at all so I see no reason not to continue taxing the rich at higher rates than the middle class. You can be as greedy as you want as long as you pay a bigger share back into the kitty.

    Gary 7

  24. Mike Burkhart

    Ok Ill tell you how to solve poverty :GET RID OF MONEY thats the only way I see ,after all if there no money then there would be no rich or poor no haves and have nots. Now what should replace Money? and how do we have an economic system without money? I have’nt figured that part out yet, if any one hase any ideas droop me a line.

  25. QuietDesperation

    Now what should replace Money? and how do we have an economic system without money?

    Who rules Bartertown?

    I have’nt figured that part out yet, if any one hase any ideas droop me a line.

    Master Blaster rules Bartertown!

    To the Thunderdome with ye!

  26. Lynxreign

    I used to read the strip, mostly because you linked to it here. I stopped because he frequently almost seems to understand the science he’s talking about, missing the mark as often as not. The last straw was his misogynistic “joke” about marriage that is as old as the hills. He felt compelled to defend it in the comments and it is clear that he doesn’t really understand why people complained.


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