Modern thinking in western societies revolves around choices and individual responsibility. You are supposed to choose the right product from the supermarket shelf. The right spouse. A right circle of friends. A right carrier path. The right candidate on an election. The right cause to fight for. It all depends on you — you should know the consequences of these (and many more) choices and decide rationally.
This is exactly what modern economic thinking founded by Adam Smith teaches us about rationality. You should weigh the costs and benefits and make a decision. If you are a responsible person then — living in our modern age threatened by climate chaos — all you need to do is make the right choices: eat less (or no) meat, buy an electric vehicle, fly less, opt for renewables (they are supposed to be the cheapest source of electricity anyway!) and the list goes on. If you are a more radical person you can join a group and go protesting. If you make a wrong choice though, while you are preaching environmentalism… well, then you are a hypocrite. By choice of course (which makes you evil and thus rightly discredited).
From this perspective it is perfectly clear: all we need to do is to make the right decisions and fight against evil groups (hypocrites, the polluting elite, oil companies and so on). Based on this rationale everyone should join the good cause and together we can save the planet.
I beg to differ: there is a fly in this tasty soup, a paradox if you will. All I have written above was clear at least since the early 70’s. OK, the proposed solutions were different, but there was a very strong green movement aimed at getting rid of pollution and reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. Later, in 1988 Dr. James Hansen, Director, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies made a testimony in front of the Senate informing the the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources that “global warming is now large enough that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship to the greenhouse effect”. In other words: we are heating up our planet and we have evidence. Let’s see what happened since then: we had a Kyoto-protocol (1992), a Paris Agreement (2015), and 25 international conferences on the topic. Can you spot any of them on the chart below?
Well, I cannot. Something must be wrong here… There were innumerable protests, a lot of people taking action, convincing each other what is the right thing to do, a lot of policies were enacted, carbon trading schemes established… everything should be fine by now. Apparently it’s not (as illustrated above).
The common response to this paradox is that there are evil groups (corporate elite, oil companies, capitalists chasing nothing but profit etc.) who are sowing doubt and preventing good things from happening. “We need to wake people up!” While there is truth in this — the answer as usual is not so simple… And here is a small rabbit hole going very deep: there is much more to this matter than a fight between good and evil.
The red pill
What I’m about to write here is no easy stuff. After pondering over a year about this topic (why and how did we get here?) this has became the primary reason to start this blog. In my introduction I wrote: “I’ve accidentally took the red pill, but Morpheus was nowhere to warn me…” so here is my warning to you before you take yours:
I’m going to discuss some pretty though topics here. If you feel a slight discomfort, it’s OK. Sit with it. Take a walk and contemplate. Or discuss it with a friend. If you find it hard to accept or very disturbing, please look for a lighter read. My aim is not push you into depression — quite the contrary. I wish to help you coming out on the other side to find a peace of mind in this turbulent world.
Do not take this lightly, if you feel like that you are an unstable person, having problems with your relations, or with alcohol/drugs/depression I highly recommend to stop reading here. On the other hand if you want to see the world from a radically different perspective and you are in stable mood then read on. It will be wild ride.
The “if everyone…” fallacy
As a child I recall my Mom always telling me: “Don’t throw that rubbish away; if everyone would be doing that the street would be full of it!”. It made me wonder: who is everyone, and why everyone is throwing trash in the can? It made me think “everyone” must have the same idea about rubbish — so everyone should think about it the same way as we do. It is so obvious, isn’t it? Trash belongs to the bin, and the streets are much better without them.
At a later age — some decades later — after I’ve met many people I had to realize the world is not so simple. There are rather different personalities with different goals, values, upbringing, education and so on. Not to mention areas of interest… Then I met a colleague with whom I simply could not work together. It was a painful experience so I wanted to understand the whys in order to move on with a solution. I looked at various personality tests to check if it has something to do with our case.
I ended up using the MBTI model which describes sixteen different personalities. What a rabbit hole it was! I highly encourage you to take the test (it’s free) and read about the different types (or use another type indicator — it doesn’t matter). What matters is that the “we” as “humanity” are not a homogeneous mass with the same way of thinking. There are rather stark differences in orientation towards the self or others, interest in different time scales, using good/bad feelings vs cold rationale in judging, or how fast is that judgement is made for that matter. It made me understand that probably we are never going to be able to work together — and none of us is to blame. Our brain is wired differently and we simply talk two different languages.
There is no such thing as “everyone” I came to realize. Not only people differ in ways of thinking, but stand on totally different (sometimes opposing) moral grounds (try to convince a Neo-nazi or a conspiracy theorist about climate change or resource depletion and they will come up with rather different ideas instead). Most of the people — I came to realize — simply do not really care about the issues I write about here (neither climate change nor resource depletion) — they simply acknowledge it, then move on with their lives.
These topics are hard to explain, even harder to understand and almost impossible to see all the implications they bring with themselves. These things are really complex — so much so that it is almost impossible to hold them in one’s head. That was reason #2 to start this blog: I had to record my thoughts somewhere to make space in my head. Reason #3 was to make an attempt at explaining them despite their complexity—I can’t help but try.
The word hyperobjects originates from philosopher Timothy Morton: these are “entities of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that they defeat traditional ideas about what a thing is in the first place”. Put more simply they are too big and complex (having a time span much larger than a human life). We have not evolved to understand them. Examples include: the global climate, the economy of goods and services, biodiversity and the intricate web of life. Homo sapiens — after developing speech and abstract thinking — spent the next 60–70 thousand years of it’s history as a member of hunter-gatherer tribes. Our brain is a result of a multi-million year long selection process aimed at equipping us with all the features required to cope with the challenges the savanna and other ecosystems has to offer. It has evolved to make predictive models on the behavior of animals and weather by discovering patterns; to make connections with fellow humans in our tribe; to tell stories explaining how stuff works to youngsters and to attract a mate to keep the cycle of creation going.
It has not evolved on the other hand to understand the workings of the atmosphere on a molecular level or to measure up the mineral resources of an entire planet. Deep in our hearts we just want to have friends and family around and have a good time. And that is perfectly OK. We should be sitting around the campfire right now sharing stories and not staring at liquid crystal displays trying to decrypt written symbols about the end of our civilization. We’ve got pretty far with science — at least compared to other apes — and now we are reaching our limits. Quantum mechanics and a unified theory of everything is well beyond the capabilities for the most — if not all — of us. What would be it’s use anyway for someone hunting gazelles with a spear…?
The great march of science in the last couple of centuries certainly failed to provide enough time for evolution to come up with a better brain. We did our best to aid its working (from inventing writing and mathematics to super-computers) but we are at the end of this process. Another cycle of intellectual “progress” is soon coming close to it’s end — similar to the rise and fall of Greek, Roman, Arab, Hindu etc. intellectualism. This era of science follows the same pattern. The signs are everywhere: consensus is falling apart in front of our eyes in almost all scientific areas. We have started to mess with so complex ideas that even the most talented of us could not handle — let alone replicate (here and here).
After coming to terms with this point above it has started to became clear for me that a solution will not come from enough people wanting to change course for the better. A good portion of people either doesn’t care or simply could not get it. Another portion is in plain denial (and you would be surprised how stubborn they can be on topics so well researched). Even if some get the idea that there is a problem with our way of life, they simply cannot get the big picture and resort to magical thinking (renewables come to mind here). They see only one problem e.g.: climate change but could not wrap their heads around energy and how the two are interconnected… not to mention biodiversity and topsoil loss (with all its implications on food systems). Yet it is all perfectly understandable: why would anyone in a hunter gatherer tribe care about global weather patterns or how much resources are left on another continent they’ve probably never heard of?
Humans are social animals living in small groups. We used to call these groups tribes — now we call them workplace, circle of friends, nations. As all tribal animals we crave for status and acceptance within the group. In my view it is the strongest force regulating our behavior, stronger than laws, and certainly stronger than rationale… and the circle closes here: why matter with hyperobjects, when the most important thing for me (after being fed and feel safe) is to be accepted by others? When your friends don’t give a damn about the future (stubbornly believing that everything is going to look like today just better), then why risk becoming an outcast by advocating a low energy, low carbon life? This is the reason why taking care of the future has been degraded to virtue signalling, green-washing and magical thinking. You can stay safe and preserve your status in your group just by switching to an electric vehicle, or buying one clothing item made from recycled plastic bottles. Guilt gone, status saved, problem solved. Experts will take care of the rest.
On the other extreme of the responses — similarly driven by tribal behavior — is the back to nature movement. By moving back to small eco-villages living life simply and strictly bio-regional they are showing a good example to the world. At least in theory.
Actually there are two major problems with this way of thinking:
1) Tribalism: it works for them, because they have found their tribe. They were interested in the topic, wanted to make a change and willing to make huge sacrifices. Don’t expect the other 99% of the population doing the same thing voluntarily though: their brain is wired differently, have different interests and priorities. They belong to different tribes, with different rules and expectations — and they are not willing to lose their membership. Sorry.
2) There is not enough land to do that. We are well past the point of population overshoot in Europe and North America (and the rest of the world): if “everyone” would like to live bio-regional without the fossil fuel powered industrial agriculture we would be in great trouble. My only hope here is that natural population decline due to age will help easing the burden on the land and will keep pace with the decline in fossil fuels. Fingers crossed.
When we pass the coming bottleneck of de-industrialization and manage to come out on the other side with a much smaller, more sustainable population all of us will be bio-regional. We will have no other choice.
Actors on a stage
After reading all this what do you think about our choices? Does the future depend — still — on our choices? What if there is — and there was — no choice in the question of saving the planet at all?
Let’s see what makes us — as individuals — who we are and what choice did we had in that. Where did you born and when? Are you a ‘boomer’ in the US? A daughter of a poor farmer in Kenya? What is the social status of your parents? What class have you born into? What values and norms did you learned from your parents and culture? What genes did you inherit? What are your strengths and weaknesses? What is your personality type? What is your area of interest or hobby? Collecting stamps? If yes, why? If not, why not? (Many people have this as a hobby…) How did you choose your spouse? Based on who you fell in love with, or was it arranged by your parents? What is the personality of your child (if you have any)?
Did you choose any of that?
I highly doubt it.
What were the choices Mahatma Gandhi had? Try to answer the questions above as if you were him, and you will quickly realize that he was the right man born in the right place at exactly the right time. A one in a billion. He could became what he had because he had the right personality with the right motives (none if it were of his choosing, in fact he couldn’t act differently). Were he born a hundred years earlier he would have been executed or exiled. Was it really him then, or the fall of the British Empire that set India “free”?
We became who we are by chance, as a result of an extremely complex set of events. Even if we think we have made a choice consciously it was already made before that moment. How did you “choose” your profession? It all comes down to your strengths (be it in mathematics or handcrafts) and a ton of pre-conditioning from your parents and peers, maybe in form of pressure or advice, perhaps role models — you name it — but you didn’t choose them; you simply acted on them.
We are actors — good or bad — but we all play our roles in life. If a role doesn’t fit anymore, we are forced to change. Donald Trump got elected only for 4 years. He has played his role (the only role he can play) but times have changed slowly and suddenly he has lost his position as the fittest candidate for presidency (only in relative terms of course). Or imagine your “favorite dictator” being born in Sweden or Denmark teleported there together with his entire family and upbringing. Imagine him on an election. He would have collect about 1% of the votes. It is not his role to be a president of Denmark. His role is to be the dictator of another country.
Everybody tries to play his or her role as best as possible even though it was assigned to him or her… and never really chosen. Imagine the CEO of Exxon-Mobil 33 years ago at the top of his power after her parents left a price of a family house at an Ivy League University for his tuition and his 20+ years of relentless climbing on the corporate ladder. Now try to imagine the following story. One day he is invited to a hearing in congress and now he is listening to Dr. James Hansen testifying on climate change. Our CEO slaps his forehead saying: ”Shit, he is right! I have to turn my company away from fossil fuels immediately!” — don’t laugh, yet. The next day in the boardroom of Exxon he announces his plan: “…since we are heating up the planet with the burning of our products, even though we have plenty of untapped reserves, I’m announcing the phase out of oil and gas from our portfolio. This means, that in the coming decade we have write off $ X million in assets and close the revenue stream of our most profitable products.” Shock and awe hits the room. In the break every board member runs to a phone and starts calling investors to tell the news. Next morning a nice envelope and a beautiful bunch of flowers wait our CEO in his office. He opens the envelope and reads the title of the document: Resignation letter… with his name on the bottom and a line waiting for his signature.
As Upton Sinclair famously put it:
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
Choices we have
Do we have a choice then in deciding to save the planet? If you are in power you will be fired if you really try to. Don’t tell me that the recent greening of British Petrol (turning them into a renewable energy company) or the net zero craze around the word is solely because of the desires and best interests of our leaders to save the planet. They are not stupid: just by looking at the proven reserves and the rate of production decline per an average well or mine they’ve figured out what is in store for them. In short: nothing good. Oil companies have lost profitability years ago and the outlook is even more dire. They are no longer the strong lions capable of denying science for decades, funding lobbyist and PR campaigns to deceive the public. They are now a toothless bag of bones. All this green-wash is a last effort to save their hides and keep their investors from going bankrupt.
And governments? They have power! They have choices! Well, lets take a look at the latest news from China, one of the most powerful nations on Earth, committed to reach net zero by 2060. Reading the news it looks like that they have finally made up their minds, took the right decision and they are acting on it:
China has launched a so-called “pre-warning” system to call out the regions that have failed to curb their energy use. Beijing’s state planner has used traffic-light colours to grade local governments’ energy-control performance this year. Experts say that the move shows China’s “determination” to implement those targets.
Great! But wait a minute…
Meanwhile, China is reportedly considering using price caps to control the surging costs of coal. The news comes as the nation is set to experience its hottest months of the year when demand for electricity reaches its peak. At last two southern provinces had to ration their electricity from late May, state media said. And now, one report said, more provinces, such as Guizhou and Shaanxi, might need to follow suit.
Price caps? Surging costs of coal? Rationing? I don’t know what’s the truth man, but I can surely smell bullshit. This exactly sounds like resource depletion to me:
Oops. We cannot continue to increase coal extraction and soon will run into energy problems (demand is rising, production is flat and will soon start to decline according to the laws of geology). And then you wonder why the CO2 and energy impact of Bitcoin became a hot topic recently…
Does any government have a real choice in this situation? They can either admit the truth: “Oops, we have lived up the resources our country once had and now you have to live with less as a consequence” or sprinkle green fairy dust over the problem and cast a magical spell called: decoupling GDP from emissions and net zero. Which one sounds better?
What to do then?
We have seen — as it was illustrated in the previous chapter — that not even the big and powerful have real choices. If they were to make a choice with a real impact (and not a cosmetic reaction to an existing problem) they would find themselves out of their offices soon with the next corporate psychopath standing in the long queue filling in their place in a second. Have you ever pondered on the real case behind pre-elections…?
If you are not in power and feel strongly about the environment, social justice, climate change, you name it — please by all means continue fighting for your cause. You did not choose the topic — it has chosen you and you must play your role. You cannot do otherwise. You must not do otherwise. Let go of the feeling of saving the entire world though. That is hubris. If you have followed me this far into the rabbit hole now it should be clear that saving Earth by activism has a smaller chance than “a paper dog successfully chasing an asbestos cat through the burning pits of hell”. Focus on whom you can save. Your friends, your family, your neighborhood. Don’t bother with saving the world as it is: history has run it’s course and now the bill is due. Look ahead with optimism though: even if a lot of things are about to change (and not for the better) you can still do a lot to help those around you. Be patient with them though: they come from a different backgrounds with different mindsets and ways of thinking — and none of it was of their own choosing.
The choice to spread the word about energy and resource depletion was not mine either. When I boarded that plane 2 years ago I did not know, did not plan and certainly did not wanted to be changed by that experience. I had no idea how hard the possible end of our civilization will struck me. I must have had some prior sensitivity for the topic. Some hidden feeling that something is amiss with this fairy tale of eternal growth. The answer found me that day, and after many internal struggles I’m here typing this blog. I cannot do otherwise. I must not do otherwise.
I have started this post deliberately about choices and ended up with us having no choice at all, but a sort of destiny to fulfill. In the spirit of this blog — and since you got this far— I encourage you to contemplate on this topic. In light of the things above is there a thing called “humanity” or “us” or “we”? Is someone behind the steering wheel? Next time I will explore this topic from the perspective of physics and biology. Is there a chance that there is hidden dynamic behind “humanity’s” behavior?
As for a farewell I leave you with a quote:
“Fate is shaping history when what happens to us was intended by no one and was the summary outcome of innumerable small decisions about other matters by innumerable people.”
By C. Wright Mills
Until the next time,