What we believe

Photo: Sushil Nash via Unsplash

Humanity is divided. Pick any factor or theme and I can show you two groups of people at each others neck trying to convince the other — in vain. This is nothing new. It was always this way. The Internet has just made this fact all more obvious.

Let’s take limits for example — my favorite topic. Here is a little test (based on Gail Tverberg’s idea) to decide which group you belong to in this regard. Answer this simple question:

Which one of the following is our biggest problem?

a) We have too much fossil fuels, which if burned, will cause climate change

b) We have too little of fossil fuels left, which will cause a rapid economic decline

For obvious reasons — it seems — both cannot be true. So which one did you pick?

If you have chosen the first, then you believe in humanity’s endless potential to extract materials and to create novel technologies. You think, that we need to act now to tackle the climate crisis, and we have the technology (nuclear, wind and solar) to replace fossil fuels. You might also think that even emissions themselves are not a problem, because we will simply remove the carbon from the atmosphere, or manage our climate another way. In a rare case you might also think that climate change is not a problem at all. All that matters is human progress.

On the other hand, if you have chosen b) then you believe in limits, that even the mighty human enterprise can hit a wall and will not be able to solve the problem of resource depletion. That we are too numerous and consume too much. That Nature or Gaia will teach us a lesson long overdue. New technologies will be no replacement for the old fossil fuel infrastructure, and our economy will collapse as a result. It follows, that climate change is not our biggest problem at the moment: ecological collapse is. Human progress will be reversed.

For the sake of simplicity let’s call the first group the ‘Optimists’ (others might call them ‘Cornucopians’) and the second ‘Realists’ (or ‘Limitarians’). In my experience optimists tend to be driven by positive feelings, have a general can-do attitude, and don’t really tend to worry much. The realists —whom the optimists tend to call pessimists or even defeatists — are on the other hand people driven by logic and numbers. They tend to be cautious and prudent, who think twice before moving a finger. These people tend to take the time to reflect, and to think deeply. They are rational and logical, but also attentive, thoughtful and observant.

Not a perfect description of your personality? Never mind, we are all different. We are all “individuals”. An infinite number of combinations are possible out of these descriptions, but I’m sure you know someone who is perfectly described by them from both groups. Ever wondered why they cannot convince each other?

These two types of people and their way of thinking are like skew lines — they never have an intersection, because they are moving on two completely parallel planes. Optimists are driven by feelings of hope, passion, desire, ambition, etc. and when they present their ideas, they are trying to invoke similar feelings in their audience. They are not interested deeply in numbers. You know, they get in the way. Realists on the other hand live and breathe numbers. They communicate their ideas presenting huge sets of data, graphs, calculations and expect the audience to be convinced by facts. They are not really interested in emotions. You know, they get in the way.

It is no wonder these two groups cannot even agree on what is real. In fact both of them only know what they think they know. None of them admits willingly that reality is too complex for any human being to understand. Let’s just zoom out a little bit here: none of us in the entire world understands reality perfectly. If you happen to meet one you can call him or her a fake. No one on Earth can understand all the interconnections and interplays between the particles, the systems they create and how these systems interact with each other while being embedded in even bigger systems.

The Universe is wonderfully complex. So much so, that we should be just watching in awe, while trying to cause as minimal harm as possible. You know, not to break something accidentally.

There are billions of causes behind even the simplest of events, like the wind bending a single blade of grass. Why did it bend in the exact way it did? How long will it take till it gets back to straight up again? At what speed will its spica move on its way back? Will it be fast enough to spread its seeds? No one can tell. No one needs to tell. It just happens without anyone knowing or understanding.

Of course not many of us are really interested in the curvature of grass blades. This simple example illustrates perfectly though, how complex our world is, with billions of billions blades of grass, and almost eight billion people, consuming hundred-million barrels of oil a day, while minding their own business, having completely opposing views, beliefs, habits, wants and needs. Forecasting the future in this crazy world is really nothing more than a fantasy, based on broadly generalized assumptions. Yes, in this sense both the Optimists and the Realists are the same. While the former group bases its assumptions on human ingenuity and agency (the warm and fuzzy feeling of trust and hope that we will be able to solve it), the later assumes natural limits are stronger than human will. And both of them are right! Just not in the way they imagine this will play out. While Optimists believe we can live the way we live today forever (actually even more of us will live a happy consumer life in the future than today), Realists say we will live the rest of our lives in misery and might eventually go extinct.

Actually the future will be both (and here comes my subjective take on the issue): there will be misery, death and suffering as result of falling energy and material resource availability (yes, I’m more like a Realists— as you might have guessed already), but there will be also times of joy, ingenuity, rife with ambition and hope to start a new, just society. There will be a role for everyone to fill — both for realists and optimists. To answer the second part of the question related to climate change: it is and will continue to be a major a problem, affecting billions of humans via sea level rise, changes in weather patterns (droughts, fires, floods etc.) causing mass migration and further deepening of our economic woes.

One cannot forecast exactly how, when or where these events going take place, but the trends speak for themselves. You don’t have to be a sage to say, that when wind blows, the grass will bend.

Humanity is divided for a reason. It makes an evolutionary advantage: if we were a completely homogeneous species, with all of us thinking and behaving the very same way, we would be happy and conflict free for sure, but only for a while. The first major obstacle (change in weather patterns, disappearance of food sources, state failures) would leave us without alternatives on how to live radically differently. Contrary to modern beliefs promoting eternal progress, radical reorganization has happened many times throughout prehistoric times: we have been always experimenting with radically different modes of living, thanks to our varied, divided and conflict ridden cultural “gene” pool. This was the basis of our long term survival, but also the cause of wars and exterminations. None of this will change in the future, the only question is: which behavior, or story of ourselves will be dominant in the times ahead? Currently there is a cheering optimism (among the western elites at least) that we have all the resources we need to “solve” climate change, we just need to do the “right” thing. It is only a question of time however till the world realizes how this was just one side of the coin.

In the end, here is a quote from John Michael Greer to ponder on:

“Knowing many stories is wisdom. Knowing no stories is ignorance. Knowing one story is death.”

Until next time,