Home » Economics » Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh CLIII–Carbon Tunnel Vision and Resource/Energy & Ecological Blindness, Part 3

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Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh CLIII–Carbon Tunnel Vision and Resource/Energy & Ecological Blindness, Part 3

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh CLIII

October 6, 2023
Mexico (1988). Photo by author.

Carbon Tunnel Vision and Resource/Energy & Ecological Blindness, Part 3

As ecologist Howard T. Odum argues in the quote above, human ‘progress’ has been the result of our species’ leveraging of available ‘power’[1].

Humans are not unique in this but for a variety of evolutionary reasons, our species has taken this principle to a new (and extremely dangerous) level. In the case of our modern industrial societies and their many complexities, this power has been derived primarily from a finite cache of easily-accessible, -transportable, and -storable hydrocarbon deposits — and continues to rely significantly upon these non-renewable resources.

Rather than attribute much (most? all?) of our modern and very complex society’s ‘progress’ to the fortuitous biogeophysical circumstance of these energy deposits — particularly as it pertains to the commercial exploitation of petroleum that began in the 18th century — humans have created a mythos that it is our ingenuity and technological prowess that has led to all of the ‘advancements’ we consider as modern human progress[2].


And while there is a partial truth to this belief (as Odum points out, since we had to develop/innovate means of extracting and refining these deposits to ‘power’ our industries and various technologies) it is not the entire truth since we have come to discount/deny the importance of these hydrocarbon deposits to our ‘progress’ and the fortuitous biogeophysical circumstances that were required to create them — to say little about the importance of the planet’s ecological systems to all of this as well.

We have, instead, looked in the mirror and declared what a remarkably wise and intelligent ape we are; in fact, truth be told, we’re meant to rule and lord over the entire planet — including the lesser of our own species. A result of collective narcissism? It would seem partially so.

As I stated at the close of Part 2 of this multi-part contemplation (Part 1):

“Blindness to the importance of hydrocarbon energy to almost all of our complex systems is leading us to offer narratives that most assuredly are making our predicament of ecological overshoot worse. They mostly depend upon tales that highlight human ingenuity, especially with respect to technology, and offer ‘solutions’ to maintain for the most part our status quo systems and complexities…

Why do we do this? Why do we construct stories that, depending upon one’s perspective, could be considered suicidal in nature?”

Let’s now unpack some of the psychology behind this phenomenon.

Story-Telling Apes

Narrative psychology is that branch of psychology that focuses upon the story-telling aspect of our species. It operates “…under the assumption that human activity and experience are filled with ‘meaning’ and stories, rather than lawful formulations…[studying] how human beings construct stories to deal with experiences.”[3]

Basically, in our attempts to make sense of our exceedingly complex world and then give it meaning, humans develop stories that they then share with others[4]. Needless to say, our sensemaking via shared stories is a uniquely human behavioural attribute that is due to our communication abilities and exceedingly complex cognitions.


This storytelling to help us understand and make sense of our experiences is influenced by self-identity, retrospection, sharing, social milieu/audience, feedback (both internal and external), referential cues, and plausibility.[5]

And what is interesting about the final influence here, plausibility, is that this tends to be favoured over accuracy — what is ‘plausible’ becomes far more important than what is ‘accurate’. In other words, story-tellers tend to be more concerned with the ‘acceptability’ of their story, especially to the audience they are sharing it with, rather than with whether or not it reflects ‘reality’. Basically, we tend to be far more interested in whether the story we are telling resonates with the audience to whom we are sharing our story with than whether the story is accurate or not. Reality takes a back seat to getting our audience to accept, believe in, and react positively to our story.

The audience of a shared story also tends to put the plausibility of the narrative ahead of any evidentiary aspects. When exposed to the story from another person, we look for fit with our personal beliefs and biases. If what is being shared aligns with our preconceived expectations, we tend to believe it since we also tend to seek confirmation of our beliefs[6]. We absorb that which aligns with our preconceived view of things, reinforcing our beliefs. However, if the narrative does not corroborate our view of things, we tend to ignore/rationalise away it and its evidence.


This confirmation bias has a powerful impact upon our beliefs and our acceptance of another’s story, particularly its ‘plausibility’ and whether it is considered as reflective of ‘reality’.

Imagine, for a moment, an audience made up of financiers/economists verses one made up of ecologists/environmentalists, or of physicists. The validity or persuasiveness of a story depends greatly on the message being shared and how well it confirms or challenges beliefs.

For example, if one were discussing the finiteness of a resource to these different groups and arguing that the possibility of infinite substitutability (a mainstay of many economic viewpoints) is impossible due to certain biogeophysical constraints, the plausibility of this view would be either accepted or rejected depending upon which audience such an argument is being presented to.

Within the context of plausibility lie a number of factors that impact an audience’s acceptance of a story, confirmation bias being but one. Does the tale align with our experiences? Does it follow a stereotypical sequence of events or make use of ‘anchors’ that trigger one’s worldview? Does it use examples/precedents that appeal to the listener?

What is also important to our understanding of our story-telling nature and a significant contributing factor to our blindness to particular aspects of reality is attribution theory[7]. This theory focuses more intently upon the processes involved and suggests that humans infer causes and motivations that may or may not accurately reflect reality because of a rather large number of assumptions, heuristics, and cognitive biases that influence our interpretations.

Our tendencies are to attribute behaviours, motivations, and causes in certain ways; not always, but most of the time. And this tendency seems to play a very significant role in our blindness to the importance of energy to our sense of progress.


According to attribution theory some of the ways we tend to think about behaviours, because of cognitive biases, include:

1) Assigning the behaviour of others to internal causal factors such as personality, motive, and beliefs (i.e., fundamental attribution error, which is more common in ‘individualistic’ cultures);

2) Assigning the behaviour of ourselves to external factors such as the situation or environment (i.e., self-serving bias, which serves to protect one’s self-esteem);

3) Putting ourselves in the best possible light when telling a story to acquaintances/friends (i.e., interpersonal attribution).

Of particular importance to our stories around energy, resources, human ingenuity, and technology is the self-serving bias. This bias involves taking personal credit for successes (and blaming others when experiencing negative outcomes) and can be influenced by one’s age, motivation, culture, and locus of control.

Perhaps the most influential aspect of this bias with respect to our blindspots about energy and our ecological systems importance is the last one mentioned above: locus of control.

This aspect of our psyche or self-image deals with our beliefs about our ability to control events impacting our life. Do we believe our actions influence our experiences? Or are these events and their outcomes outside of our control?

Such beliefs exist within a continuum from no control to complete control, with people tending towards one end of the scale or the other but also shifting their beliefs based upon the context/circumstances. Add this to the tendency to want to put oneself in the best possible light, and we can begin to see why humans orient towards stories that elevate the importance of our ingenuity and technological prowess when viewing the world in terms of ‘progress’.

We not only want to take credit for perceived ‘advances’ as it builds our self-esteem, but we want to believe we have such control and influence upon the sociocultural ‘evolution’ of our species.

My next post will continue to look at some additional psychological mechanisms as well as belief system development and the role of marketing propaganda to influence our beliefs about energy and what is or is not possible for a species bumping up against (or, should I say, having surpassed) biogeophysical limits on a finite planet.

NOTE: Beginning to post these thoughts of mine also on my website. I began a couple of years ago posting them on Medium exclusively but have found that their subscription practices are somewhat restrictive. I will attempt to post one of my previous Contemplations per day on my website until I am caught up…in the meantime, I will be posting all new Contemplations in both locations.

Recently released:

It Bears Repeating: Best Of…Volume 1

A compilation of writers focused on the nexus of limits to growth, energy, and ecological overshoot.

With a Foreword and Afterword by Michael Dowd, authors include: Max Wilbert; Tim Watkins; Mike Stasse; Dr. Bill Rees; Dr. Tim Morgan; Rob Mielcarski; Dr. Simon Michaux; Erik Michaels; Just Collapse’s Tristan Sykes & Dr. Kate Booth; Kevin Hester; Alice Friedemann; David Casey; and, Steve Bull.

The document is not a guided narrative towards a singular or overarching message; except, perhaps, that we are in a predicament of our own making with a far more chaotic future ahead of us than most imagine–and most certainly than what mainstream media/politics would have us believe.

Click here to access the document as a PDF file, free to download.

If you’ve made it to the end of this contemplation and have got something out of my writing, please consider ordering the trilogy of my ‘fictional’ novel series, Olduvai (PDF files; only $9.99 Canadian), via my website — the ‘profits’ of which help me to keep my internet presence alive and first book available in print (and is available via various online retailers).

You can also find a variety of resources, particularly my summary notes for a handful of texts, especially Catton’s Overshoot and Tainter’s Collapse: see here.


[1] See this recent article for a summary of the Maximum Power Principle that is behind this assertion. Also see this one by Erik Michaels.

[2] Let’s keep in mind that the word ‘progress’ is extremely loaded in its meaning. Depending upon one’s perspective and/or focus, what might be considered ‘progress’ to one person may be quite different to another — for example, an economist’s interpretation verses an ecologist’s.

[3] See this.

[4] See thisthisthisthis, and/or this.

[5] See this.

[6] See thisthisthis, and/or this.

[7] See thisthis, and/or this.

Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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