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Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXIV–Climate Change and Narratives to Support Continued Economic Growth

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXIV

Tulum, Mexico (1986) Photo by author

Climate Change and Narratives to Support Continued Economic Growth

The following commentary was once again prompted by an online media article, this one discussing the necessary paradigm shift required to confront the existential dilemma of climate change, particularly how we view our relationship with nature and the use of financial capital to expand our exploitive ways.

This article does a good job of highlighting one of the various complexities of the issue(s) involved in addressing our various existential dilemmas and the fact that there is no single panacea for humanity’s predicaments. It’s an interlinked combination of aspects that flow from humanity’s relatively long-time interaction with and exploitation of our natural environment. And how we view our relationship with nature is fundamental to better addressing the consequences of our current relationship but I believe it goes beyond how we tend to use ‘capital’ to exploit our world since humanity’s exploitive ways have carried on for millennia; long before ‘capitalism’ became a thing.

I would add to this partial story that it involves not just financial capital but our more ‘recent’ tendency to increasingly: expand our population, seek ever-improved living standards for a burgeoning population, create useful and then overly rely upon ‘technology’ to expand our exploitation of the natural world, urbanise more and more space at the expense of food-producing lands, depend upon ‘marginal’ lands to sustain us, and concentrate dependence upon finite resources that have encountered diminishing returns on our investments in them. These patterns of behaviour, however, are incongruent with existence on a finite planet regardless of the economic system used to pursue them. Even a far more ‘equitable’ one would likely result in a similar outcome at some point. Humans have not, for millennia, lived ‘sustainably’ with our world.

But since our behaviour does not align with the biophysical realities of finite resources to support them, we go about creating comforting narratives to reduce the resulting cognitive dissonance that arises. As animals with complex cognitive abilities and self-awareness, we cannot hold such conflicting belief systems without significant psychological stress being created so we seek confirmation that one of them is wrong and the other is correct. Rather than confront the more ‘depressing’ story that our ways are completely unsustainable and must be abandoned, we weave stories that appear on the surface to be more ‘acceptable’ to our current lifestyles and belief systems, and then look for evidence to support them; ‘facts’ being irrelevant. We refuse to acknowledge the counterevidence to our belief system. We deny. We get angry. We bargain with ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’. We construct a reality that we prefer, exorcising the one we don’t from our minds.

While it’s commonplace among some to point fingers at our current global economic system, such overexploitation and eventual negative consequences have been with human complex societies for millennia — long before ‘capitalism’ emerged. Our ‘ingenuity’, as it were, has allowed human societies to expand their footprint repeatedly throughout our pre/history and in my opinion it’s going to take more than a paradigm shift to balance our species’ impact/exploitation with that of the environment. Paradigm shifts take time. They begin on the margins and then they rely on a tipping point of participants to be convinced by the evidence that their current worldview conflicts with the data and a new paradigm better explains the phenomena being observed and experienced.

And here’s the rub. Humans are wonderful at creating stories. We have the ability to convince ourselves and others that our senses are lying to us. What you are witnessing is not what you think it is. It is something else entirely. Add on top of this the fact that we are social animals and think and believe in herds, and that there exist powerful psychological mechanisms that steer our thinking and beliefs. We are often convinced of things that are not true, that 2 plus 2 doesn’t equal 4 but 5. And our thinking can be manipulated in many different ways, and oftentimes without our even having the foggiest idea that this is happening.

So, if it’s in the best interests of the powers-that-be/ruling class/elite/social power structures to have the masses believe in a particular storyline, we can be fairly certain that the narrative(s) we are exposed to align with it and we consequently convince ourselves it is correct and arose from the ‘evidence’; it’s what all ‘right-thinking’ people believe and if you or others believe differently then it’s you that is wrong — believing otherwise is dysfunctional. We see this playing out repeatedly in both the mainstream and social media platforms on a variety of fronts. But we also want to believe in happy endings, that we have agency to alter significantly the future, that there is hope, that if we put our minds to it we can accomplish any and everything, and that we are an ingenious species that can control not just our local environment but nature itself and the future. And this seems especially true in ‘advanced’ economies that exploit our world far, far, far more than so-called ‘emerging’ ones and rely so much more on finite resources for their functioning and perpetuation.

Chasing the perpetual growth chalice is currently being kept alive through such narratives as the Build Back Better, Green New Deal, and Great Reset storylines. These attempt to convince us if we ‘electrify’ everything or expand using ‘net-zero’ approaches we can continue to exploit the world at our leisure, and do so in a way that addresses climate change and ‘saves’ us all. But these stories avoid the obvious hurdles and roadblocks. They ignore the biophysical limits that exist on a finite planet. They discount the thermodynamic realities that restrict such policies. They depend very much on unproven or significantly uneconomical technologies (i.e., they take more energy/resources than they provide back). But it is likely we will continue to chase these ‘solutions’ for they offer us salvation and prolonging of the status quo. We do not like uncertainty and do not embrace change.

Who wouldn’t want to keep the party going especially with its many conveniences and obvious ‘benefits’ for those reaping the ‘rewards’? Life without these wonderful things would be a lot more work and less certain. Without the complex support systems we have created and depend upon, most of us would be in certain dire straits — to say the least.

Perhaps most glaringly we have lost our skills/knowledge to live/survive self-sufficiently but instead depend entirely upon complex and fragile systems (especially long-distance supply chains) over which we have zero control and so seek to find ways to convince ourselves that there are somewhat easy ‘solutions’. We have created a financial/economic/monetary system that necessitates chasing the perpetual growth chalice but since infinite growth is impossible on a finite planet we have leveraged debt and Ponzi-type structures to continue the party for a bit longer. We have pushed biophysical limits into dangerous territory while allowing ourselves to believe it can last forever, and a day. We have overshot our natural environmental carrying capacity and encountered increasingly problematic diminishing returns on our investments in complexity and like so many complex societies before us have begun the decline/fall/collapse that always follows.

Given all of this, I am increasingly coming to believe that regardless of our understanding of our dilemmas we will fail to address them in a way that would differ from complex societies of the past. We will continue to pursue growth and attempts to prolong such growth for as long as we can, damn the consequences. We will, for the most part, continue to believe biophysical limits do not, well, limit us. We will continue to tell ourselves and believe the comforting narratives our ‘leaders’ will tell us. We will continue to cling to faulty paradigms and rarely, if ever, admit the crumbling social structure (and physical structures) around us is anything but the ‘fault’ of those who didn’t believe in our ingenuity and inventiveness; to say little about the fact that the rich and powerful marketing these fantasies stand to become even richer and more powerful as we pursue them. It’s a final blow-off top of ‘growth’ before the eventual collapse that always accompanies a species overshooting its natural environmental carrying capacity.

‘Collapse’ is in all likelihood inevitable — I state ‘all likelihood’ since not one of us can accurately predict the future but from my perspective the evidence pre/history provides us with is overwhelming. It cannot be avoided but will be denied well beyond its in-your-face obviousness.

I close with quotes from two ‘experts’ on the issue of societal ‘collapse’. First, archaeologist Joseph Tainter from his 1988 text The Collapse of Complex Societies:However much we like to think of ourselves as something special in world history, in fact industrial societies are subject to the same principles that caused earlier societies to collapse. If civilization collapses again, it will be from failure to take advantage of the current reprieve, a reprieve both detrimental and essential to our anticipated future.” And this from Jared Diamond’s 2005 text Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed: “Those past collapses tended to follow somewhat similar courses constituting variations on a theme. Population growth forced people to adopt intensified means of agricultural production…Unsustainable practices led to environmental damage…Consequences for society included food shortages, starvation, wars among too many people fighting for too few resources, and overthrows of governing elites by disillusioned masses. Eventually, population decreased through starvation, war, or disease and society lost some of the political, economic, and cultural complexity that it had developed at its peak.”

Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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