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Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh CII–That Uncertain Road, Part 1.

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh CII

February 20, 2023

Monte Alban, Mexico. (1988) Photo by author.

That Uncertain Road, Part 1

“I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here. I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell.”
― Richard P. Feynman

“As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”
― Albert Einstein

There are many words that could be used to describe the future and humanity’s ability to know how it will unfold. Unknowable. Unpredictable. Uncertain. Unwritten. Undetermined. Unforeseeable.

These tool-making, story-telling apes we have termed homo sapiens just happen to abhor this aspect of existence. Uncertainty has been found to result in negative affect for most people in most situations[1]. In fact, it has been suggested that “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”[2] and that “…fear of the unknown may be a, or possibly the, fundamental fear, representing an Archimedean lever for human psychology”[3].

As Dan Gardner reminds the reader in Future Babble[4] humans want and need control, especially of their environment/surroundings. Not having control, or at least the sense of it, can lead to stress, disease, and early death. Having some ‘certainty’ about what the future holds is a type of control, even if we know what happens is out of our personal control.

We have developed a host of psychological mechanisms to defend against our fear of uncertainty (e.g., illusion of control). In fact, psychologists have found an increased dependence upon magical thinking when control is lost or uncertainty increases[5]. In addition, people will cling more fiercely to their belief system in the face of counterfactual evidence in order to increase their sense of certainty. They will ignore or deny those things that increase their cognitive dissonance and the uncertainty it creates.

We also more often tend to see patterns where none exist as we search for certainty[6]. Reassurance about the future motivates people to seek it somewhere. Anywhere.

Cognitive psychologists suggest prospection, the term used to describe the generation of possible future scenarios, is a central tenet of both cognition and emotion[7]. But it is also a fundamental aspect of learning for any animal that is driven by their avoidance of pain and seeking of pleasure since being able to sense patterns of environmental changes or actions of other animals can alter their behaviour to seek a reward or avoid a punishment — perhaps the most basic one being falling prey to a potential predator.

As tool makers, we leverage this rather unique ability in attempts to help us control our environment, thus providing a sense of security against this uncertain future. And it seems we often fall back on this skill to help us believe some as-yet-to-be-hatched ‘tool’ will be created to help us achieve what we have yet to achieve — certainty about the future by solving our various problems, such as a lack of ‘clean’ energy.

As story tellers, we craft all variety of narratives to help us understand our world — the past, the present, and especially the future. Religion. Biology. Politics. Physics. Economics. History. Mathematics. Psychology. Astrology. Ecology. Chemistry. Philosophy.

Are any of the tales we tell and share accurate reflections of our world and its functioning? Can we predict the future? Can we, using all of our cognitive abilities, understandings of the world, and technologies reduce the uncertainty that lays before us?

The answer may actually be irrelevant since we all tend to believe what we believe — be it learned or conditioned, accurate or misinformed. And we use what we believe to reduce our anxiety about an uncertain future.

Despite all of the above, and knowing full well that predictions about the future are just stories we tell to reduce our uncertainty, the following is one perspective on what the future may hold based upon two beliefs that seem certain to me, although I know they don’t to everyone:
1) We exist upon a planet with finite resources;
2) Biological and historical precedents exist from which we can learn and help us map a likely future.

First, we live upon a planet with a finite amount of resources available to us. Despite the story that infinite substitutability can overcome or mitigate this reality, I firmly believe we cannot create more of our most important resources from thin air. This is especially true for life’s primary resource, energy. As the First Law of thermodynamics states: energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only converted from one form to another. This limits what is available to all species upon our planet.

Second, there exist biological and historical ‘experiments’ concerning ecological overshoot and complex society ‘collapse’ that we can use to help us understand important processes and how they are likely to unfold.

To paraphrase the saying about events rhyming with the past, there should be no assumptions that the future will unfold exactly as it has in the past. While there will no doubt be similarities because humans are animals with strong genetic predispositions that act and react in somewhat constrained ways, we are also a species with strong sociocultural influences upon our behaviour that vary in both time and place. And the contextual environment within which we are behaving is never precisely the same; particularly given the complexities that accumulate and impact us — especially technological in nature.

There is so much that has already been written and could be said about ecological overshoot and humanity’s prospects as we travel further into it. It is important to my thinking here that I note that humans are a biological species similar to every other one on our planet and there exist many behavioural responses that we cannot avoid because of this. Perhaps the most fundamental biologically-based one is that of reproduction and a species tendency to reproduce to a level that can be sustained by their immediate habitat. Overshooting this sustainable carrying capacity invariably results in moving to an uninhabited and unexploited area or ‘reversion to the mean’ of a species’ population size[8].

Humans however, as an apex predator and with their tool-making abilities, have been able to exceed significantly the natural, environmental carrying capacity allowing us to go well beyond the limits imposed by nature. Population biology demonstrates that such a situation cannot and will not go on indefinitely. And the resulting ‘correction’ may as a result of this being even more dramatic in nature.

As William Catton Jr. argues, our ability to employ technological tools to expand our carrying capacity has resulted in a trap that now threatens the environment and ecological systems we require for our survival. Blind to what we are doing, we have embraced and increased the speed with which we are drawing down the finite resources we rely upon. There will be, based upon other species that have overshot their environmental carrying capacity, a reversion to the mean of population size that can be ‘sustained’ — and it will be much, much lower than may have been reached in an uncontaminated and undamaged environment[9].

Further, Catton observes that “[o]vershoot will occur, if it hasn’t already. We may come to feel guilty about stealing from the future, but we will continue to do it. Overshoot will further aggravate the reduction of carrying capacity. Crash must follow. The greater the overshoot, the greater the crash.” (p. 253)

The following graph from Catton’s text provides four possible growth scenarios, with Panel D being the most likely for humanity. As he explains “’carrying capacity’ has been represented by two different curves. A major fraction of the recent, apparently high carrying capacity for human high-energy living must be attributed to temporary resources — i.e., non-renewable fossil acreage, the earth’s savings deposits. In Panel D, it is optimistically assumed that the component of carrying capacity based on renewable resources has remained stable so far. But it is recognized that serious overshoot, induced by temporarily high composite carrying capacity, will at least temporarily undermine even the sustainable component.” (p. 253)

That’s overshoot in a nutshell: an epic crash in population as our fundamental resources can no longer support our numbers. The writing seems on the wall that human population numbers are likely to fall precipitously from their current and relatively high numbers.

How that unfolds is yet to be determined, but it seems the most likely scenario some time down the road as the resources, especially energy, become more scarce to support our inflated numbers…

In Part 2, I will elaborate on what I believe our pre/historical precedents suggest about what we might expect down that uncertain road…

[1] See this, this, and/or this.

[2] See this.

[3] See this.

[4] See this.

[5] See this, this, and/or this.

[6] See this, this, this, and/or this.

[7] See this.

[8] See this, this, this, this, and/or this.

[9] See this.

Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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