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Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh CIII–We All Believe What We Believe…Evidence Be Damned.

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh CIII

Teotihuacan, Mexico. (1988) Photo by author.

We All Believe What We Believe…Evidence Be Damned.

The following contemplation is my comment on the latest Honest Sorcerer post that explores personality ‘types’ and how these contribute to why we tend to hold such different views of our world.

Very interesting discussion and does help to explain a lot. And, again, you’ve provided me a springboard to share my own thoughts…

Perhaps these inherent differences (not necessarily hard-wired since I can see that my own answers to many of the questions on the test — which I took many years ago as well since my employer at the time regularly discussed and explored such things — have changed significantly over the years; I seem to have ‘come to the middle’ in many areas) are a big contributor to why I’ve come to hold that we believe what we believe, regardless of evidence or well-reasoned, counter-arguments.

In fact, being who we are with our complex cognitive abilities, we fight off non-confirmatory thoughts/ideas to reduce/avoid the stress/anxiety that can arise when our beliefs are challenged.

One of those beliefs I’ve certainly encountered when discussing ‘collapse’ with others is the idea that our pursuit of the perpetual growth chalice on a finite planet is just fine, thank you very much; please don’t regale me with your data and/or pre/historic and research-based examples of societal decline and/or overshoot…I will not listen or I will list off all the evidence of human progress and problem-solving abilities — particularly with respect to complex technologies — to prove my perspective.

And, of course, it doesn’t help the attempt to counter this notion of infinite growth on a finite planet when the ruling caste who significantly profits from the pursuit (in both monetary and power terms) cheerleads and encourages it at every turn and opportunity. I hear nothing but propaganda about the benefits of human expansion and development from my local/regional/federal politicians whenever they open their mouths and rarely, if ever, discussion of the knock-on, negative impacts except assurances that they will be minimal and/or overcome — yes, we are constructing a relatively expansive community upon these wetlands in this ecologically-sensitive area above important aquifers, but we’re putting a butterfly parkette in to benefit the environment…

For anyone agreeing with the herd and/or deferring to authority, as most of us do, or simply sitting on the fence, then it’s next to impossible to break with the majority perspective. I’ve given up my attempts to raise or even discuss the topic with most family members and others in my social circle — unless I am directly asked for my input. They simply do not want to even think about such a ‘depressing’ subject. Better to discuss and debate whether you think the Toronto Maple Leafs will make it through the first round of the upcoming hockey playoffs…

We even see such opposing views within the ‘collapse-aware’ communities, such as the Degrowth Movement, where a major core seems to hold that with just the right tinkering, and then widespread adoption, of ‘correct’ behaviours and technologies, humanity can solve the problems at hand — never recognising that it’s an unsolvable predicament that we might, at best, be capable of slightly mitigating for some small percentage of people.

It’s a right pickle and reminds me of a quote from a Richard Duncan article (an electrical engineer behind the Olduvai Theory of civilisational collapse):

“…according to the Olduvai schematic, world energy production per capita will decrease…[then] there will be a rash of permanent electrical blackouts worldwide. Consequently the vital…functions — communication, computation, and control — will be lost.
…Mother Nature then solves for us the (apparently) insuperable problem of the Tragedy of the Unmanaged Commons, which the human race seems either incapable or unwilling to solve for itself.”[1]

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). Encouraging others to read my work is also much appreciated.

[1] See this.

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh C–Grieving: A Natural Response To Recognition Of Growth Limits

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh C

February 11, 2023 (original posting date)

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

Grieving: A Natural Response To Recognition Of Growth Limits

Denial, anger, bargaining, and depression in the face of grievous reality is everywhere; and we all do it to some extent. Some move through the stages more quickly while others remain bogged down in one or more. And it’s not uncommon to bounce back and forth between different stages.

We don’t want to accept the unpalatable, particularly our (and society’s) mortality. Grappling with such thoughts can be debilitating, both physically and psychologically. I know my first few years of reflecting upon our various predicaments as I travelled down the rabbit’s hole that is Peak Oil was most difficult. My anxiety was, at times, through the roof; but being who I am much of that was channelled into physical activities, particularly constructing some elaborate food gardens.

Psychologists are fairly certain that moving to the final stage of grieving — acceptance — and engaging with reality in a more forthright manner (even when it is not what we wish or want) allows one to deal with the emotions in a way that helps us to validate them in a healthier way. But this is so difficult to do when we are grieving. Extremely difficult.

Accepting, for example, that our complex society and its relatively high living standards (thanks primarily to our leveraging of a one-time cache of photosynthetic-created energy) have an expiration date is a contemplation the vast, vast majority of us do not want to consider. We desperately fight to keep the negative thoughts out of our minds, thereby impacting the belief systems through which we interpret the world — its past, present, and future.

In a world that has experienced significant problem-solving success due to our tool-making abilities and this finite supply of dense and transportable energy reserves, it’s exceedingly difficult to imagine this trend of ‘progress’ is coming to an end. We subsequently weave a variety of comforting narratives to avoid such a disheartening reality.

“Complex technologies and human ingenuity will save us from any problem we encounter, including (place your favourite one here)” is one common narrative…except inductive reasoning/logic of this nature does not always work. Continual observations by the turkey of the farmer have provided nothing but overwhelming evidence and positive reinforcement that the farmer is a beneficent and thoughtful caregiver; right up until the day before Thanksgiving and the trip behind the barn to the killing cone, knife in hand.

Confronting the blinders imposed upon us by these comforting narratives allows us to view our world and reality differently, and very much more accurately in my opinion. Not perfectly, but more reflective of the limits existence upon a finite world brings to a biological species not very much different from all the others on this planet — except perhaps for its tool-making skills and denial of reality.

Alas very, very few want to do this. We would rather remain comfortable in our beliefs that humanity is not limited by its physical environment and stands outside Nature. To paraphrase Nietzsche: we don’t want exposure to reality because that destroys our illusions.

One such illusion among others that I’ve confronted recently is the belief that growth (be in economic or population) is not only inevitable but purely beneficial. It has been driving a significant construction ‘boom’ in my province and more specifically my town for a number of years. I’ve written about this before but I continue to see some rather misguided but quite common beliefs dominating the discussion among locals.

The following thoughts are what bubbled up in my mind as I reflected upon these conversations and what the significant majority of my fellow Ontarians appear to believe.

We need to reject the mythos that growth (especially economic but also population) is always and forever a good/beneficial policy path. It is not. Not only are the very real negative environmental/ecological consequences ignored or rationalized away in such a story, but the limits of what is possible and social problems that arise from it mostly discounted/minimized.

In addition, the tendency to assume such growth is inevitable completely overlooks the fact that it is a sociopolitical/socioeconomic policy choice, not a predestined path. We can stop or reverse it if we so choose.

Finally, little if any attention is paid to the reason(s) our ruling elite cheerlead growth. It is not for the virtue-signalling reasons they shout and market repeatedly. It is about sustaining a Ponzi-type economic system that supports status quo power and wealth structures. It is profit and prestige motivated. It must always be remembered that the primary motivation of our ruling caste is the control/expansion of the wealth-generating/-extracting systems that provide their revenue streams and thus positions of power and prestige. All other considerations are secondary/tertiary and ultimately are leveraged to meet their primary one.

The world is a complex nexus of geography, geology, biology, physics, and chemistry. And the stories told by our ‘leaders’ mostly ignore (or rationalize away) the physical realities of these fundamental sciences in favour of sociocultural myths that reinforce the idea that humans stand outside Nature — and their positions in our societies.

Significantly exponential credit-/debt-based fiat currency growth (thanks to the private financial institutions creating it from thin air and charging interest for its use in order to garner obscene profits, and which is what is feeding all this) collides catastrophically with the realities of existence upon a finite planet and its physical limits.

Given interest-bearing fiat is a claim/lien upon future resources — that we have encountered significant diminishing returns upon — and that we are several quadrillion dollars already in hawk, the writing is on the wall that we are totally and completely fubar. What is unsustainable cannot be sustained; no matter how much money we create. All we are succeeding in doing is stealing resources from the future and ensuring our planetary sinks are beyond repair.

The best option left is to prepare locally for the impending breakdown of the various complex systems that we have grown dependent upon, particularly the procurement of potable water, food production, and regional shelter needs. In addition, we should be degrowing our regions/communities, not making the situation even more dire and compounding its effects by continuing to chase growth — no matter what the profiteers from this perpetual-growth strategy are repeatedly telling us.

What I did say on one of the FB posts to try and keep it relatively succinct and simple:

Infinite growth on a planet with finite resources already encountering diminishing returns and using trillions of dollars of debt-/credit-based ‘money’ to pull them from the future. What could possibly go wrong? We are travelling in exactly the opposite direction of where we should be heading.

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). Encouraging others to read my work is also much appreciated.

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LVIII–Magical Thinking to Help Avoid Anxiety-Provoking Thoughts

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LVIII

July 6, 2022 (original posting date)

Arles, France (1984). Photo by author.

Magical Thinking to Help Avoid Anxiety-Provoking Thoughts

Today’s contemplation shares a comment I made to a Facebook Group a number of days ago in response to an article by Dr. Ugo Bardi — whose writing, especially around limits to growth and his proposal about the Seneca cliff decline we are likely to face as we bump into the biophysical limits imposed by a finite planet, I have enjoyed and greatly learned from. While we agree on much, we have a definite disagreement regarding the role and potential of non-renewable, energy-harvesting technologies (what most refer to simply as ‘renewable’ energy — a powerful marketing twist of language given the actual technologies required are in a very limited way ‘renewable’ (i.e., recyclable/rebuildable) and are not energy sources but technologies to harvest ‘renewable’ energy).

Dr. Bardi posted the article I responded to in reaction to another article that was penned by The Honest Sorcerer that I had shared on one of the several Facebook Groups Dr. Bardi hosts. My original comment is in bold below with some links/charts to articles/research that support my perspective and some concluding remarks.

Whether the article is ‘peer-reviewed’ or not (and there are certainly issues with the ‘gold standard’ of peer review), the fact remains that non-renewable, renewable energy-harvesting technologies appear to be an extension of our fossil fuel-based energies relying upon them significantly in both the upstream and downstream industrial processes necessary for their production, maintenance, and after-life reclamation and/or disposal.

Ideally, peer review is an objective and forceful gate-keeper that serves to eliminate poor ‘science’ prior to it being widely distributed but the process is certainly less than perfect and has it criticisms, even from within academia (in fact, the mainstay of gate-keeping — that is, repeating the experiment — is rarely, if ever carried out; mostly because there is not one to replicate):

British Medical Journal — https://www.bmj.com/content/340/bmj.c1409; https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/8/10/e020568
National Library of Medicine — https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25675064/
Mayo Clinic Proceedings — https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0025619618307079
The Seneca Effect — https://thesenecaeffect.blogspot.com/2021/11/when-science-speaks-in-tongues-how.html
Utah Valley University — https://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=21706

While there exist some small-scale examples of ‘renewables’ producing needed industrial products and ‘fuelling’ heavy equipment (and lots of marketing propaganda by vested interests around these; mostly, I would argue, to attract capital), the scale and cost are prohibitive, especially for a world already drowning in debt — to say little about the finite resources required to ‘convert’ the processes necessary. The bottom line is that in the present, and forgoing some miraculous as-yet-to-be-discovered technology, fossil fuel-based industrial processes are required for energy-harvesting technologies:

Cement, Steel, Aluminum production— https://energyskeptic.com/2014/alt-energy-too-much-steel-cement-aluminum-but-little-power/; https://grist.org/politics/cement-has-a-carbon-problem-here-are-some-concrete-solutions/; https://oilprice.com/Energy/Coal/Is-It-Possible-To-Make-Steel-Without-Fossil-Fuels.html; https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=7570
Mining — https://grist.org/article/report-going-100-renewable-power-means-a-lot-of-dirty-mining/; https://energyskeptic.com/2016/when-trucks-stop-running-table-of-contents-preface-references/;
In General — https://www.mdpi.com/1996-1073/14/15/4508/htm; https://phys.org/news/2021-10-net-policies-emperor-academics.html; https://medium.com/politically-speaking/when-renewables-are-not-renewable-8369808a7cea

These processes also add significant pollutants to a world already experiencing overloading of its various compensatory sinks, to say little of the reality that fossil fuel use has seen little if any contraction in demand despite decades of exponential increase in so-called renewables.

Here are a handful of ‘academic’ articles on how the industrial processes necessary for ‘renewables’ impact negatively the environment. They are neither ‘clean’ nor ‘green’ but are almost always referred to them as such (again, a marketing ploy):

University of Queensland studies — https://phys.org/news/2020-09-renewable-energy-threat-environment.html; https://phys.org/news/2020-03-renewable-energy-threaten-biodiverse-areas.html
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Institute of Technology — https://www.researchgate.net/publication/281550386_Environmental_Impacts_of_Renewable_Energy_Technologies
National Academies Press — https://nap.nationalacademies.org/read/12987/chapter/6
Nature Communications — https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17928-5

Here are a couple of charts to demonstrate that fossil fuel use has not decreased as ‘renewable energy technologies have increased in use (and significantly increased the past two decades). As this article highlights, the increase in ‘renewables’ has not detracted from our fossil fuel use (our dependence upon fossil fuels has continued to increase), it has simply offset the decline in nuclear-powered energy:

Highlighting the negative aspects of these technologies and the observation that they do not seem to be actually ‘solving’ in any way our fundamental predicament of ecological overshoot, or reducing our dependency upon fossil fuels, or reducing our destruction of the planet, is not ‘a mission received from God’; it is about challenging a narrative that seems quite problematic but is being marketed by many as the ‘solution’ to something that is increasingly looking to be a predicament that cannot be solved — and as William Catton Jr. pointed out in his 1980 text, we seem destined to experience the collapse that always tends to accompany overshoot because: “..habits of thought persist…people continue to advocate further technological breakthroughs as the supposedly sure cure for carrying capacity deficits. The very idea that technology caused overshoot, and that it made us too colossal to endure, remains alien to too many minds for ‘de-collosalization’ to be a really feasible alternative to literal die-off. There is a persistent drive to apply remedies that aggravate the problem.”


My ‘motivation’ for sharing the above is to provide the opportunity for the reader to decide thru their own reading and ‘research’ which story appears more believable. As The Honest Sorcerer recently wrote in this article (and others have similarly argued[1]), it takes some ‘magical thinking’ to believe that non-renewable, energy-harvesting technologies are any type of ‘solution’ for the predicament of ecological overshoot and for attempting to ‘sustain’ our globalised, complex society.

The widespread adoption of magical thinking to avoid anxiety-provoking cognitions is in no way surprising. It is perhaps, as Ajit Varki argues, that “Some aspects of human cognition and behavior appear unusual or exaggerated relative to those of other intelligent, warm-blooded, long-lived social species — including certain mammals (cetaceans, elephants and great apes) and birds (corvids and passerines). One such collection of related features is our facile ability for reality denial in the face of clear facts, a high capacity for self-deception and false beliefs, overarching optimism bias and irrational risk-taking behavior…”[2].

The allure of non-renewable, energy-harvesting technologies is that they can create a story in which a transition to a ‘green/clean/sustainable’ future with most (all?) of our current complexities is not only possible but assured; in fact, for some, it is the only future we should be pursuing if we are to avoid civilizational ‘collapse’.

Such a future may be possible, I suppose, if ALL the right conditions are met — the most significant that I can think of off the top of my head are being far fewer people, far less imperial endeavours by our ruling elite, and the acceptance of far, far lower living standards by those in so-called ‘advanced’ economies.

Revealing the impediments that exist in such a narrative is not a God-inspired mission as Dr. Bardi accuses. But it can create both anxiety and significant uncertainty for those who have hooked their wagon up to the ‘renewable’ horses and are hoping to get to the big sustainable city on the horizon. So it’s not surprising that many (most?) rail against the argument that our current complexities can in no way be sustained via non-renewable, energy-harvesting technologies and our future path is likely going to be far more chaotic and problematic than most imagine — at least for those that ponder such a predicament, since most actually tend not to think about it.

A book I highly recommend to help in one’s understanding of our penchant for clinging to stories that appear ‘certain’ but very often are not is Dan Gardner’s Future Babble (my personal summary notes can be found here).

As he argues:

It is more often than not the confident, self-assured voice providing a simple story (regardless of ‘evidence’ to the contrary) that is the most persuasive and influences beliefs more — one told by the ‘hedgehogs’ as Gardner calls them. Contradictory evidence is rationalised away and certainty assured.

Given our predisposition to avoiding uncertainty and wishing control (to avoid fear and anxiety), we search for certainty, employ magical thinking, and see patterns where none exist; and someone who sounds like they are sure of their story (and especially if they are an ‘authority’ figure or ‘expert’) is preferred to the ‘foxes’ who will acknowledge complexity and uncertainty about their narrative with warnings and unsureness. Research demonstrates, however, that it is the enthusiasm and confidence more than the expert status that persuades people. It instills a sense of trust. Unfortunately, such overconfidence can lead people astray and into accepting false beliefs.

Further, Gardner argues that human cultures have always created stories about themselves and their world. This allows knowledge to be passed from generation to generation, strengthens social bonds, and allows possible outcomes to be practised. These narratives also function to explain and make sense of phenomena but if such stories are left unresolved, we are unsettled and search for resolution. And if the narrative doesn’t fit into our prior beliefs, we tend to ignore it or deny its implications. If we happen upon a ‘trusted’ expert’s story that resonates with our beliefs and values, we cling to it regardless of their prediction record (usually by forgetting failures but celebrating successes).

Misremembering and hindsight bias not only contribute to the illusion that the past was not uncertain but lead us to be less sceptical of prognostications about the future. We don’t recall that we worried about an uncertain future previously and that most predictions never materilaised. We seek certainty about the future and find it in trustful ‘experts’ and their forecasts.

In the end, we all believe what we want to believe; ‘facts’ be damned…

We could ‘debate’ the ‘facts’ forever and in reality be no closer whatsoever to the ‘truth’ as to whether ‘renewables’ could support a complex society, for only the playing out of the timeline can determine which perspective is ‘correct’. From a scientific method standpoint, we would carry out a number of experiments where significant variables would be controlled (hopefully) and eventually reach consensus on an interpretation of evidence.

Obviously, we cannot do such reality-testing for many (most?) of the narratives we create in our attempts to understand the world and sketch a rough picture of the future, so we continue to debate with the psychological mechanisms that impact our perceptions and beliefs influencing us constantly. While it is one thing to recognise that we are affected by these psychological phenomena, it is quite something different to be able to shield ourselves from them no matter how much we try.

In addition, we often have little to no idea about the eventual consequences of a remedy for a perceived problem, especially if it is a relatively newly recognised one — let alone a predicament that has no ‘solutions’. One of the things I have argued about complex systems is that with their non-linear feedback loops and emergent phenomena, they are impossible to predict (let alone control). Even with the most sophisticated models and the most powerful computer systems, the tiniest of errors in baseline assumptions can result in predictive trajectories being completely off-base from what may eventually occur.

I raise the above point because one of the arguments against pursuing non-renewable energy-harvesting technologies is that their production would bolster our overshoot by further withdrawing finite resources and overloading compensatory sinks. It would put us in even worse peril then we already seem to be in. Is this assured? Obviously not since the future is unwritten and unknowable but the danger remains. To argue there is no danger requires some significant denial, bargaining, and magical thinking.

Regardless of the real dangers and the accumulating evidence that our technologies have in fact created our overshoot and pursuing more of them will result in significant ecological damage, I have a feeling that attempting to create more of them is exactly what we will do. For it is the ruling elite who tend to be the ones who steer our economic policies and decisions, and they stand to profit handsomely from the production of such technologies due to their ownership of the industrial processes and financial institutions required for their production and distribution.

The notion of a managed ‘collapse’ which some advocate for is anathema to those that sit atop the power and wealth structures that exist in our globalised complex society. Better to advocate for and cheerlead confidently a path that can be packaged in a shiny techno-box of hope and certainty for the masses while ensuring revenue streams are maintained or even expanded.

Damn the consequences. Full speed ahead.

[1] See Erik Michaels and Charles Hugh Smith.

[2] https://carta.anthropogeny.org/events/sessions/mind-over-reality-transition-evolution-human-mortality-denial

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LIII–Cognition and Belief Systems: Part Four — Cognitive Dissonance

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LIII

June 11, 2022 (original posting date)

Santorini, Greece (1984). Photo by author.

Cognition and Belief Systems: Part Four — Cognitive Dissonance

This contemplation is the fourth part of a look at several psychological mechanisms at play in our thinking about ecological overshoot and the accompanying societal ‘collapse’ that will eventually result.

In Part One, I briefly summarised four psychological mechanisms I’ve been reflecting upon in the context of ecological overshoot and in particular the collapse of our global, industrialised complex societies that will (or, as some argue, has already begun to) accompany this overshoot; you can read it here. In Part Two, I began elaborating my thoughts on the first mechanism in my list: Obedience/Deference to Authority; you can find it here. Part three comprises some thoughts about the phenomenon of Groupthink and can be found here.

One of the primary considerations in understanding how our cognitions and thus our beliefs and behaviours are going to be affected by the unfolding of the consequences of ecological overshoot and the concomitant ‘collapse’ of our societies is the anxiety/stress that such a future (and present) is going to have (is having) upon us; personally, on a familial level, and on the broader societal scale. Contemplating an unknowable future that is unlikely to provide many of the energetic conveniences most currently depend upon and/or that will challenge our complex systems to the breaking point because of extreme weather events, or supply chain disruptions/breakdowns (especially food, water, energy), etc. can be exceedingly anxiety-provoking.

Mix these (and many other) psychological mechanisms in with Edward Thorndike’s Law of Effect — that postulates all animals have an innate motivation to avoid pain/seek pleasure[1] — and you have an animal whose sense-making abilities are leveraged by its mind to deny/ignore away evidence that challenges them and can cause painful, anxiety-provoking emotions (in fact, there appears to be neuroscientific support for this[2]). In response, we appear to employ all sorts of biases/rationalisations to support our belief systems (a ‘pleasurable’ sensation) regardless of disconfirming evidence (that can lead to painful/stressful emotions).

Hastening back to the summary I wrote on cognitive dissonance in the first part of this series, recall that it is fundamentally “…the idea that humans experience negative emotions when they hold conflicting or inconsistent cognitions[3]. The resulting state of discomfort leads us to become motivated to align our cognitive knowledge, and the more discomfort or anxiety we feel from such conflicting cognition the more we struggle to reduce the resulting tension. It is during such efforts to reduce the dissonance we are feeling that we engage in significant rationalisation that can convince us to accept knowledge that we might otherwise not agree with.”

The anxiety one may experience in holding conflicting beliefs varies since some people are not as impacted by such internal conflict as they have a higher tolerance for it. In fact, there are some who are quite comfortable with holding beliefs that conflict with each other so their dissonance-reducing efforts are not as impactful as for those who do encounter such internal stress.

For those who do suffer from anxiety-provoking emotions caused by conflicting beliefs, if the beliefs one holds are more personal or valued in nature (or the disparity between them is great), even more dissonance may be experienced than may be typical if the beliefs are not personally valued. This can bring about heightened efforts to reduce the dissonance. These efforts may also be increased if beliefs are challenged by others, leading to even further entrenchment/defense of one’s beliefs and concomitant dissonance-reducing attempts.

Further, if our behaviours do not align with our beliefs we may find that we actually alter our beliefs to become consistent with our behaviours[4]. There appears to exist a feedback loop between our beliefs and actions, with each affecting the other in ongoing attempts to minimise personal anxiety (i.e., psychological ‘pain’).

Another complexity in this entire process is that a person’s comfort with uncertainty may also critical to how much dissonance may be experienced[5].

Research on human reactions to uncertainty is, of course, important to the issue of overshoot and collapse given the nature of the predicament and what we do in attempting to understand how it will impact us and the planet. We are, for all intents and purposes, making ‘guesses’ about our future and as physicist Niels Bohr has been credited with stating (and several others): “Predictions are difficult, especially if they’re about the future”.

We can’t help but be anything but uncertain about our future and this feeling of uncertainty intensifies emotional reactions; sometimes positively but most of the time negatively because humans desire certainty (which is why we sometimes are prone to misleading narratives, especially if communicated in a convincing manner that offers assurances). And the greater the uncertainty, the stronger the affective reaction. Most people experience anxiety with uncertainty[6] and seek ways to reduce this.[7]

One of the ways our brains reduce uncertainty is to simplify our understanding of the world. We engage biases and heuristics to do this[8], and in the process we tend to see patterns that don‘t exist and treat random events as meaningful[9]. By simplifying an exceedingly complex reality we can reduce our uncertainty and thus our anxiety about the future.

So, here we are, an animal existing in an exceedingly complex world with relatively remarkable cognitive abilities attempting to understand the flood of information our senses are experiencing. We also find ourselves within a hierarchical social environment where our tendency is to defer to those ‘above’ us in social status. If they can influence or create the worldview through which we interpret the world, we tend to do this.

Then comes along some disruptive technologies such as the printing press and, more recently, the internet to allow for the dissemination of competing narratives for how we view the world. The variety of interpretive lenses that are created by this can lead to ever-growing dissonance[10]. We are exposed repeatedly to the stories that our elite are pushing[11], but we are also aware of competing ones. We tend to defer to those communicated by our authority figures (be it politicians, the media, academics, etc.), but not always. We do occasionally get exposed to conflicting messages and evidence.

How do we alleviate the resulting anxiety? We employ our mind to filter out the incoming information in a way that reduces the stress we are experiencing. It matters little what we experience with our own senses or the data we are exposed to. We simplify, alter our perspective/interpretation, and create a narrative that we can filter evidence through. We also seek out self-reinforcing echo chambers of like-minded individuals/groups. Confirming information is amplified and reinforces our story while disconfirming information is ignored, denied, or rationalised away. In essence, we believe what our minds want us to believe; ‘facts’ be damned. And if we are challenged and begin to experience dissonance, we grab a hold of our fundamental beliefs even harder.

Obviously, it’s not quite as simple as this and some are more prone to the anxiety-reducing mechanisms than others, but for the most part we are ‘guided’ to beliefs that may not align with ‘reality’ but that reduce our ‘pain’ (i.e., anxiety) while increasing our ‘pleasure’ (e.g., dopamine surges appear to be one result when we encounter the pleasurable sensation of ‘confirmation’ of our beliefs[12]). We take increasing comfort in narratives that can reduce our anxiety, often regardless of any evidence that challenges them.

Depend significantly on industrial civilisation and all the conveniences it offers? Then you can be sure to either ignore/deny the narratives and accompanying evidence that point to its probable demise[13], and/or take increasing comfort in the stories that human ingenuity and our technological prowess will ‘solve’ our predicament[14] of ecological overshoot and its accompanying collapse. It seems we create our own ‘reality’.

Finally, keep in mind the statement attributed to author Robert Heinlein: “Man is not a rational animal; he is a rationalizing animal”. We ‘rationalise/justify’ what we believe and do so constantly, which will be looked at in the next piece that reviews The Justification Hypothesis.

[1] https://www.simplypsychology.org/edward-thorndike.html

[2] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/202001/the-neuroscience-seeking-pleasure-and-avoiding-pain

[3] https://psychology.iresearchnet.com/social-psychology/social-psychology-theories/cognitive-dissonance-theory/

[4] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mortal-rituals/201306/behavior-over-belief; https://www.verywellmind.com/attitudes-how-they-form-change-shape-behavior-2795897; https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-cognitive-dissonance-2795012

[5] https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/326738#overview

[6] This feeling appears to be context dependent as some activities with uncertainty may actually produce positive emotions, such as watching sports or a mystery movie, or gambling.

[7] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-right-mindset/202002/why-uncertainty-freaks-you-out; https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/3153298/Gilbert_FeelingUncertaintyIntensifies.pdf;

[8] https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/basics/heuristics; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3864559/;

[9] See Dan Gardner’s Future Babble for a great overview of this phenomenon: https://www.dangardner.ca/publication/future-babble.

[10] Perhaps this explains the seemingly ever-growing number of people in so-called ‘advanced’ economies that have been identified with an anxiety disorder and, for some, become reliant on anti-anxiety medication. https://www.anxietycentre.com/statistics/anxiety-disorder-statistics-facts/

[11] As I have argued previously, we have a ruling elite who sit at the top of our power/wealth social structures and are motivated by a drive to sustain their privilege. Part of what they do to meet this imperative is that they create narratives that help to legitimise their positions — from being directly descended from God/the gods to chosen ‘freely’ by the masses as their representatives (or worked exceptionally ‘hard’ to deserve their privilege). This class of people also tend to be susceptible to the vagaries of groupthink due to their increasing isolation from the hoi polloi.

[12] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/brain-wise/201802/the-dopamine-seeking-reward-loop; https://owlcation.com/social-sciences/Confirmation-Bias-What-is-it-How-it-affects-You-and-How-to-Deal-With-It; https://www.healthline.com/health/dopamine-effects#drugs-dopamine; https://www.cell.com/trends/cognitive-sciences/fulltext/S1364-6613(19)30013-0;

[13] I say ‘probable’ given the self-evident fact (at least, to me) that not one of us can predict the future with much accuracy. Evidence appears to be accumulating that the endgame of ‘collapse’ is unavoidable but in truth only time will tell if and how this all plays out.

[14] I am of the opinion that this is a predicament without solution; it can possibly, at best, be mitigated somewhat and in some places better than others.

Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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