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Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XCV–We All Believe What We Want To Believe

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XCV

January 31, 2023 (original posting date)

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

We All Believe What We Want To Believe

The following Contemplation is my comment in response to a thought-provoking post I read by Dave Pollard at his site How to Save the World.

Great read, thanks for sharing. A couple of quick thoughts.

If you’ve not stumbled across Erik Michaels work at Problems, Predicaments, and Technology you might find it confirming with regard to the notion that we have no free will. One of his major theses is that humans have no agency, and thus his motto to Live Now in the face of the consequences of human ecological overshoot.

Second, I’ve come to hold very similar thoughts as you on the idea that “we believe what we want to believe” and I think, perhaps, this is one of our primary reasons we grasp for hopeful narratives; along with the desire to believe we have agency/free will.

There are so many psychological mechanisms driving our behaviour and beliefs that it’s difficult to parse which is the most impactful — but perhaps it is our denial of reality in the face of our mortality as Ajit Varki argues. Not wanting to face the fact of death, we craft (using a lot of magical thinking) some rather complex narratives to deal with this reality. Throw in how we mitigate/reduce the stress of cognitive dissonance, and our tendencies toward deferring to authority and groupthink, and we have a recipe for clinging to stories — especially if weaved by smooth-talking snake oil salesmen — that provide ‘hope’.

Reality, facts, evidence…none of it matters. In fact, it appears we create our own reality based on ‘facts/evidence’ that tends to confirm our beliefs. As the lyrics of a song I recently heard suggest: “This is where I want to be, so this is where I go.”

Some want to believe there is an after-life. Others that human ingenuity and complex technologies will solve our existential predicaments. The laundry list of hopeful narratives is long and humans tend to want to confirm their beliefs rather than have them challenged. Denial and bargaining in the face of significant contrary evidence seems to be hard-wired in these walking, talking apes that have been able to leverage their cognitive abilities and tool-making skills to extend their ‘control’ over Nature and create the reality they wish; at least in their minds, and that seems to be all that matters for most.

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 LXXXVIII–Collapse: Just Like Boiling A Frog

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LXXXVIII

January 2, 2023 (original posting date)

Chitchen Itza, Mexico. (1986) Photo by author.

Collapse: Just Like Boiling A Frog

As I continue to work on my multipart contemplation regarding our energy future (Part 1; Part 2), thought I would throw out this ‘brief’ one that shares my comment on the most recent post by The Honest Sorcerer, whose writing in general continues to parallel my own (probably not surprising given the increasing evidence regarding the trends in the topic(s) we discuss).

Great article. As the saying goes: it’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future[1]. We mostly look at current trends and extrapolate them into the future, believing that tomorrow will unfold much like today — and we do this for pretty sound reasons but mostly because our primate brains have extreme difficulty comprehending complex systems and their nonlinear feedback loops and emergent phenomena. In a time of flux/chaos/transition, such an approach is not always such a good strategy — to say little about all the Black Swans circling overhead[2].

One of the places I default to when hoping to give some certainty to the future (something homo sapiens strongly desire[3]) is the past. This is likely because of my ‘brief’ educational background and work in pre/history (aka archaeology)[4].

While technology has dramatically changed some aspects of how we re/act (i.e., adapt) to our changing environment through our problem-solving abilities, we tend to follow a similar path to our distant ancestors by way of leveraging our tools and ingenuity to help us survive and adapt (agriculture being perhaps the big one that resulted in food surpluses, sedentary lifestyles, exponentially increasing populations, and eventually organizational structures that led to differential access to resources, sociopolitical complexity and, perhaps finally, territorial competition[5]); but these solely human abilities can only take us so far in a world of biogeochemical limits — particularly when the energy required to sustain all our complexities have encountered significant diminishing returns and resulted in catastrophic ecological systems breakdown.

Mix in cognitive and social psychology, biological principles, and physical limits and laws, and we humans can more or less get a better picture of the path(s) we are likely to take in our societal evolutionary journey. One only need review the business-as-usual scenario painted by Meadows et al. in The Limits to Growth for a fairly accurate longer-term prediction of how a world with hard limits will unfold[6].

Based upon all previous experiments with complex societies over the past ten millennia or so, ‘collapse’ appears unavoidable. This decline in complexity (which is what ‘collapse’ is when one gets right down to it and ignores all the emotional baggage we’ve tied to the term) manifests itself in less; less in terms of: social differentiation/stratification; occupational specialization; centralised control by political elite; behavioural control/regimentation; investment in the epiphenomena of complexity — i.e., monumental architecture, artistic and literary development; flow of information between groups; sharing, trading and redistribution of resources; and, coordination between polities[7]. This is a simplification (or Great Simplification as Nate Hagens has termed it[8]) of our adaptive complexities, something that likely would have happened much sooner had we not leveraged fossil fuels to hyper-complexify human adaptations and extend/expand — temporarily — the planet’s carrying capacity for homo sapiens.

Given how far we’ve overshot our natural environmental carrying capacity and consequently degraded our much needed environments and ecological systems — and overexploited virtually every corner of our planet — this inevitable simplification may actually end up being even more dramatic than previous experiments as Catton has pointed out in Overshoot[9].

The journey to this endgame of a substantially simpler future is sure to be the hard part. Increasing geopolitical tensions between competing polities for scarcer resources is sure to occur. Concomitantly, the ruling caste is certain to tighten their grip on their domestic populations by way of authoritarian tendencies (e.g., behavioural and narrative control via increased mass surveillance, militarisation of police, media influence). We are going to witness a continuing breakdown of ecological systems and environmental degradation yet be told these are temporary or reflective of ‘natural’ change. Our Ponzi-type financial/monetary/economic systems are going to be further manipulated from their current highly-manipulated states and any ‘temporary’ deviations from the economy-is-great narrative will be blamed on some evil ‘other’ rather than our own ruling caste and their ongoing machinations.

Like the story about being able to boil a frog alive because of minute temperature changes that go unnoticed, we may miss the little steps that take us to an entirely different world than the one we currently exist within and accept that everything is ‘normal’ despite evidence to the contrary. The ruling caste has learned to be quite adept in manipulating our beliefs about life and their abilities to ‘protect’ us.

All of this said, the future is both unknowable and unpredictable. It will hold many surprises, particularly for the vast majority of people who are just struggling to get through another day/week/year and tend to defer to the ‘authority’ figures that promise them this, that, and everything…

[1] See this.

[2] See this.

[3] See this.

[4] Although my career was in education, I spent a handful of years in university studying and practising archaeology — graduating with a Master of Arts in the subject.

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

[6] See this.

[7] See this.

[8] See this.

[9] See this.

Synthetic Controversy

Synthetic Controversy

Regarding modern psywar application of the divide and conquer strategy

Chapter 7: Competitive Strategy
In war, the army succeeds by deception(surprising the enemy), by moving the enemy with benefits, and by divide or concentration of forces in variation.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

In his first Italian campaign in 1796 and 1797, Napoleon was outnumbered by nearly 20,000 troops by the Piedmontian and Hapsburg armies. He was able to defeat them by using rapid, forced advances which separated the two armies, allowing him to fight them singly.

The American Civil War provides an excellent example of the “divide and conquer” strategy with Stonewall Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign. While fielding only 17,000 men, Jackson was able to defeat three Union columns (60,000 troops) by using the difficult to terrain to ambush and fight each singly rather than facing all at once.

In warfare, dividing and conquering is a common tactic. It involves splitting the enemy forces into smaller groups, isolating them, and attacking each group separately to weaken their overall strength.

In politics, divide and conquer tactics typically involve creating divisions among opponents or within rival groups to maintain control or gain an advantage. By sowing discord, exploiting existing divisions, or creating new divisions using the method of synthetic controversies it becomes much easier to weaken opposition and consolidate power.

But how are divide and conquer tactics deployed during modern PsyWar and hybrid warfare?

In media, including legacy/mainstream, social and other alternative media, controversy sells. And it often seems like all media has become much more about sales than about sharing factual information. Controversy generates clicks, re-posting, and message amplification. The controversy can focus on either a substantial or a trivial issue. In modern PsyWar, with its emphasis on censorship, propaganda, and psychological shaping or manipulation, facts and reality are increasingly irrelevant. It is no longer necessary for the controversy to be fact-based…

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LXII–Magical Thinking About the Energy Transition

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LXII

July 31, 2022 (original posting date)

Athens, Greece (1984). Photo by author.

Magical Thinking About the Energy Transition

A really short contemplation prompted by an article posted in Resilience.org from The Rapid Transition Alliance regarding sustaining long-distance trade via electric ships.

The entire narrative around ‘electrifying’ everything is primarily about the marketing of ecologically-destructive and completely unsustainable industrial products while leveraging human emotions about well-meaning care and compassion for the world and fellow species.

I believe the reasoning is simple: those who own the industries and financial institutions that are required for such a transition stand to profit handsomely from the belief that we can have our cake and eat it too, so let’s pour all remaining capital into ‘transitioning’ to something ‘green/clean’.

Only this is a fantasy.

The denial of reality required to believe in this tale not only serves to reduce the anxiety from the cognitive dissonance created when we realise that we live on a finite planet that has blown past the natural carrying capacity for humans and have hit significant diminishing returns on the most important resources to support our various complexities, but also leads to significant magical thinking about our ability to ‘transition’ from fossil fuels (that underpin virtually everything in our complex societies, especially food production, transportation, and adequate shelter) to something equally effective but non-destructive and sustainable.

There is nothing ‘resilient’ about this narrative. Humanity (at least in the form of complex, industrial societies) is not going to ‘recover quickly’ from the energy cliff we have likely already begun our descent from. It seems a misguided and misinformed story that serves to dish out ‘hope’ as opposed to the harsh ‘reality’ that we are in significant ecological overshoot and the primary resource that has led us here (fossil fuels) is in terminal decline with no substitute available[1].

We seem to be flailing about telling ourselves and others comforting tales while deferring to our ruling elite who are hell bent on leveraging our various crises to their economic and political advantage.

It’s past time we stop looking for magical solutions and face the looming hardships that are before us.

Let’s divert our remaining energy and resources towards safely decommissioning those dangerous complexities we’ve created (e.g., nuclear power plants and their waste products, biosafety labs and their dangerous pathogens, and chemical production and storage facilities) and relocalising as much as is possible the procurement of potable water, food production, and regional shelter needs.

Telling ourselves and believing in lies and fairy tales is a sure recipe for the consequences of our well-meaning but ecologically-destructive ways to be significantly worse than they could otherwise be. Ramping up our industrial production of unsustainable technologies not only expedites the negative consequences of our overshoot but worsens our plight by further reducing the planet’s carrying capacity.

[1] This avoids the even more difficult discussion that even if we were to stumble upon a ‘green/clean’ energy substitute for fossil fuels, there are a host of other significant impediments to sustaining an 7+ billion population on a finite planet.

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LVI–Cognition and Belief Systems: Part Six — Sociopolitical ‘Collapse’ and Ecological Overshoot

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LVI

June 29, 2022 (original posting date)

Rome, Italy (1984). Photo by author.

Cognition and Belief Systems: Part Six — Sociopolitical ‘Collapse’ and Ecological Overshoot

This contemplation is my concluding post regarding several psychological mechanisms at play in our thinking about ecological overshoot and the accompanying societal ‘collapse’ that will eventually result.

In the initial post, 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. The fourth contemplation in this series looks at the role of Cognitive Dissonance in our cognition and can be read here. In the fifth contemplation, I round out the phenomena I review with a view on The Justification Hypothesis; read it 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).

I must begin by going back to a passage from an article I cited in the introductory ‘essay’ by Megan Siebert and William Rees: “We begin with a reminder that humans are storytellers by nature. We socially construct complex sets of facts, beliefs, and values that guide how we operate in the world. Indeed, humans act out of their socially constructed narratives as if they were real. All political ideologies, religious doctrines, economic paradigms, cultural narratives — even scientific theories — are socially constructed “stories” that may or may not accurately reflect any aspect of reality they purport to represent. Once a particular construct has taken hold, its adherents are likely to treat it more seriously than opposing evidence from an alternate conceptual framework.”[3]

The following is my story that I’ve developed over the past 10+ years in reading relatively extensively and reflecting upon a variety of other stories about our past, present, and future. I am not SO confident in it that I would wager heavily in favour of it being the ‘truth’ — I think it’s close but I also believe that the complexities involved in attempting to understand exactly what is happening is far beyond human comprehension (and certainly mine). Plus my view changes periodically with new information/interpretations. The generality of it tends to remain but the specifics alter; and the more I learn, the more assured I am that my understanding is still quite rudimentary[4]. And then there’s the impossibility of making accurate predictions about how the future will unfold. I am relatively confident that such prognostications are completely beyond the scope of human cognition (even with the aid of computers) given the incalculable non-linear feedback loops and emergent phenomena that exist in complex systems — a single, minuscule faulty base assumption can send the trajectory of any calculation sideways in totally unexpected ways.

Anyways, here is my story beginning with a brief review of ‘collapse’ and overshoot:

Humans are susceptible not only to sociopolitical collapse[5] but collapse of its population via a massive die-off due to ecological overshoot[6]. Both seem inevitable at this point in our evolution[7]. And both are extremely anxiety-provoking regardless of whether one has moved through Kubler-Ross’s Stages of Grief[8] and reached the final stage of acceptance or not.

Let’s begin by looking at what ‘collapse’ means from the perspective of archaeologist Joseph Tainter, who summarises his perspective near the beginning of his text, The Collapse of Complex Societies, on the subject.

“Collapse…is a political process. It may, and often does, have consequences in such areas as economics, art, and literature, but it is fundamentally a matter of the sociopolitical sphere. A society has collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity…[It manifests itself] as:
· a lower degree of stratification and social differentiation;
· less economic and occupational specialization, of individuals, groups, and territories;
· less centralized control; that is, less regulation and integration of diverse economic and political groups by elites;
· less behavioural control and regimentation; less investment in the epiphenomena of complexity, those elements that define the concept of ‘civilization’: monumental architecture, artistic and literary achievements, and the like;
· less flow of information between individuals, between political and economic groups, and between a center and its periphery;
· less sharing, trading, and redistribution of resources;
· less overall coordination and organization of individuals and groups;
· a smaller territory within a single political unit.”[9]

While Tainter’s analysis of sociopolitical collapse is startling, given that virtually every experiment we have attempted with complex societies over our pre/history have failed and thus our hyper-complex one is likely even more susceptible to the primary factor that leads to its eventual demise (i.e., diminishing returns on investments in complexity), the work of William Catton Jr. on the ecological overshoot of the human species is even more anxiety-provoking[10].

Catton argues that our leveraging of fossil fuels has allowed humanity to expand well beyond the natural carrying capacity of the planet and mirrors quite clearly the type of exploitation that is observed in species that invariably ‘bloom and crash’.

And while in our denial of this inevitability we have created stories that we can avert such a future, Catton asserts that “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.”[11]

In fact, he recognises that “…believing crash can’t happen to us is one reason it will. The principles of ecology apply to all living things. By supposing that our humanity exempts us, we delude ourselves…whatever the species, irruptions that overshoot carrying capacity lead inexorably to die-offs. Irruptions can happen to any species that gains access to a previously inaccessible but highly suitable habitat. All it takes is for the habitat to contain an abundance of whatever resources are needed by the invading species, and for there to be little population-checking pressure from predators and little or no competition from other species having similar niche requirements and living in the same area.”[12]

As Catton concludes, when overshoot has occurred there is no avoiding the crash.

Cutting to the chase, we have a globalised world that can be expected to experience sociopolitical collapse (or is already experiencing) and/or a massive overshoot die-off that puts everything at risk, for everyone; but especially for those who live within so-called ‘advanced economies’ that have come to depend fully and completely upon the energy-averaging systems of global trade and its complex and fragile supply chains[13].

Talk about anxiety-provoking!

I have been ‘searching’ for a few poignant thoughts on how to conclude these handful of contemplations on the psychological mechanisms I’ve outlined and how this may impact our thinking (or, at least, mine) about an unwritten and unknowable future. And I think, perhaps, the comment I left at Tom Murphy’s Do the Math site in response to an article he posted recently kind of hits the nail on the head of where my thoughts have led me (at this point in my journey). The comment is in bold with some further connective ideas added:

I’m coming to three (of many) rather ‘anxiety-provoking’ conclusions given everything. First, that our leveraging of that one-time cache of fossil energy has expedited our journey into ecological overshoot — this being our fundamental predicament that is signalling its presence in all the ‘problematic’ symptoms we are experiencing.

Our primary predicament, then, seems to be ecological overshoot. The sociopolitical collapse that Tainter attributes to diminishing returns on investments in complexity appears to resonate with a society’s tendency to overshoot its carrying capacity, be it local, regional, or global. When biophysical limits of the supportive and accessible resources (given the technology of the time) are breached, diminishing returns on investments in complexity begin to arise. Eventually, such diminishing returns hits a point where participants in the society begin to make the economic choice to abandon support for it as the previous benefits gained from living with such complexities falter and no longer make the investments worthwhile. The sociopolitical system cannot function for long without support from the masses — it eventually ‘collapses’.

The unavoidable consequence of such overshoot in our current hypercomplex, globalised society is likely a massive die-off of our species as Catton warns given the fact that the vast majority of humans no longer possess the skills and/or knowledge of basic survival skills such as the procurement of potable water, local food production, and maintenance of regional shelter needs. In fact, many of today’s communities exist in regions where such resources cannot be acquired and they depend entirely upon fragile and complex long-distance supply chains. In the past, most disenchanted people simply migrated and took up existence outside of the sociopolitical realm that was disintegrating. Such an option for the vast majority, if not all, is perhaps completely out of the question nowadays.

Second, our penchant for denial of anxiety-provoking situations is leading us to ignore our predicament and cling to optimistic narratives — even if completely false (or misleading) in nature.

Add to the significant anxiety created by our predicament the profound sense of loss involved when one’s world suddenly moves sideways, particularly in unsuspecting ways, or when a loss is ‘expected’, and we experience the grieving stages Kubler-Ross identified and described — particularly denial, anger, and bargaining.

Moreover, the research around anticipatory loss suggests that the stages of grief that one experiences can actually be much more intense when one is expecting such loss than after the actual loss. There can be greater anger, more significant loss of emotional control, and atypical grief responses[14].

Most importantly it seems that the initial stage of grief, denial (especially of death and anything unpleasant) has been argued to be the defining evolutionary trait that makes us human[15], so it tends to be the most common response by people.

Wanting to avoid/reduce the pain that accompanies the resulting anxiety we search for evidence to confirm any ‘positive/pleasurable’ beliefs we tend to hold as ‘correct’ and deny and/or rationalise away the information that is challenging our ‘faith’. And what could be more anxiety-provoking than the impending collapse of one’s complex society or a massive die-off? As crises erupt and challenges our belief systems, we will search for evidence that any decline/fall is either far off in the distant future, nonsensical, can be ‘solved’ (especially via our ingenuity and technological prowess), the fault of some ‘enemy’ or opposition group within our domestic ranks (or supernatural entity), etc..[16]. This is typical ‘bargaining’ behaviour.

Third, our ruling elite are themselves leveraging our ‘fears’ to do what they do best: seeking to maintain/expand the power/wealth structures that exist in complex societies and provide them their privileged positions; and our tendency to defer to ‘authority’ and desire to alleviate anxiety make us susceptible to the narratives they create, such as human ingenuity and technology will allow us to continue to chase the perpetual growth chalice to infinity and beyond.

It seems clear to me that ‘collapse’ puts directly in its crosshairs the power/wealth structures that support the ruling class. I’ve said a lot about this in previous articles but feel compelled to share a bit more.

I have little doubt that the ruling class will take advantage of all of these well-known psychological mechanisms in their ongoing and ever-present quest to maintain/control the wealth-generation/-extraction systems that provide their revenue streams and privileged status. Narrative control, perhaps one of if not the most important mechanism for sustaining the status quo societal structures, will be ramped up continuously. ‘Threats’ will be vilified. Myths will be created and/or amplified. Means of extending and pretending will likely dominate as the elite kick-the-can-down-the-road as long as they can.

We need to not only be aware and conscious of these psychological mechanisms that influence our beliefs and thus actions, but actively engaging ‘countermeasures’ by resisting our automatic responses (e.g., ‘leaders’ and their courtiers/sycophants/bureaucrats are always correct and/or have the best interest of the people/society at the top of their motivations) and reflecting upon/challenging our beliefs/thought processes periodically. We also need to admit that much of what we believe to be true/factual may, in fact, be conditioned responses and/or ‘programmed’ ideas established by the ruling elite[17].

Cognitive framing in which the way we perceive/interpret events is established for us, perhaps through propaganda or the creation of an Overton Window. We are kept from thinking about alternatives to the established options and made to believe the offered ‘solutions’ are the only ones to consider…thinking outside the box is not allowed, especially if it challenges the status quo power/wealth structures. I expect the totalitarianism that is increasingly defining our sociopolitical systems worldwide[18] to expand significantly as we slide down the Seneca Cliff of resource contraction (especially energy).

The collapse that always accompanies overshoot seems baked in at this point with little if anything we can do about it.

Personally, I’d like to see our dwindling fossil fuels dedicated to decommissioning safely those significantly dangerous complexities we’ve created (e.g., nuclear power plants, biosafety labs, chemical storage, etc.) and relocalising as much potable water procurement, food production, and regional shelter needs as possible rather than attempting to sustain what is ultimately unsustainable given the fossil fuel inputs necessary. Perhaps, just perhaps. by doing these things a few pockets of humanity (and many other species) can come out the other side of the bottleneck we’ve created for ourselves.

In my skimming of the topic of denial I happened upon Nate Hagens’ work on this in Reality Blind. I’ll add this to my ever-expanding list of readings…

In addition, here are some useful sites/links for exploring further some of the above concepts:

Nate Hagens: Energy & Economy

Two Ice Floes

Erik Michaels: Problems, Predicaments, and Technology

Caitlin Johnstone

Rob Mielcarski: Un-Denial


Theory of Mind

Theory of Knowledge/Epistemology

[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://www.mdpi.com/1996-1073/14/15/4508/htm?fbclid=IwAR2ISt5shfV4wpFEc8jxbQnrrxyllyvZP-xDnoHhWrjGTQRIqUNfk3hOK1g

[4] In my writing and reflecting upon issues/topics in this set of posts I have explored new topics that I had not previously encountered or thought extensively about.

[5] Tainter, J.. The Collapse of Complex Societies. Cambridge University Press, 1988. (ISBN 978–0–521–38673–9).

[6] Catton, Jr., William R.. Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. University of Illinois Press, 1980. (ISBN 0–252–00818–9).

[7] Although I am fairly confident that this is the case, I say ‘seem’ because the future is both unwritten and unknowable. And keep in mind that recognising this does not necessitate that one has ‘given up’, an accusation common amongst those who disagree with the belief.

[8] https://www.psycom.net/stages-of-grief

[9] Tainter, J. The Collapse of Complex Societies. P. 4.

[10] Although, “less sharing, trading, and redistribution of resources” has enormous implications for the masses of humanity that depend on such energy-averaging systems given their knowledge/skill loss in providing the necessities of life — i.e., potable water procurement, food production, regional shelter needs.

[11] [11] Catton, Jr., William R.. Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. P. 174.

[12] Ibid. P. 213.

[13] I can’t help but ponder the chaos of my Canadian home province of Ontario with its 15 million inhabitants that imports 80+% of its food needs along complex and fragile supply chains and has pursued the ‘paving over’ of its limited arable lands to expand suburban neighbourhoods and dedicated most of its remaining ‘farming’ to industrial agriculture that produces primarily corn/soybean to feed ethanol production and livestock. We grow a very limited amount of our local food needs.

[14] https://www.verywellhealth.com/understanding-anticipatory-grief-and-symptoms-2248855; https://www.psycom.net/anticipatory-grief; https://www.medicinenet.com/anticipatory_grief/definition.htm

[15] https://un-denial.com/denial-2/theory-short/

[16] Most are unlikely/unwilling to look in the mirror and see we have contributed to the situation.

[17] See Bernays, E.. Propaganda. iG Publishing, 1928. (ISBN 0–9703125–9–8).

[18] Do not be fooled by the narratives surrounding representative democracies. The notion that we have agency via the ballot box is perhaps one of the most successful scams ever perpetrated on the masses by the ruling elite — along with the control/distribution of fiat currency being done in an equitable and thoughtful manner that serves everyone.

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LIV–Cognition and Belief Systems: Part Five — Justification Hypothesis

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LIV

June 18, 2022 (original posting date)

Rome, Italy (1984). Photo by author.

Cognition and Belief Systems: Part Five — Justification Hypothesis

This contemplation is the fifth 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. The fourth in this series looks at the role of Cognitive Dissonance in our cognition and can be read 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).

The uniquely human phenomenon theorised via the term Justification Hypothesis can be summed up in a quote attributed to author Robert Heinlein in the previous article: “Humans are a rationalising animal, not a rational one”.

It is argued that we seek to rationalise/justify our behaviours and cognitions in order to align them, sometimes to justify our efforts/actions, and perhaps at the same time to present a positive image to others and ourselves. A form of positive feedback tends to then arise where we experience increasing ‘pleasure’ through the confirmation of our beliefs, putting more ‘effort’ into attempts to confirm them (i.e., seeking like-minded individuals/groups or examples/data in support of), and becoming more ‘convinced’ we are correct in our belief system.

Effort justification, for example, may be as simple as rationalising the physical or mental energy we put into an activity. Research indicates that the more effort or sacrifice we put towards an activity or idea/belief, the more we come to view it as positive. It is important to note that studies suggest that this attractiveness is stronger and more prone to occur if the activity/belief is perceived as being freely chosen and the expected ‘cost’ is known prior to any effort[3].

“At least two important implications seem to follow from effort justification. First, it is likely to have functional benefits for groups. By increasing attraction and commitment to the group, group cohesion and stability are enhanced. Second, effort justification is likely to increase persistence at tasks that are not altogether pleasant, especially when such tasks are seen as chosen. Many worthwhile outcomes in life require short-term sacrifice to achieve longer-term gain. By encouraging such sacrifice, effort justification is functional to the individual and the group.

Of course, what is functional is not always good. Attractive, cohesive groups may be more prone to group-think, and persistence at lost causes can be destructive.”[4]

While the justification by individuals is the basis of this theory, research has expanded to look at the use of it by systems in a broader sense. Systems justification theory looks at how groups justify/rationalise the status quo systems they exist within[5].

“System justification can lead us to deny and excuse aspects of our society — such as the ever-widening gap between rich and poor and the damage we are doing to the natural environment, to take just two very salient and worrisome examples — that we ought to confront sooner rather than later.”[6]

Think about this hypothesis in terms of the leveraging that can be accomplished by a ruling elite with specific motivations in mind, especially as the complexities that ‘sustain’ our industrial civilisation increasingly falter[7].

First, we tend to defer to ‘authority’ so establishing and maintaining this authority will help to ensure the majority of individuals comply with the status quo directives that may be increasingly difficult as numerous crises erupt. While ‘force’ can help to ensure such compliance, having people ‘believe’ in the narratives we are ‘herded’ towards is far more efficient (i.e., less costly) and more effective (i.e., think of Johann von Goethe quote here: “The best slave is the one who thinks he’s free.”).

Second, our motivation to belong to a social group along with our tendencies to conform to the beliefs/ideas/opinions of the majority and to view events/evidence through the context we are provided, makes establishing the narrative by which the group tends to interpret exceedingly important. By setting the context (cognitive framing as some call it[8]) through which people view the world, the stories that percolate through society can more or less be controlled, especially those that legitimise the power/control of individuals/groups that sit atop the power/wealth structures of our world. This not only maintains the flow of ‘wealth/goods’ up to the elite but minimises the discontent that can result in sociopolitical upheavals.

Third, because there can be competing narratives in large, complex social groups and people will feel dissonance when conflicting cognitions exist, it is vital that the messaging of the elite is ‘proactive’ (i.e., their story is put out very quickly in order to set the context thru which people interpret events), relatively similar/consistent (i.e., remain on message), and repeated often. This is where their control of most media institutions comes into play[9]. They not only have the means to spread their message relatively quickly and consistently, they can do it in a way that appears ‘objective’. The power structures, for example, can be reinforced through narratives regarding ‘representative democracy’ and agency via the ballot box. Not only can the context through which people interpret events be established but confirmation biases can be supported.

Once we latch on to a narrative we strive to justify it and rationalise events/evidence in light of it to reduce any anxiety that might arise from the conflicting messages our minds receive. This phenomenon is perhaps one of the strongest mechanisms that contribute to the denial of ‘facts’ that challenge one’s interpretive narrative.

This ends my thoughts on the four aspects of psychology I set out to discuss. In the next and last instalment of this mini-series of articles I shall attempt to tie them together with respect to what is increasingly seeming to me to be a self-created bottleneck that threatens our complex societies and perhaps even, as some argue, our and many other species extinction.

[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] http://psychology.iresearchnet.com/social-psychology/attitudes/effort-justification/

[4] Ibid

[5] https://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2017/06/system-justification

[6] Ibid

[7] Note that I am aware that I am as prone to these psychological mechanisms as everyone else and this long series of articles could be perceived as my attempt to rationalise/justify/reinforce/confirm my own biased beliefs; especially as they pertain to ruling elite behaviours in the face of societal collapse.

[8] https://thedecisionlab.com/biases/framing-effect

[9] It is not surprising that the rise of technologies that allow for competing narratives that challenge the status quo is creating increasing calls for censorship — currently in the guise of countering ‘fake news/misinformation’.

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.

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LII–Cognition and Belief Systems: Part Three — Groupthink

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LII

June 7, 2022 (original posting date)

Monte Alban, Mexico (1988) Photo by author

Cognition and Belief Systems: Part Three — Groupthink

This contemplation is the third 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.

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).

A short thought about groupthink I posted on my personal Facebook Page in March, 2021:

“I’ve been reading about the phenomena of ‘groupthink’ recently. It’s amazing how much our society (and perhaps it’s every society) reflects this and the errors in judgements/decision making that result from it. The overestimation of the group’s decisions to be invulnerable and moral; the collective rationalisation and stereotyping that happens to shut out alternative perspectives/ideas; the pressures towards uniformity and to suppress dissent (e.g., self-censorship, mind guards, direct social pressure, illusion of unanimity). The mistakes that result from groupthink are avoided when a group encourages dissent and skeptical/critical thinking and the discussions that result from different perspectives, not by censoring or belittling them. We seem to be doing the exact opposite of what is needed to prevent bad decisions and judgements from being made. Many of us seem to have lost the ability to have civil discussions about matters we disagree on; to even agree to disagree. Our media (both mainstream and social) oftentimes seems more interested in controlling the narratives and stories we share than presenting the different perspectives and allowing people to decide for themselves. In our attempts to shut down others, one has to wonder if we are falling into the trap of groupthink and leading us to make faulty decisions? And even if we are, would we recognise it as such in order to reduce the cognitive dissonance that would arise as a result??”

A reminder that groupthink is summarised as “a premature concurrence-seeking tendency that interferes with collective decision-making processes and leads to poor decisions. It is characterized by deterioration in group member mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgments that result from in-group pressures to seek consensus. It is what happens when the task demands on a decision-making group are overwhelmed by the social demands to reach consensus. When experiencing groupthink, members tend to make simplistic statements about the issues and more positive in-group references than those in nongroupthink cases.”[3]

Groupthink symptoms include: an illusion of invulnerability that leads to an overly optimistic outlook; contrarian evidence being discredited or rationalised away; an illusion of morality that ignores the ethical consequences of decisions; peer pressure to conform to group thinking/decisions or risk being deemed disloyal; a tendency by members to withhold dissenting views (self-censorship); an illusion of unanimity; the development of ‘mind guards’ who take it upon themselves to protect the group from disconfirming evidence; avoidance of opposing opinions/ideas; and, a lack of impartial leadership[4].

As research has shown, while the mechanisms of groupthink and its impact on decision-making can become stronger in larger groupings, the phenomenon of unanimity is less likely[5]. And without unanimity, dissent becomes more probable opening the door to not only alternative perspectives but different ‘solutions’. This can certainly be observed in the various narratives pertaining to addressing our existential predicament of overshoot and collapse[6].

However, add Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs[7], a theory of human motivation, and we might begin to understand that there can be a tendency towards ‘herding behaviour’[8] even in large, complex populations. Maslow’s theory proposes that humans are motivated by meeting various needs. We begin with an urge to satisfy physiological needs (e.g., water, food, sleep, homeostasis). When these basic needs are met, more complex ones motivate behaviour: safety (e.g., security, protection, health, well-being); social (e.g., kin relationships, romance, non-kin relations); esteem (e.g., personal accomplishments/recognitions, sport/community/religious involvement); and, finally, self-actualisation (i.e., personal and on-going improvement). More recent iterations of this hierarchy have added the need for belongingness between safety and esteem needs, and cognitive needs after esteem[9].

Note that the need to belong to a social group of some kind is strong in humans[10]. We want to be part of a group or ‘tribe’[11]. Some psychologists argue this desire is as strong as the need for basic physiological necessities of food and water in order to ensure safety/survival; it is seen as an evolutionary adaptation[12].

“The tribal instincts hypothesis proposes that innate human predispositions to commit to their ingroups arose by coevolution with group selected cultural institutions. We are adapted to living in tribes, and the social institutions of tribes elicit strong — sometimes fanatical — commitment… The nature of the tribes that we commit to, the kinds of commitments we make, and the strength of those commitments all depend upon the cultural traditions that define the group and its institutions. Through the evolution of work-arounds in the last few thousand years, institutions have evolved that recruit the tribal subjective commitment to far larger and very different social systems than the tribe as the concept is understood by anthropologists.”[13]

While the issue for the detrimental impacts of groupthink to arise is not so significant for society at large given the array of competing voices/narratives/interpretations that can exist, it is more so a problem for governments and other elite institutions[14]; those groups that are the primary legislative-/decision-/policy-makers for society and have significant influence over the stories most people cling to.

I would add that governments and large businesses/corporations tend to be prone to groupthink due to the ‘isolation’ that exists for these decision-making bodies. Many (most?) tend to be part of a ‘class’ of people that exclusively interact with like-minded individuals and additionally receive reinforcing feedback from their ‘courtiers/sycophants’. They do not tend to interact with the masses of people who do not view the world from the same privileged perspective; they have their own ‘in-groups’.

Given the previously discussed tendency of humans to defer to ‘authority’ figures and the proclivity for these ‘leaders’ to develop ideas/policies in isolation from a wide variety of inputs/perspectives, we can imagine how maladaptive strategies created by the elite — which are driven by a primary motivation of control/expansion of their power/wealth — can ensure we, as a collective, take a misguided trajectory into the future: the elite encourage a faulty strategy (that serves their purposes) and the hoi polloi defer to it, accepting it as the righteous path to follow and support.

To understand why this tendency towards the need to belong to a social group and groupthink is relevant to overshoot and collapse, I believe we need to revisit archaeologist Joseph Tainter’s thesis regarding a complex society’s collapse due to declining marginal returns. Here we find that as these returns on investments in complexity decline the elite may, and invariably do, respond through greater legitimisation activities and/or control, imposing strict behavioural controls — particularly absent the ability to address such issues via territorial expansion [15]. And, in the end, these actions tend to expedite resource drawdown causing the impending ‘collapse’ due to diminishing returns on investments in complexity to arrive more quickly than might otherwise.

These attempts by the elite to ‘kick-the-can-down-the-road’ seems ample reason to believe we are ‘pushed’ into groupthink tendencies by those who ‘profit’ from the denial of overshoot/collapse, or, perhaps, from raising the prospects of it[16]. Propaganda’s fundamental purpose is narrative control in order to align group thinking so as to interpret events/observations/stories along specific lines. It is the interpretive lens through which we view the world that impacts our beliefs and thus actions/behaviour. If a nation state, for example, can predetermine how most citizens will ‘understand’ what is happening around them, they ease the manner in which they direct society at large. Beliefs impact behaviour and it is behavioural ‘control’ of the masses that is paramount to sustaining status quo power/wealth structures and avoiding — or, at least, deferring — ‘revolution /pushback’.

Consider here the research on Social Cognition, especially Context Effect[17]. What humans ‘perceive’ in their environment is impacted significantly by the context in which it is observed/understood/interpreted. Visual stimuli can actually appear differently to different observers for a variety of reasons but mostly because our brains take shortcuts to reduce the myriad of details, relying upon the context in which we observe to filter and simplify complexities for us. This is also true of our understanding of events. If the context is provided, even if it is faulty/fake, we understand events through it.

The ‘context’ through which we view/interpret information has been given a number of different terms: schema[18], paradigm[19], worldview[20], interpretive lens, etc.. Being able to establish/influence the context through which a person or group views the world is very much the role of propaganda/narrative control.

So, it would appear that humans can be ‘herded’ into believing particular stories by way of the higher status amongst us establishing the context through which we interpret and understand issues and events. This doesn’t necessarily necessitate some grand ‘conspiracy’ but simply a small number of decision-makers to set the stage through policies, actions, and/or even just repetitive ‘marketing’ via speeches, media releases, etc. that are invariably wrapped in verbiage that highlights supposed benefits for the masses. Once a majority of people come to accept the narrative being shared, our strong tendency to want to belong[21] and meet the ‘norms’ of the social group in which we find ourselves leads us to accept the group’s ideas and behaviours — primarily to avoid the negative social pressures that accompany non-conformity. We may not necessarily agree with certain things, but we tend to go along for better or worse.

And while research has expanded and clarified the mechanisms at work in all this, pre/history shows the manipulation of behaviour by the ruling elite over and over again, be it to support status quo power/wealth structures and/or to engage in geopolitical struggles. Throw in Bernays’s work, the need to belong, and tendencies towards group conformity and deference to authority, and we can see how influence of the masses by a small, elite group can occur rather easily.

This is where most of society currently appears to stand. There may be some growing gaps with ‘break-away’ groups challenging mainstream narratives but for the most part the significant majority of society holds onto the stories being weaved by our ruling elite. I see this very clearly in the marketing narratives pertaining to an energy transition from fossil fuels to ‘clean/green’ energy alternatives.

I end with a quote attributed to U.S. General George S. Patton: “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.”

You can locate the next part of this series here.

[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/industrial-organizational-psychology/group-dynamics/groupthink-i-o/

[4] Ibid

[5] Solomon Asch’s research into social conformity due to majority peer pressure are important here as well (https://www.simplypsychology.org/asch-conformity.html). People tend to go along with the majority in a group — even when they don’t necessarily agree — for fear of being ridiculed by others in the group and/or believe that the assessment of a majority is more informed than their individual assessment. In the absence of group unanimity, however, overall conformity drops as people are less concerned about social approval in such situations.

[6] There exist stories along a continuum from the idea that concerns are overblown and being leveraged by the ruling elite solely for the purpose of profiteering and/or social engineering/control to the assertion that this is a predicament that has no solutions, cannot be avoided, and total human extinction is at hand.

[7] https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

[8] https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/darwin-eternity/201306/human-herding-how-people-are-guppies; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2827453/; https://www.researchgate.net/publication/324510770_How_Herding_Behavior_Affects_Our_lives

[9] https://www.explorepsychology.com/maslows-hierarchy-of-needs/

[10] In the absence of less complex and smaller human communities that are more amenable to a sense of belonging, there is still a need for this ‘urge’ to be met. Sometimes this is achieved through community organisations or institutions, such as a religious-based one.

[11] This can be observed in the self-reinforcing echo chambers that have arisen with the widespread use of social media. It appears that in their desire to confirm/reinforce beliefs, individuals orient their online browsing and communications towards like-minded individuals/groups. See this: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7936330/

[12] https://psychology.iresearchnet.com/social-psychology/interpersonal-relationships/need-to-belong/

[13] http://www.des.ucdavis.edu/faculty/Richerson/comgrps.pdf

[14] For example, see: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232563904_Groupthink_in_Government_A_Study_of_Small_Groups_and_Policy_Failure

[15] See The Collapse of Complex Societies: https://www.cambridge.org/ca/academic/subjects/archaeology/archaeological-theory-and-methods/collapse-complex-societies?format=PB&isbn=9780521386739

[16] There seems to be, on some level, an increase in the mainstream recognition of possible ‘collapse’, be it economic or some other iteration. Perhaps some see the prospects of it as ‘profitable’ in the sense of leveraging the issue in one way or another. There is, for example, much in the way of ‘commercialisation’ of products to alleviate the anxiety of possible ‘collapse’ and prepare for it. And then there is Joseph Tainter’s observation that

[17] https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/social-cognition; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2375957/; https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095634843; https://www.researchgate.net/publication/44962135_Context_Effects_in_Social_and_Psychological_Research; https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/achievements-the-aging-mind/202107/the-role-context-in-perception;

[18] https://openpress.usask.ca/introductiontopsychology/chapter/social-cognition-and-attitudes/

[19] http://www.edpsycinteractive.org/topics/intro/paradigm.html

[20] https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/social-sciences/worldview

[21] https://psychology.iresearchnet.com/social-psychology/interpersonal-relationships/need-to-belong/

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh CLXIII–Keep Calm and Carry On

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh CLXIII

Mexico (1988). Photo by author.

Keep Calm and Carry On

Today’s Contemplation is my comment on a recent post by Allan Urban that speaks to his experiences attempting to share his learnings on ‘collapse’. For those that have read it, you can likely recognise similar reactions from others; I certainly did.

After years of experiencing the same ‘frustrations’ in attempting to share my ‘insights’ regarding our predicament, I’ve come to understand that we all believe what we want to believe and that regardless of the evidence/facts that point to our inevitable collision with ‘collapse’ most will reject the idea and carry on in the belief that tomorrow (and the future) will be much like yesterday and today. For the most part, that’s a good belief system and one that has been proven correct again and again for people, and how others respond to challenges to this system are fairly typical.

The list of psychological mechanisms to avoid anxiety-provoking thoughts is almost endless. And the idea of ‘collapse’ is most certainly anxiety-provoking. Fight or flight. Groupthink. Going along to get along. Deference to authority/expertise (especially the ruling caste of our societies — e.g., government, legacy media). Cognitive dissonance reduction. Stages of grieving (particularly denial of reality and bargaining). These are next to impossible to overcome.

So, while I write about the situation (see https://olduvai.ca) and my perspective on it, I don’t engage too many others — especially in my personal, social circles — with my views. The exception being those who respond to my writings and are interested in the topics involved.

I have also completely abandoned any ‘hope’ that our political systems (or even most (all?) non-governmental ones) are the place to look for ‘salvation’. These systems are designed for the most part (and motivated by) self-preservation and the status quo. There are few if any that truly aim to ‘deconstruct’ our extractive/exploitive systems that have led us to where we our. That’s not their role; in fact, quite the opposite.

Our governing systems in particular are pre/historic institutions in place to maintain/expand the control of wealth-generating/-extracting systems that provide revenue streams for a select few. Their current iterations weave comforting narratives about ‘representation’ and beneficent policies/actions for the masses, but these are propaganda meant to appease and mollify — nothing more. Their aims are primarily oriented towards growing these systems of extraction and exploitation, regardless of the social and/or ecological systems costs.

We have not only cyclical complex society ‘collapse’ processes to contend with in our modern-day experiment of a globalised (and financialised) system, but the various symptom predicaments of ecological overshoot as well — especially depletion of probably the most fundament of resources to our modern complexities: hydrocarbons.

If pre/history is any indication of how things will unfold (and I would contend it very much is), then most of us will deny/ignore the signals long after our decline is well and truly underway — as many argue it already is. We will carry on in our ignorance and complicity, believing things will improve and someone, somewhere will ‘solve’ all this. Keep calm and carry on.

Keeping the ruling caste’s feet to the fire is commendable (if the pressure directs them in a way to degrow our existence, not grow it via even more ‘green/clean’ technology) but ultimately will not result in system changes. It will be Nature that corrects our Overshoot, as it always does with species that blow past its natural carrying capacity.

Perhaps our energies are best focused upon attempts to mitigate the consequences as best we can for our local communities. Relocalise and simplify, or as John Michael Greer has suggested: Collapse now and avoid the rush.

The Psychological Pain of Inflation

The Psychological Pain of Inflation

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) tomorrow morning will report its Consumer Price data from October. The Producer Price Index (PPI) appears the following day.

There will likely be no real surprise here: inflation will still be running hot around 3.7 percent, confirming what I and many have suspected. Inflation is overall accelerating over the declines earlier this year. That’s bad economic news because it further confirms lower living standards and continues to vex average people juggling multiple jobs, high interest payments on debt, and increased unaffordability of just about everything.

 (Data: Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED), St. Louis Fed; Chart: Jeffrey A. Tucker)
(Data: Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED), St. Louis Fed; Chart: Jeffrey A. Tucker)

“Inflation has given us a few head fakes,” Fed chair Jerome Powell said at an International Monetary Conference over the weekend. He further swore that he would continue to use the power of the Fed to beat back this monster. But notice that he took no responsibility for inflation at all, despite the factual record showing that he enabled some $5 trillion in debt purchases from a spending-mad Congress, and soared the money stock in ways we’ve never seen.

This is the first time that I can recall the Fed chair having anthropomorphized inflation, as if it has a will of its own, has a head on its body, while using clever tricks to get around the defense front line, which of course is the Fed.

The line about “head fakes” pertains not to inanimate inflation but to the very human and oddly devious Fed itself. To understand Powell’s remark here fully requires a refresher lesson from Freud in what it means to project one’s failings on something else. It’s really childish—the young child blaming the monsters under the bed for the mess in his room—but it works due to the economic ignorance of the public.

…click on the above link to read the rest…

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.

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh CLVIII–Most People Don’t Want Their Illusions Destroyed

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh CLVIII

Mexico (1988). Photo by author.

Most People Don’t Want Their Illusions Destroyed

Another one of those conversations with someone at the Degrowth Facebook Group I am a member of…

I’ve just had a lengthy debate with good-willed people who are serious proponents of a rapid transition to renewables. People actually do understand how far beyond carrying capacity we are and why but they do not accept their own understanding. When I suggest that humanity must live within the photosynthetic energy budget of the current biological cycle, the reaction is repulsion, anger, and ridicule. That reaction is a visceral understanding of the carrying capacity of Earth’s systems and that the only reason society exists beyond that capacity is the infusion of energy. The response is that renewables can supply plenty of ‘clean energy’ to support ‘society’. People see and are unwilling to relinquish the societal upside of our energy subsidy, and argue that the ecological downside can be managed, but do have an unacknowledged understanding of how far past carrying capacity we are.

I start to think we need to start from arguing that we have less than half a century of oil left — and explicitly accept the ‘right-wing’ argument that our wealth has been built on fossil fuels. We had a single planetary shot at using fossil fuels well, and we are in the final stages of squandering it. After the oil is gone, there will be no more rubber, bitumen or plastic. There will be no paint; there will be no drugs. There will be no way to make or transport the solar panels or wind turbines. If we insist on burning our chemical stocks for things that do not address essential human needs, we will run out of ways to address those needs. The issue is not ‘energy’ per se: it is resources more broadly — clean air and water; a functioning ecosystem, including fertile soils; raw materials for manufacture. You can’t make a tyre for a Tesla out of nuclear power…

AD, Throw on top of all this those dangerous complexities we’ve got scattered about the planet that require large amounts of hydrocarbons to maintain: nuclear power plants and their waste products; chemical production and storage facilities; and, biosafety labs. Interesting times ahead…

SB, I’m talking more about ‘how do we convince people’, though.

AD, It’s next to impossible to ‘convince’ others. Most people don’t want their illusions destroyed.

SB, Ultimately, the only reason I’m on a group like this is because my hope is to see degrowth achieved, which will require convincing people. What are your reasons for being on the group?

AD, To learn and share my learning/understandings. And degrowth/simplification is coming, it’s just a matter of how that’s still up in the air. Pre/historical precedents and biological principles suggest it won’t be ‘managed’.

SB, Which biological principles are those?

AD, Those associated with ecological overshoot primarily.

SB, I think you are talking through your hat.

AD, Then I suggest you read Meadows et al’s The Limits to Growth, Tainter’s The Collapse of Complexity Societies, and Catton’s Overshoot to better understand.

SB, asked you why you thought people couldn’t be convinced of a need to change. You replied, ‘because ecological overshoot’. That’s the non-sequitur that I called you on.


My final response:

AD, Your comments/responses do not make it clear that you asked ‘why people couldn’t be convinced’; you asked why I was in the Degrowth group. Regardless, not sure if you’ve ever studied psychology (especially social psychology) but there are strong tendencies to protect oneself from anxiety-provoking thoughts — and the notions of collapse, overshoot, etc. are certainly those. So, I don’t know if it’s possible to convince/persuade many others of the need to change fundamental aspects of their behaviour unless they are willing to challenge many of their core beliefs and expectations; and most people, quite frankly, are not. And, I would argue, that tends to be human nature.

From attempts to reduce cognitive dissonance (see Festinger’s work), to the grieving stages outlined by Kubler-Ross (particularly denial and bargaining), to beliefs about agency (we have little, if any), tendencies towards deference to authority/expertise (see Milgram’s work), going along to get along and groupthink (see Janis’s work), to a potpourri of biases (especially confirmation and optimism bias) and heuristics that lead us to overly-simplify complex phenomena, Homo sapiens tend to ‘believe what they want to believe’; reality often plays a minor role in it, if at all.

As an article on the faulty beliefs about ‘renewables’, co-written by Dr. Bill Rees (of ecological footprint fame), argues: “We begin with a reminder that humans are storytellers by nature. We socially construct complex sets of facts, beliefs, and values that guide how we operate in the world. Indeed, humans act out of their socially constructed narratives as if they were real. All political ideologies, religious doctrines, economic paradigms, cultural narratives — even scientific theories — are socially constructed “stories” that may or may not accurately reflect any aspect of reality they purport to represent. Once a particular construct has taken hold, its adherents are likely to treat it more seriously than opposing evidence from an alternate conceptual framework.”

Given these psychological mechanisms, our story-telling ways of communicating and developing belief systems, recent historical trends, energy blindness, and the huge role of propaganda/narrative management by our ‘ruling elite (see Bernays’ work) we tend to get overwhelmed by counter-narratives to our core beliefs and gravitate towards those that reinforce our own — regardless of how wrong or counterproductive they may be.

We very much rail against evidence that do not confirm the beliefs we hold. We deny. We ignore. We craft bargaining narratives to rationalise away ‘facts’ that don’t support our thinking; i.e., if only this happened…if we did this…yeah, but….

It is for these reasons above (along with others) that the quote “Sometimes people don’t want to hear the truth because they don’t want their illusions destroyed” arose (often attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche). And it is for these reasons that the overwhelming majority of people will not and cannot be convinced to give up what they perceive as ‘modernity’ (i.e., all the hydrocarbon-based complexities we have established over the past century+).

We, especially in the West, like to believe we are rational and objective but the overwhelming evidence would suggest otherwise. We are story-telling apes that have a strong tendency to craft tales to support our belief systems rather than develop belief systems based upon objective observations. Humans are exceedingly subjective.

Perhaps this is why author Robert Heinlein quipped that “Man is not a rational animal; he is a rationalising animal” in opposition to Aristotle’s definition that humans are a rational animal.

And it’s not simply enough to come up with a factual, persuasive argument but to have to overcome the massive counter narratives being fed to everyone by our ruling elite who benefit greatly from the status quo…

My personal experience strongly supports the observation that the significant majority of people do not want to be convinced that just like all living organisms, societies have an expiration date, and we can no more persuade everyone to ‘do what’s right’ than we can ‘science our way out of overshoot’.

Not only do we have a strong urge to deny our own mortality, we have a strong (perhaps even stronger) one to deny the mortality of our society and the living standards/expectations it holds for virtually all within it.

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh CLVI–Peak Oil, Complexity, Psychology, Magical Thinking, and War

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh CLVI

Mexico (1988). Photo by author.

Peak Oil, Complexity, Psychology, Magical Thinking, and War

Again, some sharing of my comments and others’ on a couple of recent FB Group posts.

First, a post from the Peak Oil Group I am a member of where some great conversations happen. In this particular situation, the comments were in response to my last Contemplation.

SH: I was with a group of technical people recently, engaged in conversation about a very wide range of issues, and when I pointed out that almost no one among engineers and entrepreneurs are striving to address future energy and resource needs, rather, the vast majority exhibit a myopic fixation toward devising increasingly complex ways to use up fossil hydrocarbons. Well… Some folks interrupted and pretty much drowned me out with a kind of “hear no evil” mantra, extolling the virtues of technology and human ingenuity. I don’t even think it was a conscious response, but a kind of unconscious impulse, an eruption of vocal energy resulting from cognitive dissonance. It seems apparent that humans are not psychologically equipped to handle large scale existential threats or crises. I guess what I’m suggesting is that it isn’t just elites who will kick the can down the road to maintain their status quo, but that pretty much everyone will respond to things like Peak Oil in a way that’s unquestionably irrational or egocentric in relation to the magnitude of the challenge. That’s my take on it anyway…

Me: SH, I completely agree. I suppose that’s one of the reasons I find the impact of our innate psychological mechanisms/processes so fascinating to explore and try to understand. I think a big part of our blindness to limits and the consequences of chasing the perpetual growth chalice is our ‘trust/faith’ in our various complex systems (and those who ‘control’ them). This has us engaging in significant magical thinking and believing that we can ‘adapt’ (via our technology and ingenuity) to the various predicaments we face. We cannot fathom that recent adaptations have run their course and we are on a dead-end trajectory. Psychology suggests our minds protect us from such anxiety-provoking thoughts regardless of the evidence to the contrary. It doesn’t matter what reality/facts/evidence demonstrates; it’s what we believe that rules.

PW: Steve Bull, Yes, extreme compartmentalism.

JR: Steve Bull, I started listening to a Derrick Jensen interview last night (suggested by a post here by Alice Friedman.) What I took from it is that it’s not human psychology in a vacuum. Different technologies have their own built-in ideologies that influence human ideologies. It was a bit esoteric, but it sort of made sense. Very interesting.

PW: JR, Yep, they have their religion, their science, their family, their whatever.

SH2: SH, what I’m wondering now is why is it possible (for governments, or anyone) to convince people en masse that it’s necessary to go off to war and likely be maimed and/or killed, and endure all the other hardships of war………… but it seems completely impossible (for governments, or anyone) to convince people en masse to put up with seemingly much milder forms of deprivation (like less luxurious lifestyles) in order to stave off collapse (and famine/death and eventually war leading to more famine, death, etc). ?

Me: SH2, The State profits from the war racket (and all the other growth rackets) but not economic contraction. They have no interest in convincing the masses to live more ‘sustainably’ since that would kill their golden geese.

SH2: Steve Bull, Agreed, but I think it must go deeper than that. Do soldiers signing up (not counting conscripts) not have any idea of what war is like? Assuming they do, why does the motive of sacrifice for the good of their society/country not apply in anywhere near the same level of commitment to non-war actions?

Me: SH2, It’s obviously very complex but perhaps part of it is the State’s ability to leverage our innate tribal instincts (i.e., sense of patriotism) and ramping up of the ‘othering’ that goes hand-in-hand with that, which influences a sense of ‘sacrifice for God and country’ that gets most to support war and the atrocities of it. When times are ‘tough’ there’s always some ‘other’ that can be dragged out to blame for things and our in-group versus out-group instincts drown out the critical aspects of such manipulations.

As for ‘sacrificing’ for the planet’s health and our long-term survival, these are minimised via the mainstream narratives about human ingenuity and technology being capable of countering such degradation, you know — we can ‘science’ our way out of any ‘problems’.

The forces of propaganda/marketing by the ruling elite are significant and impactful. They profit from war and from continued economic growth. They have zero interest in curtailing either of these insane and destructive pursuits and perhaps even less concern for our ecological systems — greenwashing everything to give the appearance of concern.

The ‘average’ person’s tendency to defer to authority/expertise leaves most following whatever trajectory a society’s ‘rulers’ set, and for the 10,000+ years of complex societies, these ‘influencers’ have prioritised that which sustains their revenue streams…war and expansion.

And to minimise the cognitive dissonance of the significant machinations and manipulations we are constantly exposed to, most go along to get along and parrot back the stories and help to cheerlead us over the impending cliff…

PW: Steve Bull, Very well stated Steve. I copied two sentences because of the clarity and preciseness of the logic. ……you know — we can ‘science’ our way out of any ‘problems.

PW: SH2, Part of it is the play on their testosterone, their need to be a hero outweighs many other considerations. I think that, yeah, they don’t know what they are doing.

PW: One play of the recruiters ‘they can sign up and join with their friends, they can all serve in the same unit. Well, no, as soon as they join they are split up with some never seeing their friends again. I watched one video of recruiters trying to sign some guys up and implying they could be like their favorite musical artist who had served in the military. They could join the musical military band like he did. The recruiters will lie about anything to get the signature on the line.

LM: SH, I’ve come across the same as this. Maybe it’s their fight mechanism in their brain. I suppose if you don’t know how to mitigate it with nature and low fuel consumption, you use the tools you think you have, even if you don’t really understand those tools. It’s laziness, ignorance and fear. Problem is, those responses adversely impact my daughters and their futures, along with all other children’s futures. So what are we to do? The only two ways to mitigate all this, infiltrate the political system or revolt against the existing system.

We don’t seem to be able to get past the leaders and elite. The ones that openly advertise that going back to a low fuel economy would take us back to the dark ages. Well yeah, maybe we’d have to go to bed the same time as birds mostly because of low fuel, there’s nothing dark about that, other than the dark night!

So so distant from nature. Crazy

Second, is this question/statement posed in the Degrowth Group I am a member of. I include it as it relates to issues raised above:

PJ: Do you think the worlds ‘elite’ might view climate change as being caused by having far too many slaves consuming ‘their’ planet’s resources? ( It seems strange how they really seem to be promoting world war three rather than attempting to promote peace) I bet most of them have their own nuclear bunkers. Do any of the worlds ‘leaders’ and elites actually see themselves as being ‘enemies’ or is it something they like to pretend to the people? To maintain their ‘system’ and their positions? They certainly like to keep telling us how other countries and people are our ‘enemies’.

Me: I don’t pretend to know what our ‘elite’ think or believe. I can only guess based upon some statements, their behaviours, and pre/historical evidence as to what others in their place seem to have done.

They don’t seem to agree on much and oftentimes disagree vehemently on things. This often makes them more concerned with their in-group and how to manipulate events amongst that restricted population as opposed to the masses. This is perhaps especially so across borders, and particularly with respect to regions rich in resources (mineral, labour, and capital).

They don’t appear to be overly concerned with the symptoms of ecological overshoot (anthropogenic climate impacts being one) except to leverage them in expanding their revenue streams and societal control mechanisms.

They appear to believe in the magical thinking weaved by ‘free’ market economists and infinite substitutability for declining resources, and that technology and human ingenuity can solve any pressing issue.

They do not appear to give two shits for the unwashed masses except as tax donkeys and labourers, but do attempt to appease them somewhat with bread, circuses, and soothing narratives (despite having the various protective services of private and public police/security/military, they do still fear reprisals from possible revolution by the masses — thus increasing mass surveillance and narrative management).

Perhaps they do fear a nuclear exchange, but many certainly (at least amongst the higher ups of the political and military classes, and possibly some other very influential individuals) have access to safe spaces where they believe they could avoid the worst of such an outcome.

But we need to also consider that war is a VERY profitable racket as Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler reminded us. And THE primary motivation of these people probably since the beginning of complex societies 10,000+ years ago has been control and expansion of the wealth-generation/-extraction systems that provide their revenue streams and thus positions of power and prestige.

Again and again throughout human pre/history our ruling elite have sacrificed their citizens and the environment to meet this important motivation. I see little evidence that our current iteration of elite is any different than the many that have preceded them and expedited their society’s collapse, especially through overreach in many areas.

And when haven’t the weapons of the day ever sat idle once things have gone sideways?

Homo sapiens are very intelligent story-telling apes, just not very wise.

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.

We Underappreciate How Different We Are

Photo by Joshua Fuller on Unsplash

After I started working for my current employer, I met a colleague with whom I simply could not work with. We disagreed on almost everything — not on a factual level, but rather on how we approach working with problems and identify solutions. I felt like that, despite many similarities, we are the diametric opposite of each other.

This was the time when I got interested in fundamental differences regarding how people think and feel about the world and themselves. I started out by trying to better understand myself: somehow I had a hunch that this conflict has to do something with personality types. I filled out countless personality tests, read tens — maybe hundreds — of articles on different methods for dividing people into personality types, on how these can (or cannot) predict future behavior and so on. Finally I settled with the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, largely thanks to a fantastic website promoting the idea (full disclosure: I have no connection whatsoever to the creators and owners of that site and their personality test is free to use).

There were other factors at play, of course, like how differentiated the given personality descriptions are, but the fact that convinced me (and your mileage might greatly vary here) is the system’s ability to predict a certain type’s behavior in new situations, and the vast amount of additional information it revealed beyond the answers given by the participant in the questionnaire.

Figuring out my type (and guessing my colleague’s type with whom I could not work with) has led to one of the biggest revelations of my lifetime. I can still remember the moment. It was a cold but sunny winter day. As I was walking around a building in the campus pondering the issue I had a sudden epiphany. It was like a lighting strike.

…click on the above link to read the rest…

Olduvai IV: Courage
Click on image to read excerpts

Olduvai II: Exodus
Click on image to purchase

Click on image to purchase @ FriesenPress