As I watch the events in Copenhagen
at the COP15 conference unfold, I
am filled with ennui. The
malaise does not flow from any sense that the conference and climate
change itself are unimportant. On the contrary, like climate change
activists and ecologists around the world I feel deeply and
passionately that the issue is crucial to the long-term wellbeing of
the human race. The ennui comes from
yet another attempt to grasp the nettle founder on the completely
predictable rocks of human psychology.
It's not that I feel the technologies of
renewable energy and conservation aren't up to the task at hand. I
think it may in fact be technically possible for renewables to power an
industrial civilization. I'm not 100% convinced, but given the right
starting assumptions and the right expectations for the level of
industrial activity, it should be possible. My concern has nothing
whatever to do with technical feasibility. It used to, but I no longer
think that technical feasibility will play a role in the outcome.
Similarly, I don't dismiss the huge body of
empirical evidence that says technical remediation is possible. I
am saying that I don't believe such technologies will be deployed on
the scale and time line necessary to accomplish much of anything. I
see the barriers to implementation more as shortcomings in human
neuropsychology than any particular deficiencies of technology.
I refer to neuropsychology because I think
our evolved brain structure has bequeathed us with a number of key
psychological qualities that will act as impediments in this situation.
Those qualities include our herding behaviour, our steep discount rate
for abstract threats, our tendency to see the world as separate from
us, and our urge to seek power on the one hand and defer to it on the
other. All these qualities seem to be exquisitely suited to supporting
and defending Business As Usual.
The reason we are unlikely to see a global civilization powered by
windmills has nothing to do with whether such a thing is technically
possible, and everything to do with whether the psychological framework
that underpins our particular industrial civilization will permit that
Here is how I think the psychological jigsaw
puzzle fits together.
First of all, human beings have evolved a steep
"discount function" with respect to abstract risks like global warming.
What this means is that the more abstract and remote a threat is, the
less urgently we respond to it. In fact, it's difficult for most people
to perceive remote, abstract threats as threats at all. We tend to
respond urgently only to immediate, tangible difficulties. I've written
about this in general terms here,
and there is a paper by a professor at UC Berkeley on this effect and
its application to global warming here.
Next there's our herding instinct. Like our
hyperbolic discount rate, this appears to be a product of our limbic
it does is makes us very susceptible to popular opinion – we tend
along with the herd unless there are urgent personal reasons not to do
so. It's why we respond so well to advertising, why stock market
bubbles develop, and why the "War on Terror" meme was so successful. In
each case we adopt rational justifications for our behaviour, but the
behaviour itself is actually rooted at a very deep level in our brain's
Third is our deference to authority. That
even deeper down, from the "reptilian" brain that formed hundreds of
thousands of years ago. This part of our brain generates
behavior related to survival and hierarchy. It's where the "fight or
flight" mechanism resides, and where our urge to dominate or submit to
other troop members comes from. Because of this, when an alpha human
themselves, large numbers of "average citizens" immediately and
unquestioningly accept their leadership.
These three qualities define the behaviour
vast majority of people when it comes to a threat like Global Warming.
see it as an immediate threat, so they're not prepared to spend
significant time, energy or attention on it. When they see their
friends and neighbours ignoring it this reinforces their assessment and
makes them feel perfectly justified in their non-response. In the USA,
the right wing noise-box makes all kinds of authoritative-sounding
pronouncements against action, so the three tendencies line up to make
people believe such stupidity as, "The calls of alarm are coming from
eggheads with agendas who are just getting their panties in a bunch
over grant money and academic empires." People will stop driving their
to work when the neighbours do; the neighbours haven't stopped, there's
no sign around them that this "global warming" thing is even real, the
kids still need to get to football practice, and everybody on Fox News
is telling them not to fall for that baloney. So they keep on driving.
The other great behaviour modifier is
fear. Fear is a survival mechanism that is rooted in the
reptilian brain. Its expression is controlled by our hyperbolic
discount function: near term threats cause more fear than distant
ones, regardless of the sizes of the threats. This plays out in
two ways in the global warming debate. Climate change activists
ask us to fear the inexorable long-term change we are inflicting on the
planet, while their opponents ask us to fear the loss of jobs and
personal income that fighting global warming could entail. Which
fear is more powerful? Which one will influence our behaviour more?
That's the innocent side of the equation.
Now let's look at the darker, more cynical side. Politics. In the USA
your representatives are elected by the people I just described above.
If an individual politician awakens and starts promoting renewable
energy, this leaves an opening the size of the Kasserine
for their opponents. All the opponent has to do is appeal to the three
instincts I described above, toss in a bit of short-term fear, and the
result is virtually a foregone
conclusion. They paint the concerned politician as slightly hysterical,
say that the proposals are going to cost people their jobs, point out
that even if there is a potential problem it can be
taken care of later since everything is just fine right now, trot out a
few dissenting scientists to weaken the perception of
consensus, and reassure the voters that they have their best interests
at heart –
unlike the self-serving, hysterical greenie they're
opposing. On Election Day it's game over.
Now why would a politician be so cynical? It
comes back to the power-seeking aspects of the reptilian brain. To an
alpha, being top dog is more important that anything else in the
universe. Ordinary people are simply resources to them, because they
have a very strong sense of separation between self and other. As long
as their nest is appropriately feathered today, they really don't care
if ten million Bangladeshis will be displaced by a rising ocean in 30
years. It's simply not an issue.
This applies in spades to the
corporate interests that control many (or most) of the successful
politicians in the world today. In most countries you don't become a
successful politician unless you have a commonality of interest with
the corporate power brokers. You can disguise it (as Obama has until
recently) but it's a fact of political life. Such politicians will not
permit the adoption of any legislation that threatens their corporate
symbiotes. If there is pressure to adopt something, the political
process can be manipulated to ensure that it will be weak,
unenforceable and full of loopholes.
The major corporate interests are not about
risk their entrenched powers by taking a gamble on renewable energy or
conservation, especially if they worry that it might erode their
position. And since ethics is not a fiduciary requirement for a
corporation, they are under no obligation to fight fair. Buying
politicians and funding disinformation campaigns are all in a day's
Cynical politicians tend to
win because they'll do whatever it takes to win. Their agenda is
always in favour of the moment, they are supported
by corporate interests that are both risk-averse and amoral, and the
voting public is easily led by those who know a bit about evolved
neuropsychology and are prepared to put their own interests ahead of
those of the voters.
This is the recipe for Business as Usual.
The boffins can
develop all the clever technology they want, the activists
can rant and rail, the enlightened policy wonks can write papers until
their fingers are worn to stubs – in the face of the forces I've
described above, nothing will change until the problems are so
overwhelming that they can no longer be denied. Even then, the
politicians will misdirect the public away from the real causes
(generally by scapegoating a person or a group) if it's in the
interests of their corporate string-pullers to do so.
As they follow their instincts, people won't
see themselves as rejecting affordable, abundant,
clean renewable energy in favor of dramatically lower standards of
living. Instead they will see it in the terms presented to them by the
politicians, business leaders and the media. They will see
as rejecting the lower standard of living that the greenies want to
impose on them in support of a self-righteous agenda that puts the
needs of animals and plants ahead of those of human beings. By doing
this we will of course back ourselves right into the corner of lowered
standards of living, but those in power won't ever put it that way, and
those who do speak that truth will not be believed.
I suspect that most environmental activists
people by and large as rational actors, driven by neocortical
reasoning and information. I don't. I see people as largely irrational.
To varying degrees, we are all subject to the unconscious influences of
our reptilian and
limbic brains, with our neocortex providing little more than post-hoc
rationalizations to validate the unconscious decisions that drive our
behaviour. This is why I believe the Green Revolution as it is
currently formulated is doomed.
December 11, 2009
Freudian way of looking at these psychological effects
It occurred to me this morning that I'm also
talking about the influence of the id. The id
in Freudian terms is the "part of the personality structure that
contains the basic drives. The id acts as according to the 'pleasure
principle', seeking to avoid pain or unpleasure aroused by increases in
It's the psychological repository for our
most basic drives, and will not take "no" for an answer. Our modern
industrial culture devalues or even discourages the self-examination
necessary to bring the workings of the id into consciousness. As a
result, many of our decisions are driven by its unconscious,
unrecognized and therefore unconstrained desires.
When we are
faced with the possibility of large, uncomfortable changes (like the
consequences of climate change and their threat to our safety and
comfort) it is the pain-avoidance mechanisms of the id that come into
play. Again, the unconscious nature of the reaction causes our
conscious mind to
dress up the instinctual responses in socially acceptable clothing.
counterbalance to the id's uncontrolled libidinous urges is supposed to
be provided by the inhibiting action of the
(what we normally
call our conscience, our "better nature"). When the threat to our
personal well-being becomes sufficiently strong, however, the id (being
primal and unconscious) tends to win out. As the threat of climate
change becomes clearer we're seeing the id's influence appear in the
increasingly frantic tone of denialism as well as beggar-thy-neighbour
personal decisions and national policies.
Can the rational
processes of the ego and the inhibitory influence of the superego
combine to defeat the self-centered desires of the id in this crucial
arena? They won't if we don't realize how we're being driven by our
December 15, 2009
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Paul Chefurka is a Computer Scientist with a lifelong interest in environmental issues. He has spent over twenty years working in Research and Development in the Ottawa telecommunications industry, and is currently Project Manager at Canadian Coast Guard and the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans. His personal web site, Approaching the Limits to Growth, provides open access to his writings and is a valuable resource for study and reflection on many dimensions of the socio-ecological crisis.
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