Our Greatest Common Factor

If we only have one thing in common, it's that we all need a planet that can support life.

Common Ground


Initially, my intention was not to spend my limited energy to arguing with ‘climate sceptics’ at all. After a couple of attempts at a constructive discussion, though, I noticed a few things.

Firstly, when you start a discussion, you very quickly find a fixed setting or a mold you’re being stuffed in. In fact, usually there’s just two molds, called ‘with us’ or ‘against us’. The discussion also seems very much concentrated on persons  the speakers themselves and/or public figures that have a stance of any kind on our environment. Meaning, people conclude extremely quickly, ‘who’s side you’re on’, and then turn the discussion into the personal flaws or virtues of these assumed ‘idols’.

All this is quite understandable knowing our social nature, but absolutely irrelevant to whether a vast environmental crisis is on its way or not, or how we should prepare if it is.

So, why don’t we try and break these molds for just a second, and try to find common ground. We’re bound to have some  if nowhere else, then at least about some very basic laws of physics.

Let’s start from the obvious and work our way to more complex conclusions, that in my opinion are keys to very important realizations, but the more complex they become, the more intuition they, inevitably, also require, and thus are subject to constructive criticism. You can use this ‘tool’ to see, how much our views really do differ, and this way, to see what to argue about in the first place.

My assumptions:

  1. If you throw a stone straight upwards, and then freeze exactly where you are, there’s a considerable risk the stone’s going to hit you in the head. This is simply due some basic principles of physics and causality. Right?
  2. The same basic logic applies also to more complex causations in the nature, in fact all of them. This applies whether we already understand the said causations or not.
  3. Fossil fuels take a very long time and the right circumstances to form. In practise building up the right circumstances that allow for fossil fuels to forms have a huge impact on how long the complete process takes in nature. The youngest natural oil deposit found is less than 5000 years old, while in some cases the process has taken up to estimated 20 million years, even longer than 200 million years.
  4. Any society that insists using fossil fuels at a rate that’s anything quicker than their renewal rate, is temporay by nature.
  5. This renewal rate (x/t, x being the total amount of fossil fuels provided by our planet, t being the time that would take for an equal amount of new fossil fuels to form, assuming the circumstances would stay favourable) is ridiculously slower than what we are used to.
  6. Our fossil fuel dependent society is temporary by nature, and needs to change. The only relevant question is: how quickly? Will it take thousands of years for this change to become absolutely critical? Will it take centuries or perhaps just decades?

    ↑ In my opinion: from this point upwards, if you disagree, the burden of proof really is on your shoulders.

  7. Not all areas in the world have oil or other fossil fuel supplies in the first place, and on the other hand, some relatively large areas of the world (like the US as a whole) have passed their oil peak already. Knowing the whole oil industry is just a little more than 150 years old, and remembering the huge growth in our primary energy consumption during recent decades, it seems that the aforementioned timing could indeed be closer to centuries or even decades, instead of several millennia. This of course varies somewhat with each individual fossil fuel, coal being perhaps the most abundant, but the longest possible overall depletion time seems closer to 200 than 2000 years.
  8. Regardless of the urgency speculated on in the previous statements, any change towards reduced fossil fuel dependency is a positive one on the global scale and in the long run, since it adjusts our society from a predominantly temporary one towards a lasting one.
  9. All potential (although, not inevitable) negative influences of reducing fossil fuel dependency tend to be short-termed and national. When evaluating them, in any one country, one shouldn’t forget that the positive influence is much more long-lasting and has unparalleled effects to the wellbeing of future generations – in your country, too.
  10. In ecology, overshoot occurs when a population exceeds the long term carrying capacity of its environment. The consequence of overshoot is called a crash or die-off. Lemmings, living for example in Canada’s Arctic areas, are clear examples of what these terms mean practically. Since these rodents act completely instinctively, they basically reproduce as much as they can, and eat everything they can. If natural disasters don’t restrain their population (and: resource usage) first, they basically start fighting over and then exhaust their available food supply, eventually causing most of them to emigrate or die off trying.
  11. We humans are fully capable of overshooting the carrying capacity of our surroundings. In fact, compared to wild species like lemmings whose population is the only species-related variable to affect this phenomenon, we have a remarkable potential to accelerate the phenomenon by multiplying each individual’s resource usage with the help of our intellect and technology.
  12. In a way, we started overshooting our planet’s capacity the moment we first started using non-renewable resources, at the latest. Practically all fossil fuel usage means constantly overshooting Earth’s fossil fuel capacity.
  13. It seems probable that we’ve also started overshooting Earth’s carrying capacity in the term’s most critical sense – the overall renewal capacity of our planet. This effect varies with each individual natural resource, be it clean water or air, rain forest acreage, thickness of the ozone layer, etc., but all of these seem to have been affected at least some. Some say we’ve been in the state of evergrowing overshoot since mid-seventies, and that we are currently spending Earth’s ecological ‘budget’ before the end of August each year. This is hard to confirm, but intuitively it seems quite possible.
  14. We’re facing also new, potentially remarkable environmental threats, that could work as catalysts to existing problems. For example, Arctic methane release.
  15. Big changes need time to be able to happen in an orderly manner. A change of the magnitude of shifting the paradigm of our whole society is something that takes decades, even centuries to take place peacefully. If we wait until this is the only option left, we’ll probably only have a decade or some years to achieve this, and the probability of a huge socio-economic catastrophy grows extremely high in this scenario.
  16. One previously unmentioned risk, but a relevant one, is the effect of the aforementioned threats to the global diplomatic, political, military and power relations. The history of humanity is full of wars fought over resources, but never before have we seen a war over the absolute remainings of a fuel of such an addictive potential as oil. If we go on with our excessive use of oil, bloodier and bloodier conflicts over its ownership are highly probable.
  17. Evolution has made sure, we have an intuitive ability for basic risk analysis. We estimate the probability of the threat, and then compare probable consequences of neglecting the threat against the consequences of exaggerating the threat. For example, if you’re heading to a department store to buy a new TV set, and security stops you saying there’s a remarkable bomb threat in there – you compare the potential risk against the potential gain, and probably (I hope!) choose not to enter the store. You don’t expect a 100 % proof of the bomb before deciding this, on the contrary, you probably expect a 100 % proof it’s not there, before entering the store again. Because, really, a new TV set is not that important?

To conclude: these are the reasons I think we need to take this threat seriously, and, act promptly. You’re free to disagree and/or interpret these observations differently, but it really doesn’t help either of us if you make assumptions on my views very far outside these specifications.

Which ones do you agree with? I’d love to hear your opinions in the comment section, if you feel like it.


9 thoughts on “Common Ground

  1. Pingback: Common Ground (in Practise) « Our Greatest Common Factor

  2. One of greatest problems of becoming aware is that you want to shout it off the top of the roofs and expect everyone to jump up and change their attitude to solve the problem instantly. The biggest frustration is then to see that life goes on while you watch the masses head for disaster and you seem unable to change their course. So be it. Should that stop you? No! But maybe do it a little different.

    There is no “with us” or “against us” because either side considers the same of the other party. There is just a difference in opinion on sustainable human progress. Those who look at the whole picture see the ending of the fossil combustion or the effects on our climate through the emissions of burning fuels. Others lookb at a different bigger picture and see how economies have grown to give prosperity to 100’s of millions of new people who were living in perceived poverty in the views of the western world. Moral and ethical discussions can than go endlessly on who should step back to “save the world” or “what prosperity really is”?

    The guy in the street, next door neighbours, the lady with the dress,…. may not enter the store after the bomb warning. The confinement of the threat to a certain location allows people to make a choice. When you say “there is a bomb” without determining the location, size or direct threat the people will react shocked but rapidly recover with the natural optimism that keeps us going against any potential threat (like an elephant that escapes and can crush us, the sky falling on our head or a madman running around with a shooting gun in a shopping mall). It will simply not happen to us. Until it happens. Meanwhile we have to go to our work, take the kids to school and make sure we have something to eat tonight. Today is reality, yesterday is gone and tomorrow does not exist.

    Last week we had the first encouter in my town to organize civilian participation in AiREAS, our sustainocratic multidisciplinary venture to create a healthy city by taking air pollution with civilian health information as a point of measurement. My own standpoint was to create awareness first in order to get people to change behavior. In fact, I had come to the conclusion that it was even more complex than that. People who are aware do not automatically change attitude. They first have to go through the phase of acceptance of their own responsibility. People who are aware have the tendency of placing the responsibility elsewhere first, like government regulation, business social and ecological responsibilities, their boss, etc. They only take personal responsibility when something affects them personally. So awareness is not enough. Participating people from the governmental health department had spend much money on awareness programs to see no change at all. It is like smokers who know that smoking kills them but state that they smoke for another reason than suicide. They will even show examples of people who smoked a lot and died at age 90 or more. They tend to compare with those exceptional cases rather than referring to the many who suffer lung cancer. It is human nature to find positive justification for questionable behavior.

    The university professor that was present too, running a department investigating “perception”, argued that change of behavior needs no awareness at all. His studies reveal that people react mainly to their environment. When many neighbours for instance have solar panels on their roof tops suddenly lots of others stand up “and want that too”. It suggests that we should not invest in awareness programs but make positive use of those who are willing to pioneer in renewal, innovation or change. By concentrating on certain regions we can create sufficient visibility to get the masses eventually to go along through followers inertion rather than convincement. It may even be much cheaper and faster to invest in innovation subsidies for those front runners, knowing that the masses will eventually follow when a certain scale has been reached. Of course we find opposition of those that reason from the logic of a different paradigm but who cares? When we know for certain that nature is on our side eventually the other paradigm will collapse, not at once but gradually. So time will help sellect the progress too. Meanwhile our proposition grows through experimentation with human nature and our common sense.

    In AiREAS we decide to try out both, the awareness and unawareness route, but even that is too fragmented. You can take things away from people out of common sense, like our addiction to mobility through possession of all kinds of vehicles, but if we do not offer comfort of an alternative that is perceived to equivalent or better, we will get nowhere. We can even find people with common sense opposing to our noble world changing actions out of self interest. We can show that chaos is on the doorstep but those who live the day to day life will that while it remains on the doorstep they do what they have always done. Unless you change something that keeps them happy and diverts chaos for them. Not everyone is a world saver but will be happy to follow if self interest is garanteed.

    So, summing up:
    * be the change you want to be.
    * do not expect people to change simply by listening to your powerful arguments
    * if you want the world to change, change the envionment in which people live and act
    * then you face the common existing culture and the one you want to introduce
    * you will not be able to do this alone, so you need to find support with those who think alike
    (in sustainocracy we go further and gain support of local institutions too, mainly the ones that are close to the daily human reality, not the ones that are high up in the hierarchies of the old paradigm)
    * learn from your failures and celebrate your successes together
    * accept that pain and pleasure belong together. You cannot prevent the human world from chaos or disaster (preacher), you can only take the human world away from it (leadership)
    * enjoy life by taking the obstacles as challenges, not as burdens. They are there for your benefit, not your punishment


  3. Thanks for your insightful arguments again, Jean-Paul! A great reading, once again.

    I know humanity won’t change all of a sudden just because I may or may not have realized something about my personal surroundings. We’ve pendeled around our balance point for as long as we’ve been here. But the only function of arguing is not to change the opponent – you also enhance your own logic by presenting it to people who are not safely likeminded already – and, if you’re willing to hear their arguments with an open mind, from time to time you might learn new things yourself, too.

    Again, I agree with you in that awareness does not automatically result in changing your behavior. In fact, this was the main point in one of my earlier posts, where I tried to compare the classic 5 stages of acceptance to our collective addiction for growth. As I see it, the mindset you described in your comment, sounds a lot like the ‘bargaining stage’ in this model: https://ourgreatestcommonfactor.wordpress.com/2012/11/11/the-psychology-of-apostasy-kubler-ross-model-applied-to-our-addiction-for-growth/

    • Those 5 stages were first characterized by the Italian phylosopher Dante in the 12th century (la comedia divina). I project them on my model of human complexities along the green line of change through pre-paradigm development (law of opposites). The stronger the threat towards chaos the bigger the fight against it by the establishment and the greater your chances become to find support for change.

      In fact, the 5 stages are just a part of circle that involves collapse again after developing the comfort of wellness due to greed to keep the accomplishment for ever by introducing bureaucracy. My argument is that we capable of breaking through as humankind accepting this entire circle by basing society on this higer conscience. The line of sustainable human progress is achieved by accepting change as constant factor. That is what I try to show in practical reality in Eindhoven, a complex city in a modern, complex society functioning primarily in the consumer driven economic paradigm but with initial institutional willingness (and need) to experiment with my new definition of democracy. To get the 220000 population along gets us to the psychology of change at street level. It is for probably the most significant empirical experience ever that I share with anyone, like you, willing to consider it seriously for usage elsewhere in the world.

      • Oh, I didn’t know they date all the way back to Dante!

        But I’ve come to the same conclusion about our collective mindset following a cyclic development: crisis, survival, wellness, luxury, excess -> crisis. We’ve seen it so many times before. Are we Caligula, or maybe the emperor before him? At least we’re getting close. And, crude as it is, the article about lemmings I’ve been posting a lot lately, seems to correlate strongly with our situation. You would think, we’ve the ability to act wiser than lemmings, wouldn’t you? What I see instead, is the exact same behavior mimicked.

        We have conscience, but we’re not using it more than the absolute minimum. It’s the route of minimal resistance you talk in your post, and we’ve been discussing before. We need to shock our emotional center to change our view on what the route of minimal resistance is.

        We’re pretty simple animals, in the end. We compare the sum of positive and negative feelings of option 1 to the sum of positive and negative feelings of option 2, and select whichever gives us more positive feedback. That’s about all there is to it. We don’t seem to be able to choose against this intuitive feeling collectively, and for long periods of time without lapsing. Unless, something happens that actually changes our emotional reaction to options 1 and 2 so deeply, that they in fact swap places.

        As I suggested before, institutionalised religions have used that throughout our history (with the notions of ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’, for example) to terminally change our intuitive stances on various deeds. But can we use this consciously, on ourselves, while knowing it’s a placebo of sorts, a tool to keep on acting through our less conscious moments too, towards a bigger goal we figure out at a more conscious moment? Can self suggestion work so well? Or does this suggestive type of discipline only work on someone who doesn’t really understand what’s going on?

        Personally, I really do believe we’ll end up in a lot of trouble, economically, ecologically, socially and politically, if we keep on to our habits. So I wouldn’t need to imagine this notion ‘hell’ out of empty air. Yet, this feeling is obviously not as strong as if I would see this happening right now in all its force in my immediate surroundings. Otherwise, I’d dropped two third of my behavioral patterns already. I believe this is a common pattern that repeats from individual to individual.

  4. The individual course is one of falling down, standing up again and reflecting about the painful bruises obtained. Every individual finds his or her own obstacles to trip over. You cannot expect anyone to know beforehand what to expect during the course of a lifetime, just that it’s a field of challenges and a tremendous learning experience. And then one dies.

    A complex society is different. It has time to learn from history, to structure itself for sustainable peace and prosperity. It may never die. In the past societies have broken up, disappeared, but now we know so much all together and we are so well connected with eachother, that there is no need for collapse. There is absolutely no reason on societal level that higher consciousness cannot be applied from a leadership point of view. Such society can make sure that those who live through the individual cycles of life can learn from their own ups and downs in freedom. But society as a whole follows the path of sustainable progress. Sustainocracy is such model that allows humans to be human and society be evolutionary.

    It doesnot take many people, just a few, at the right places, at the right time and everything changes instantly. And still people fall and get up as usual.

    • I appreciate the optimism you present. I also understand the logic of your argument, and while I’m not absolutely sure the conclusions hold true, I do feel that at individual level it’s better to believe in this either way to keep yourself trying, and on the other hand, that the end result isn’t fixed, but in fact depends on how many people do believe in it and act according to their beliefs.

      The mechanic is similar to one destructive ideology, that I’ve been observing with worry: xenophobes claim they’re just observing a fixed phenomenon and warning other people about it, but in fact every time one of them claims that different cultures are primarily a threat, it adds to the xenophobic aggression as a whole.

      • It will take some time before my optimism gets generalized support, not just in idealism but also practical reality. The point you make about our “fear for the other” is true and certainly of concern. There is a lot to let go still in terms of behavior, beliefs and fears, to break through to “my world”. I have been a foreigner most of my life and learned to appreciate the richness of human development cross the world. It was only after getting back to my own country after 27 years when a culture shock hit me. I now see a global citizen arise, one of a new culture that unites all in a way by letting go of old dogmas and developping values of our own. We have to acknowledge that fear is a fourth dimensional reality (my way of describing perception and levels of awareness) that has caused most human behavioral disorder, even institutionalized. Education helps, which is why I set up the STIR Academy. It will be free of charge across the world within sustainocratic programs. Fear can be overcome with selfconfidence, knowing one self in self imaging and the way others see us (counter imaging). No every place in the world is ready for my views even though they can be motive for attention. The best way to convince the world is by providing proof or concept through practical application in a multicultural environment. Even though I am very critical about the Dutch society I find enough freedom, emancipation and educated people here to get it done. Most other places in the world are simply not yet ready. That does not mean that sustainocracy can’t be started there. It either takes more effort and risk or one needs to develop it next to the existing society, not within, like we see happening in countries like the US or Spain (not sustainocratic yet though).

        So, yes. I am optimistic about the “can do” and do everything I can to show it at work. I am also realistic that chaos and further lethal crises cannot be avoided. I have learned to stop worrying about that. I do my thing and see how far I get. Whatever I achieve makes the world better than before. That’s reason enough for optimism and happiness. It is not up to me that others follow such cause. I only embrase them whole heartedly when they do. Together we simply make a bigger difference. No pretentions, no lectures, no prejudice, no judgement. Just a new paradigm that started with one, then two, ten, hundreds and maybe a few more in time.

      • Yes, that is absolutely true. By changing ourselves, we have already changed the world. And your work especially has changed a lot more people already, so that they’ve found a constructive way to handle the frustration about the status quo and use that energy to achieve practical results towards a sustainable lifestyle.

        I’ll have to get back to the report you sent me, to see how this Sustainocratic prototype town works in practical terms. There’s so much other things happening in my life, that I only got to reading a few pages.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s