Our Greatest Common Factor

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

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Two scenarios: ‘Lemmings’ vs. ‘Ex-Junkies’

Experts all over the world have analysed vast amounts of data to try and create as plausible global resource consumption scenarios  as possible (for example here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here… and the list goes on). Some results may be biased as a result of economical or political interests, others perhaps less. As scientific raw data analysis goes, I have nothing valuable to add. Instead I’d like to present some viewpoints to help interpret these scenarios, and perhaps come up with new realizations about our situation.

End of the World as We Know It, and We Feel Fine…

What we know for sure, is that fossil fuels will wear out sooner or later, or to be more precise, the overall eROeI (energy Returned On energy Invested) of the remaining deposits will eventually become so low that it won’t simply make sense to collect them as an energy source anymore. This is not a matter of opinion, it’s just basic arithmetics. The only (barely) relevant question here is, how wide is the Hubbert bell curve for each individual fossil energy source; in other words, whether the inevitable series of crashes is so far in the future, we don’t have to do anything about it yet. In my opinion, this logic is about just as unsustainable as our way of life. Still, I’m afraid we could have more acute problems in our hands  it just may be that we’ll be facing the notorious Peak Oil all too late for our own good.

A realization that even many authoritative studies seem to have missing, or at least don’t bother to stress, is that abundant energy sources and a thick ozone layer are by no means the only natural resources we need. In a sense, every concrete element that’s needed to keep up the abstraction of our society, is a natural resource: breathable air, drinkable water, bearable climate, cultivable soil, healthy and nontoxic edible flora and fauna, and so on and so forth. And the evidence seems to be building up, that more and more of these resources are being compromised by the current form of the perpetual motion machine that is our society. This popularized presentation by the Post Carbon Institute called ‘There’s No Tomorrow’ is a good starting point for further learning.

So, instead of just Peak Oil, it seems more relevant keywords could be the carrying capacity of an ecosystem and overshoot, that, according to Wikipedia,

occurs when a population exceeds the long term carrying capacity of its environment. The consequence of overshoot is called a crash or die-off.

Gloomy, admittedly, but not as far-fetched as one might hope. This year, Earth Overshoot Day was on August 22, which means we used 12 months worth of Earth’s renewable resources in less than 8 months (plus of course all the carbon fuels, that take approximately 60 to 600 million years to renew). More information, and a ‘fun’ interactive overshoot meter can be found on this footprintnetwork’s website.

One relatively new sign of this overshoot is Arctic methane release, which has been speculated over by scientist for decades, but that has only just begun to break through to mainstream media coverage. Methane is 20 to 30 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2, and it might be escaping into the atmosphere as the arctic ice and permafrost keeps on melting. Whether the threat is seen as moderate or absolutely critical, depends on intepretation, but the potential is there.

The most astonishing thing about all this is our economical system’s collective and categorical denial about these threats. Fashionable words like sustainability and ecology are repeated over and over, but mostly they’re still used simply as selling points for products created inside the current economical system, instead of primary goals that would allow for criticising and, eventually enhancing the system itself. The excuses vary, but a popular one is that we don’t have enough proof. Again, the logic of this notion is something out of this world.

Let’s stop and think about it for a second.

Imagine you’re heading to a shopping mall with your kids and grandkids (if you have them, or if you think you’re going to sometime in the future) to buy a bigger plasma TV. The police comes to talk to you and says that the mall is being evacuated because there’s a considerable risk of a hidden bomb in there. You estimate the risk is about 50/50 − so, would you take your kids and grandkids, and head for the electronics section for your new TV set anyway?

The answer is a bellowed ‘YES!’, at least according to the current consensus of our culture.

As individuals, almost all of us are naturally capable of this kind of basic risk analysis. We estimate the probability of the threat, and then compare probable consequences of neglecting the threat against the consequences of overstating the threat. My hunch is, most of us would not enter the mall (except perhaps if you’ve used to living in a warzone or other dangerous area).

Something weird happens, though, when we enter the level of society, and causalities that are not immediately perceivable (although, to be honest, not all that complex either). We suddendly lose this basic ability to estimate threats, an ability that has secured the survival of our species for millions of years. In other words, we start, collectively, acting against our own survival. Intuitively, this doesn’t seem to make sense — but the funny thing about nature is, it always makes sense,  although sometimes not in the way we would hope.

So, maybe this is just a sign that it’s our time to fade out and give space for the next species in this ongoing experiment for survival, somewhat like dinosaurs did. Maybe we simply had a slight ‘adjustment flaw’, just a bit too much of technical skills and too little empathy; it got us this far — not bad, all and all — but won’t save us from ourselves. Or, maybe a massive drop in human population is indeed essential to secure the survival of at least a few of us. In a sense, there’s no need to worry: nature never ‘fails’, it just adapts. The downside from our point of view is, nature obviously has no stance whatsoever on individual suffering — otherwise, would we really have parasites like this?

So, unless we’re especially fond of horrible, massive, human suffering, the only path for us is to try to fight our instinctive behavior, rise above our mundane routines, and put our collective effort into planning a future society that could perhaps be able save us.

You’ve read this far, so there’s a chance you already understand we’re all passengers on a metaphorical Titanic — now’s the time to choose, whether you want to join the orchestra and keep on playing till the bitter end, or if you want to try and survive. No hard feelings, either way — it’s all human — but if you chose the latter, we should probably begin. But how? Who will show the way?

Lemmings and junkies. Obviously!

How Can Lemmings and Heroin Addicts Help Save the World?

We started with a bunch of future scenarios. In the end, only two are really relevant, though. Let’s call them:

‘Lemmings’ and ‘Ex-Junkies’

As you might have guessed already, this method is not scientific, nor is it supposed to be. Instead, I hope, it will be at least a bit thought-provoking.

First, we need a relatively credible long-term chart of our growth. Primary energy consumption is quite a good meter —  it also correlates at least roughly with other relevant variables: population, economic growth, CO2 emissions, etc., so I think it’s pretty justifiable to view this as an indicator of our growth in general. Here’s a good one, so let’s borrow it. Thanks to Gail Tverberg, Vaclav Smil and British Petroleum! Then, let’s add our scenarios:

'Lemmings' vs. 'Ex-Junkies'

Will we share lemmings’ fate, or will we be able to muster up the courage to enter rehab before it’s too late?

Let’s view the worst case scenario, or ‘Lemmings’ first. The most important thing we can learn from lemmings, is that the aforementioned concepts of ‘carrying capacity’, ‘overshoot’ and ‘die-off’ are very much real, and they portray circumstances that are at least allegorical, if not identical to ours. See this short article Mass Murder on the Tundra, for example. The projection you see here was pretty much drawn by placing the lemming population density chart on top of the energy chart and scaling it so that it fit the approximate tangent of the growth since the beginning of the industrial era. Depending on what you think Earth’s actual carrying capacity is, and how much overshoot it can handle, you’re free to imagine the curve wider or smaller. The bottom line is, if we skip the usual explanation (which is pretty much the sentence ‘we’ll think of something’ wrapped in layers of scifi-fantasy) this is very likely to happen sooner or later, if we insist on continuing on the path of ‘limitless’ growth.

The question is, does our ability to make rational decisions exceed that of lemmings’?

No, that was not irony. I’m sorry for having to say this, but in all honesty, this is the question we have to ask ourselves.

Does our ability to make rational decisions exceed that of lemmings’?

So far, we don’t have much proof that it does. We can only hope for the best, and try our best.

The second scenario, ‘Ex-Junkies’ isn’t too lofty either, but nevertheless might be best option we have. I believe the best experts on how to survive the next century, could in fact be ex-addicts. After all, junkies is what we are — again, this is not just a figure of speech: we really do have a severe psychological addiction for the fossil fuel lifestyle. And just as heroin addicts, we first need to realise this habit is going to kill us if we don’t act, and then go to rehab as soon as possible. Whereas the ‘Lemmings’ scenario compares to overdosing or perhaps going ‘cold turkey’, there’s another solution that’s far less risky and more sustainable: replacement therapy. Heroin addicts use methadone or Subutex, our medication would be renewable energy sources, and to be realistic, nuclear energy. It’s by no means the optimal energy source, but the thing is we need to get off carbon fuels very quickly, and to be practical, that probably means we can’t turn our back to nuclear power quite yet.

Another important lesson humanity can learn from drug addicts, is about the two ‘schools’ of rehab. Quoting this rehab info page:

Maintenance and coming off (‘detox’)

Once established on a regular dose, most people stay on buprenorphine for a long period of time or even long-term. This is called maintenance and helps you to keep off street drugs. Some people gradually reduce the dose and come off it. This is called detoxification, or ‘detox’. However, it usually takes several months, and sometimes years, before most people are ready to consider ‘detox’. It is often safer to stay on buprenorphine then to ‘detox’ before you are ready.

We’ll have to admit to ourselves, we will always be addicts, and just as drug addicts, we have to make a firm decision not to relapse again. A society’s version of this is of course strict laws that control the use of fossil fuels. It’s also good to understand, we’ll probably never ‘detox’ completely, and that’s not that bad. At least we’d be able to live a relatively normal life instead of an addict’s desperate search for the next fix.

The ‘Ex-Junkies’ projection was estimated by taking a chart about the decline of heroin usage after starting replacement therapy, found on this page about Subutex, and placing it to continue seamlessly from the fossil fuels curve. The renewables curve was then drawn intuitively on top of the fossils one, to represent a relatively plausible scenario.

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Morality vs. Causality

It is still a widespread view that morality is the key element of being human, and the ability to make the destinction between (absolute) good and evil is the only way to be able to live an acceptable life.

This is why it might at first sound like a paradox to some to criticise morality, and furthermore claim that absolute morality could in fact be one of the biggest obstacles in the way of humanity’s survival – so I ask you to bear with me for a couple more paragraphs.

Morality and Emotions

First of all, learned moral code tends to have a very strong emotional affect on us, that can prevent us from understanding the real chain of causes and effects that has lead to the situation under consideration, and therefore, also prevent us from finding solutions to change similar causations to our favor in the future. For example, the case of Josef Fritzl causes such a strong emotional distress and feelings of disgust, you simply don’t want to think about it beyond the notion that Fritzl was, simply, absolutely evil. But if we submit to our first emotional reaction, and accept this conclusion without question, what tools do we have to prevent this from happening in the future? Try to find and catch all the evil people in the world?

But if, in the name of deeper understanding, we try and see through the layer of emotional and moral distress, we just might to be able to look into the causality behind the horrible situation. What was Josef Fritzl’s childhood like? How did World War I and II affect his personality? What else do we not know about the background of this person? If we studed the subject thoroughly, we could perhaps find out some of the probable reasons why this happens, notice similar causations in the future and maybe even be able to prevent similar cases beforehand.

Understanding instead of Resentment

In my opinion, the same pretty much applies to viewing human behavior on a global scale, too. The more you learn about the mechanics of our culture, the easier it is to resort to thinking that people are generally ‘greedy’, ‘evil’ and so forth – in other words: to moral resent. The problem with this mindset is, it tends to lead nowhere – no new solutions, no deeper understanding, just feelings of guilt and/or anger, that admittedly might lead to spontaneous action now and then, but rarely to long lasting change in your behavior.

Again, I have a strong feeling that a more constructive approach would be to try and look through the layers of morality and emotional impact, and tap into the causality behind the phenomenons we’re trying to figure out. Why are we ‘greedy’? Why do billionaires keep wanting yet another 100 million, even if its affect on the quality of their lives was practically nonexistent? Why do the morbidly obese want yet another bag of chips even if they know it could kill you any given day? Looking behind moral assumptions, the answer could perhaps be found in the history of our species, and the behavior of other species as well.

Human development has lasted for about a million years, depending on its definition. Only a couple of thousand of years of it has happened in a culture resembling anything like ours, and less than a century in an environment that requires profound understanding of global mechanisms and resources. Therefore, it’s pretty safe to say that biologically, the post-industrial age hasn’t had time to affect our evolution practically at all. This seems to lead to the conclusion, that the basic properties of our problem solving capabilities have basically not changed after the times we lived on mercies of the nature. Of course we have a lot more information to help us understand our surroundings, but the basic mechanics of thinking and feeling haven’t really changed.

In this light, our behavior is only logical. When we lived without the support network of modern society, eating whenever possible was the wisest thing you could do – the everyday struggle for survival made sure all-you-can-eat was never too much. And the ones who most diligently collected foodstuff, medicinal plants and materials for building better habitats – in other words, wealth – had the best chances of survival. The tragical irony here is, that as descendants of these survivors, our own survival instincts are still so strong, they just may end up killing us. Luckily, we do have a secondary system of problem solving, namely critical thinking; whether we use it to rewrite our instinctive behavioral models to meet up to today’s needs, is up to us.

The Paradox of Absolute Morality

The obvious problem in absolute morality is that it tends in fact to be relative. The fact that there’s a lot of different views on what’s absolutely good or bad, automatically leads to feelings of moral superiority towards each other and basically devastates all possibilities to form respectful relations with one another and learn from each other. So, while understanding this may offend someone – my apologies – I want to make it very clear that no philosophy, theistic or atheistic, will have automatic dominance over any other here. Any and all defaults will be analysed and criticised here whenever necessary.

Causality and Empathy

I understand someone could interpret all this as a some kind of a weird eulogy for sociopathy. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Admitting that morality is relative to species and to some extent, even individuals, does not automatically lead to indifference and unscrupulousness. Instead I’d like to highlight another of our naturally evolved qualities: empathy. The bigger our communities became, the bigger role empathy played in our survival. For some reason, you often hear the claim that only our selfish properties are natural or animal, and all our altruistic properties are the result of civilization and rational thinking.

I find this line of thought utterly strange. As I see it, empathy is most natural, and it’s in fact been one of the keys to our survival as a species. And when we begin tackling our biggest challenge so far – combining sustainable living with modern culture – its significance grows even greater. I believe strongly, that understanding of causality and the ability for empathy are the single most important components of our survival over the coming centuries. If we understand why we behave the way we do, and are able to identify with others’ situations, we will end up making decisions that allow us to develop towards sustainability and wellness – with or without a given moral code. Gladly, there’s a lot more uniting than disjunctive causes between all major philosophies – whether you believe it’s because of a higher force that’s affected all our philosophies, or simply because we all share a set of basic principles to secure our species’ survival, is up to your personal beliefs.

Towards Concreteness

I think that there’s now enough background information for you as a reader to be able to decide whether you want to be part of this, and for us to start the actual brainstorming. I think I’ll post a short, non-definitive overview on the global environmental problems we’re facing, just to make sure we’re on the same page, and try to persuade more people here to actually get some discussion started, and then we can begin thinking where and how to collect the actual ideas of how a sustainable society could work. You’re warmly welcomed to discuss, share your thoughts and educate me and other readers about anything posted here – as I’ve said earlier, I’m not an expert on any of the fields discussed here.