One of the biggest threats behind an increasingly likely human extinction is our tendency to compartmentalise (in order to ignore) information. Each one of us does this unconsciously in a process that psychologist Norman Dixon referred to as “trading safety for peace of mind.” According to Dixon, when faced with danger most humans do not respond rationally; following the course of action (or inaction) that is most likely to keep us safe. Rather, we respond emotionally; taking the course of action (or inaction) that distresses us the least. In his book Our Own Worst Enemy, Dixon gives a plethora of examples that ultimately led to tragedy. Among these are:
- The train driver whose engine exploded because he had hammered a steam valve shut because it was too noisy. Ironically, the explosion blew out his ear drums so that loud (or, indeed, any) noise was no longer an issue for him
- The airline co-pilot who acquiesced in an unauthorised take-off attempt rather than argue with the pilot; leading to the largest ever loss of life in an air disaster
- The nuclear engineers at Three Mile Island who opted to believe that their instruments were faulty rather than entertain the possibility that the reactor was overheating.
There is a relatively small part of the human population that is able to process information rationally (although, unfortunately, half of them are psychopaths): People like the NASA engineers who warned their managers not to proceed with the launch of the space shuttle Challenger in January 1986. Not, as was the case in that tragedy, that a warning from one or more alert individuals within a particular discipline makes much difference.
The Challenger disaster was as much the product of politics and economics as it was to do with engineering and chemistry. Managers were under huge pressure from politicians to carry out the launch for PR value. There was also the looming economic threat that the US military (whose payloads made up the bulk of shuttle missions) might develop their own rival system if NASA kept delaying launches.
In the end, rather than act rationally and delay the launch – with all the emotionally uncomfortable fallout that would have entailed – they found ways to convince themselves that it would be okay to launch. The result, tragically, was that all seven members of the crew died along with any hope of good PR.
It is in this light that we need to view the recent – more alarming than usual – call for radical change from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The scientists raising the alarm are akin to the NASA engineers warning of the danger of launching space shuttles in sub-zero temperatures. The economists and politicians are like the NASA managers who are under extreme economic and social pressures to avoid saying or doing anything that might emotionally distress themselves or the wider electorate.
One psychological device commonly employed to begin this process of denial can be found in the headline chosen by the BBC in their coverage of the story:
“Final call to save the world from ‘climate catastrophe’” (My emphasis)
In fact, “the world” is doing something akin to what our bodies do when they become infested with an unwanted infection or toxin; it is warming its temperature by a few degrees in order to kill the organism responsible. The world, you see, is in no danger whatsoever. It has been through eons during which temperatures were far higher than we are likely to make them. During those periods it produced stunning natural wonders; insects as big as large dogs, ferns as tall as houses and reptiles the size of trucks. The world can get along fine irrespective of whether humans are present.
This talk about “saving the world” is merely trading safety for peace of mind so that we do not have to entertain our species’ headlong charge to oblivion in exactly the same way as we individually avoid thinking about the fact of our own mortality. Instead, we fall into another psychological device; assuming that someone else has got our backs.
The climate scientists themselves do this when they call upon our political leaders to make radical changes to four key areas of our way of life:
- Energy – shift to entirely zero carbon and carbon-negative energy sources
- Land use – more vegetables, less meat
- Cities – restructuring to prioritise walking and cycling, energy-saving building standards, etc.
- Industry – electrify, cut back on material use, recycle, go digital, etc.
It is at this point that we realise that climate scientists are not up to speed with the emerging energy economics. While a handful of countries in the developed regions of the world have deployed modern renewables in large enough volumes to impact their electricity systems; most of their actual energy consumption has been offshored to the parts of the world that manufacture the goods they consume. This allows the (trading safety for peace of mind) illusion that these regions are “greener” than is actually the case. The global reality is very different. As energy expert Kurt Cobb explains:
“I recently asked a group gathered to hear me speak what percentage of the world’s energy is provided by these six renewable sources: solar, wind, geothermal, wave, tidal, and ocean energy.
“Then came the guesses: To my left, 25 percent; straight ahead, 30 percent; on my right, 20 percent and 15 percent; a pessimist sitting to the far right, 7 percent.
“The group was astonished when I related the actual figure: 1.5 percent. The figure comes from the Paris-based International Energy Agency, a consortium of 30 countries that monitors energy developments worldwide. The audience that evening had been under the gravely mistaken impression that human society was much further along in its transition to renewable energy. Even the pessimist in the audience was off by more than a factor of four.”
Worse still, none of the renewable energy generation deployed so far has been used to replace the energy generated from fossil fuels; global energy consumption continues to grow remorselessly, and renewables have merely been added to the mix. The only major energy transition has been the shift from coal to gas-fired power stations.
The common public/political response to the realisation that we are nowhere near even beginning to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, is to (trading safety for peace of mind) call for governments to redouble their efforts. This, however, depends upon the fallacy that governments are doing anything more than adding hot air and volumes of unworkable policy proposals. The reality is that the only difference between Donald Trump and Angela Merkel when it comes to climate policy is that Trump revels in burning coal while Merkel desperately attempts to convince us that she isn’t doing it.
As with proposals to totally reengineer the global energy systems, proposals for the radical reform of cities, industry and land use are beyond us. The fundamental flaw is visible in the way we deploy so-called renewable electricity. Rob Mielcarski summarises the problem:
“Renewable energies cannot stand on their own without fossil energy to create, install, and maintain their materials and infrastructure. For example, wind turbines use large quantities of concrete, steel, and copper that cannot be made without fossil energy. Renewables are at best fossil energy extenders. At worst they accelerate economic growth and burn up the remaining fossil energy faster to capture some wind or solar energy with equipment that will wear out in less than 50 years when there will be little or no fossil energy needed to replace the equipment.”
There is simply no good way in which we can switch to a renewable energy-powered economy without burning so much of the remaining fossil fuels and consuming so many of the remaining resources that we accelerate the very crises we are seeking to prevent.
When climate scientists and politicians call on us to redouble our efforts – one even called for the kind of mobilisation seen in World War Two – they neglect to point out that we have neither the capital, energy nor the resources available both to feed the existing population and to even scratch the surface of the transition to a zero-carbon economy. As Professor of Petroleum and Chemical Engineering, Tad Patzek points out:
“To compare the WWII industrial effort with the global dislocation necessary to ameliorate some of the effects of climate change is surprisingly naive and proves that the three professors got Ds in their history electives, if they had any. This comparison also neglects to account for the human population that has almost quadrupled between the 1940s and now, and the resource consumption that has increased almost 10-fold. The world today cannot grow its industrial production the way we did during WWII. There is simply not enough of the planet Earth left to be devoured.”
While it is true that key states were industrialised in 1939 (or 1941), the majority of the world was not. It was only after Europe and Japan emerged from their post-war reconstruction efforts in the early 1950s that the full-blown economic growth of the global economy really took off. As historian Paul Kennedy explains:
“The accumulated world industrial output between 1953 and 1973 was comparable in volume to that of the entire century and a half which separated 1953 from 1800. The recovery of war-damaged economies, the development of new technologies, the continued shift from agriculture to industry, the harnessing of national resources within ‘planned economies,’ and the spread of industrialization to the Third World all helped to effect this dramatic change. In an even more emphatic way, and for much the same reasons, the volume of world trade also grew spectacularly after 1945…”
It is no coincidence that this economically magical twenty-year period is also the period when global oil consumption grew exponentially; or that the economic upswing ended when exponential oil production growth ceased. Remarkably, even as this short period of our history recedes into the fog of the past, economists continue to treat the once-and-for-good conditions in those two decades as the “normal” that we are supposed to be trying to get back to.
There is one, very simple way that we can keep global temperatures from reaching the point where our species goes extinct. We stop burning all fossil fuels immediately. If we do so, of course, we will be plunged into a new dark age as all of the life support systems we depend upon would collapse within hours. From the ashes, a much smaller – 1 billion at most – population will be able to restore the kind of renewables-only economy of the Atlantic slave economies in the seventeenth century.
It is, of course, very emotionally challenging to acknowledge that one way or another, this is the type of economy humans – if they do not become extinct – will have to adopt. Instead, we trade safety for peace of mind by continuing with a way of life that we readily admit to being unsustainable in the vain hope that clever people somewhere else are going to come up with a new energy source that is both carbon-free and capable of providing sufficient net energy not just to power continued economic growth; but to simultaneously repair the damage we have already done to the human habitat.
Patzek understands the politics of the crisis better than most:
“Our children have far less access to the luxuries of the global amoeba and to that extent they are more in tune with reality. But they are mostly passive, alienated from the natural environment, and brainwashed by living with smart phones and Facebook. So, by and enlarge, our children don’t vote and don’t try to change what they see coming.
“My generation, though, consists mostly of the frightened, self-centred cowards who hope that preserving the governing narrative will protect us from the inevitable. Welcome to the overpopulated world with the climate change, increasing international chaos, growing nationalism, xenophobia, racism, fascism and religious intolerance…”
So no, climate change is not a political issue; it is a profoundly psychological one. Until and unless far more of us are prepared to drop our comfort blankets and look our predicament in the face, extinction is our most likely fate. As Mielcarski puts it:
“When a crisis forces action we will probably blame the wrong actors. Our responses are not likely to be rational or optimal. Expect chaos.
“A few people have broken through inherited denial. So it is possible. But scaling this to the majority will be a challenge.”
And even if a majority can bring themselves to stop trading safety for peace of mind, the time is running short. The seas are rising faster than anyone thought and the time we have left to act can be counted in months rather than decades. It may be that none of us will survive the storm that is about to break around us…
As you made it to the end…
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