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Hedonism, Survivalism, and the Burden of Knowledge

by James Magnus-Johnston

Johnston_photoIn my last post, I asked whether human beings are naturally predisposed to deny the precarious reality of our planet’s health, which would help explain the undeserved endurance of the growth narrative. Self-imposed ignorance, in other words, is bliss. It absolves us from the responsibility of action.

What about the rest of us? For those of us that have ‘quit denial,’ so to speak, can conscious awareness be channeled to motivate positive action? Or is hope futile in the face of an enormous task?

A recent article by Madeline Thomas in Grist featured the headline, “Climate depression is for real. Just ask a scientist.” Scientists’ intimate understanding of climate change has led to depression, substance abuse, suicide, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Camillie Parmesan, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize for her work as a lead author of the Third IPCC Assessment Report, became “profoundly depressed” at the seeming futility of her work. She had been screaming from the scientific rooftops, yet the best we could offer in response was little more than a call for more carbon-intensive growth.

Evolutionary psychologists Ajit Varki and Danny Brower believe that some of the earliest humans fell into depression due to their awareness of mortality, while others were able to carry on without becoming crippled by this realization. Mind-over-reality became humanity’s defining characteristic, enabling us to maintain sanity in the face of danger. On a society-wide basis, anxiety and depression could cause an avoidance of procreation, which would be an evolutionary dead-end.

We’re now confronting not only our individual mortality, but perhaps even the mortality of our species, according to a few controversial voices. Ecologist Guy McPherson is among those who have suggested that near-term human extinction is inevitable. James Lovelock, author of the Gaia hypothesis, believes that climate catastrophe is inevitable within 20 years. With an awareness of the rate of species loss and climate change, among other symptoms of breakdown, it isn’t hard to fall into paralysis and despair.

But others seem able to carry on without being crippled by this realization. Proponents of the steady state economy are among those who remain optimistic in the face of long odds, and generally, I think we fall into one of three camps: survivalists, hedonists, and denialists.

Photo Credit: hardworkinghippy

The survivalists among us are easiest to spot. Photo Credit: hardworkinghippy

We all know the survivalists among us. They’re the lot that want to voluntarily extricate themselves from known civilization before the imagined $h!t hits the fan in some kind of imagined catastrophic event. They dream of a semi-pastoral existence in the agrarian hinterlands, far from the commercialized zombies who wouldn’t know how to take care of themselves without the convenience of a department store. They’re hard workers who romantically hope to re-kindle the low-carbon self-sufficiency of generations past.

Then there are the hedonists, and I’d be willing to wager that a great many well-educated millennials fall into this category, sometimes by accident. Hedonists might accept the ecological challenges we face and withdraw from the growth-obsessed formal economy. But rather heading for the hills, they do what they love. I think these are many of the artists, dumpster-divers, and coffee-enthusiasts among us. You can’t measure their contribution to change in terms of GDP. Both McPherson and Lovelock seem to prescribe hedonism, with Lovelock calling for us to “enjoy life while we can” because “in 20 years, global warming will hit the fan.” McPherson, for his part, calls upon us to “passionately pursue a life of excellence,” and practice the radical generosity associated with hospice care. For the hedonist, “carpe diem” is the modus operandi. They’re always asking themselves: what must we do, knowing that we only have a little bit of time left?

And finally, the denialist. A little bit of overconfidence and denial can come in pretty handy from an evolutionary perspective, because it keeps us from obsessing about the abysmal end. In this case, I’m not referring to outright denial of climate change–the “climate deniers.” I’m referring to those of us who accept planetary life support breakdown, but hope that maybe–just maybe–human civilization has enough wiggle room to squeak by. Just enough methodological uncertainty to restore this blue dot to health. After all, careful skepticism is the essence of good science. Hydrogeologist Scott Johnson, for instance, has written a long rebuttal to the claims of Guy McPherson. Denialists would be more inclined to lean on the kind of methodological uncertainty emphasized by Mr. Johnson, and reject the kind of claims offered by McPherson and Lovelock.

I fall into each of these camps from time to time. As a survivalist, I hope to learn how to garden a little bit every summer and support the DIY economy. As a hedonist, I will do what I love and passionately engage in conversations about catalyzing the steady state economy, because I believe it sets a new standard of excellence for the 21st century. In fact, all things considered, I believe the steady state economy represents a balanced “middle way” between the ignorance and paralysis. And with a healthy dose of denial, I will continue to hope that somehow, the margin of error is just wide enough to turn spaceship earth around.

Are We Hard-Wired to Think We Can Grow Forever?

by James Magnus-Johnston

Johnston_photo

Humanity is an irrational lot, prone to denial and short-termism. If rational arguments were primary catalysts for social change, perhaps a steady state economy would already be a reality. Research in behavioural economics and cognitive psychology is beginning to help us understand why human beings don’t always make decisions that are in their best interests. Can we overcome our irrational, maladapted mental hard-wiring to thrive in a post-growth future?

Trailblazing behavioural economists like Daniel Kahneman have discovered that human beings are highly irrational creatures prone to delusion, cynicism, and short-termism. In ecological economics, Bill Rees has argued that our mental genetic presets have hard-wired us for overconsumption and ecological doom. And now, according to a new theory by Ajit Varki and Danny Brower, perhaps it all stems from an overarching psychological predisposition to denial.

In ecological terms, denial might be characterized as the failure to accept the deleterious consequences of economic growth in favour of accepting comfortable fictions that reinforce the status quo. Head-scratching environmentalists often use the word “denial” to reference the irrational “climate change deniers,” who accept the science of familiar things like internal combustion engines, modern appliances, or GDP growth, yet are dismissive of climate science and planetary boundaries. Why are human beings so good at denial?

Ecological economist Bill Rees argues that our ancient “triune” brain is hard-wired for short-term rewards, and those rewards have been amplified by the abundance of our fossil fuel driven economy. Our brain, which runs on an outdated OS, has leveraged its propensity for denial to construct a myth of perpetual growth wherein we can grow the economy and achieve short-term rewards forever.

Elephants - Hadi Zaher

Is it our ability to deny reality that separates us from other highly intelligent animals? Photo Credit: Hadi Zaher

In Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind, Varki and Brower take it one step further. They argue that while our intelligence and use of tools set human beings apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, our capacity for denial may be the greatest differentiating factor. The late Danny Brower asked Varki, a biologist, why other smart, self-aware animals such as elephants, apes, dolphins, whales, or magpies, had not achieved levels of intelligence seen in human beings. Many of these animals can recognize themselves, communicate with one another, and mourn relatives or companions. They have all had more time on Earth to evolve.

The theoretical, though as yet unverifiable, answer put forward by Varki and Brower revolves around two things: (1) that human beings are aware of the thoughts of others, and (2) that they have ability to deny reality. According to them, denial is the essence of what it means to be human! They argue that as human beings became aware of their mortality, some fell into depression while others were able to carry on without becoming crippled by this realization. Mind-over-reality became our defining characteristic, enabling us to maintain sanity in the face of danger. Those who suffer from depression are often more aware of reality, they note, which in turn can cause crippling anxieties. On a society-wide basis, such anxiety can cause an avoidance of procreation, which would be an evolutionary dead-end.

But in the Anthropocene, have the tables turned? Now, reality-accepting behaviour may be an evolutionary boon. Rather than leading to a dead-end, accepting the reality of overconsumption and overpopulation may result in actions that increase the likelihood of human survival. Could it be that those who accept reality have suddenly become cultural (r)evolutionaries better adapted for long-term human survival? Can the shift happen quickly enough to improve our survival prospects?

Perhaps the very evolutionary mechanism which led to our propensity for denial may also temper our unfortunate inclinations. At the point when human beings theoretically developed a capacity for denial, we would have changed the cultural software on our mental hardware, which demonstrates that change is possible. We are capable of changing the way we interact with reality.

Although if one does not accept the premise that we can change our cultural software quickly enough, Varki and Brower point out that reality-denial also leads to optimism, confidence, and courage in the face of long odds–a “can do” attitude. If we can’t accept reality, maybe we can focus instead on denying the current economic “reality” of growth!

Dr. Varki calls for us to temper our denial in order to avoid climate destabilization. Most types of denial, he says–about high national debt loads, eating too much red meat, smoking cigarettes, or refusing to wear seatbelts–aren’t fatal to the entire species. Climate destabilization, like a nuclear holocaust, is a different matter. A shift towards reality-accepting behaviour would help us see the validity of policy prescriptions like reducing the debt load and living within planetary constraints.

More often than not, post-growth thinkers are using rational arguments among a very irrational lot. While rational arguments are certainly necessary, we also need to work on how to ‘nudge’ individuals and communities towards a steady state economy with a pitch that leverages or mutes our irrational operating system. In the meantime, let’s harness our optimism, confidence, and courage in the face of long odds.

Are People Smarter Than Chipmunks?

by Rob Dietz

A curious thing happened recently when I was driving home from a weekend camping trip with my daughter in the Cascade Mountains. We came around a tight curve and the road opened into a long straightaway. Far up ahead, I could see a small animal perched right on top of the double yellow line that divides the lanes. As we got a bit closer, I recognized it as a chipmunk and asked my daughter if she could see it (spotting animals is a favorite pastime on car and bike rides).

As our vehicle was bearing down on the little critter, it looked up and started to head toward the left shoulder of the road. But, obeying some muddled directive from its brain, it spun around and started heading to the right. Not content with that change of direction, it went back left again. I honked the horn to make sure it knew we were getting close. The chipmunk then proceeded to do an erratic dance, leaning left then right then left again. Finally, it just sat back down in the middle of the road atop the double yellow line. The wheels of our car whizzed by its delicate body at a speed that the chipmunk couldn’t grasp.

Care to guess which one’s the smartest?

Checking the rear-view mirror, I saw it saunter to the side of the road and stroll into the woods, looking completely unfazed by its brush with disaster. After witnessing this eccentric behavior, I began wondering why the chipmunk would behave so illogically. It didn’t take too long to realize that it simply doesn’t possess the right equipment to understand the threat posed by a car. A chipmunk’s brain and the behavior produced by it are the result of ages of natural selection – a process that took place in the absence of roads and cars. The mind of a chipmunk, therefore, is incapable of properly interpreting the data coming its way, especially when it’s coming at 60 miles per hour.

The chipmunk’s maladaptive behavior has some prominent parallels with our own predicament. The data are approaching us at a fast and furious clip. We have ample and disturbing evidence about climate destabilization, dwindling energy resources, social breakdowns, and a host of environmental maladies. We know that the economy is a subsystem of the finite planet, and that increasing the scale of the economy impinges on the earth’s ecosystems. In an age of biodiversity die-offs and political buy-offs, however, we don’t seem to possess the wherewithal to interpret the data correctly.

A few years ago, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert wrote a fascinating opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times (July 2, 2006). In the article, he brilliantly summarizes some shortcomings of the human brain when it comes to interpreting the danger posed by global warming. He notes that the human brain evolved to respond to threats with four features, features that the threat of global warming lacks:

  1. We respond to threats with a human face. To quote Gilbert: “If climate change had been visited on us by a brutal dictator or an evil empire, the war on warming would be this nation’s top priority.”
  2. We respond to threats that outrage our moral sensibilities and that produce a sense of repulsion or disgust in us. Gilbert: “The fact is that if climate change were caused by… the practice of eating kittens, millions of protesters would be massing in the streets.”
  3. We respond to immediate threats that are right in front of us. “We haven’t quite gotten the knack of treating the future like the present it will soon become because we’ve only been practicing for a few million years. If global warming took out an eye every now and then, OSHA would regulate it into nonexistence.”
  4. We respond to threatening changes around us that happen rapidly. “Because we barely notice changes that happen gradually, we accept gradual changes that we would reject if they happened abruptly.”

For most of us, economic growth is an even tougher threat to interpret and take seriously than global warming (even though the former is a root cause of the latter). As Bill McKibben highlighted in his book Deep Economy, bigger and better used to go hand in hand, economically speaking. But over generations, the consequences of exponential economic growth have outstripped the benefits. What used to be a boon is now a bane, and the threat is upon us; overgrown economies are undermining the life-support systems of the planet, but we simply aren’t sensing it and responding appropriately.

It’s no simple feat to determine when an economy has reached its optimal size – the inflection point when it should transition from growth to a steady state. An individual organism (e.g., a chipmunk or a person) has an unconscious and almost magical ability to do this, to stop growing and become a grownup. Human economies don’t possess the same unconscious when-to-stop mechanism. The people who make up the economy must collectively decide to reach maturity consciously.

The question now is how much longer humanity will choose to sit on the double yellow line as the consequences of runaway growth scream down the road at us doing a zillion miles per hour. Or to paraphrase, are people smarter than chipmunks?