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Attitude adjustment: Facing our ecological predicament

After a talk I gave last year on food and energy, one audience member remarked that it seemed to him that we face challenges so daunting that little can be done to stop a worldwide collapse of civilization. "What is the point in trying?" he seemed to be asking. As I prepare for guest lectures on peak oil and the consequences of overshoot at a local college this week, I'm asking myself: Is that person's attitude really all that unreasonable?

Attitudes, of course, flow from assumptions, and there is a wide assortment of assumptions regarding our ecological future. Those assumptions are widely debated and large bodies of evidence have been marshalled for various views. But, perhaps we also need to know something about the usefulness of certain attitudes. People maintain particular attitudes not merely because of the evidence available to them, but also because of the efficacy of the attitudes themselves.

For some people, of course, the problems of global warming, energy depletion, soil erosion and the whole gamut of ecological dangers aren't problems at all. These people simply deny the existence of any ecological problems. This attitude may seem foolhardy until we understand its advantages. First, those who deny our ecological problems are free from the anxieties about any potential bad effects. That leaves more emotional energy available to focus on day-to-day activities and immediate needs. Second, the denial itself serves to immunize these people against contrary evidence. This is a timesaver since contrary evidence has been ruled inadmissible ahead of time and therefore need not be considered. Third, the deniers may not necessarily be cocksure of their position. But, they may also believe that if they are wrong, the consequences of any gathering ecological calamity may be so far in the future so as not to matter to them or even to their children.

Strangely, my glum audience member arrives at almost the same place as the deniers just mentioned because he assumes that our problems are so immense that they cannot be addressed. Intellectually, our pessimist has accepted the premise of ecological peril and social collapse, so he is not freed from the anxieties bred by this knowledge. He does, however, gain time and emotional energy to focus on what is left of the "good life" before the worst hits. He doesn't need to spend time evaluating new evidence for or against the possibility of a collapse. And, if the consequences of the inevitable calamity do visit him, he will have the satisfaction of having made the most of his time prior to its arrival. If there turn out to be no severe adverse consequences in his lifetime, at least he will not have wasted much energy worrying about them. Yes, his children will likely be affected, but under his assumptions, there is nothing he can do about it anyway.

So far, I've detailed two opposing viewpoints that seem nothing more than a defense of apathy. But, there are two other slight variants that lead to only a little more activity though they may appear to be more "reasonable" to the casual observer.

First, there are those who believe we have potentially serious problems, but that technology guided by the marketplace will inevitably solve them. They may even allow for some government intervention, for example, through carbon taxes to help slow global warming. The advantages of this view are obvious. There is very little work for individuals to do. Corporations and even to a certain extent the government will take care of everything. (Some may regard this as a disadvantage, but that's another discussion.)

Second, there are those who share the aforementioned belief that we face potentially serious problems; however, they also believe that only the right kind of technology can address these problems, so-called "green" technology. This technology will not simply be introduced by the marketplace, but must be subsidized or mandated by the government. Other bad technology such as coal-fired power plants must be actively and severely regulated and ultimately replaced. While this view requires a little more action since citizens must pressure their governments to enact the various subsidies, standards and regulations needed for this bright green future, it still envisions a more or less business-as-usual world albeit one based on "green" technology.

Paradoxically, the hardest sell is not a view that would require the greatest change in belief. We've already covered that. It's actually quite easy to sell people on a deeply pessimistic view of the future. As we have seen, those who hold such a view may adopt an attitude of complete resignation that resembles in its results the attitude of those who deny any problems at all. (Compare, for example, the apparent resignation of those who believe in an imminent biblical apocalypse.)

The hardest sell to any audience is that there is a chance for us to chart a course to sustainability, but that it will take a lot of work at every level: individual, household, municipal, state, federal and even international. And, by the way, when we get there all of us will have considerably less material wealth than we do today.

Not surprisingly, the thought of working hard for a future with lowered expectations is not all that appealing to a public whose ever-expanding pursuits continue to float on a sea of seemingly endless fossil fuels. The advantages of the path to sustainability are actually quite numerous. One can point to many nonmaterial benefits such as closer communities and families, a closer relationship with nature, a slower pace, possibilities for a deeper spiritual life, and an ecologically sound human society for the generations to come. Unfortunately, all of these advantages have little appeal to an audience that would prefer something closer to business as usual.

And, yet the approach which is hardest to sell seems like the safest. It relies on the concrete, concerted actions of people everywhere doing things that require no miracles of technology, no rosy assumptions about the future availability of critical resources, and only limited faith in the marketplace (a marketplace that has consistently given us the illusion of decreasing scarcity.) It is an approach that one can get started on today without the enactment of any big government program. To that extent it empowers individuals and small groups.

So, why does this approach which some are calling Plan C get the cold shoulder? I think in part this is because it requires people to hold in their minds two simultaneously troubling ideas: 1) the terrible ecological dangers that we face and 2) the difficult truth that we can only surmount them through efforts that have grown deeply unfamiliar to many of us. It puts the burden for reaching sustainability squarely on the shoulders of every community member. Given our atrophied community-building skills and our vast ignorance of nature, we may be forgiven for wondering if we are up to the task. It is more comfortable to think we can rely on experts in government and industry whom many of us assume (perhaps wrongly) know what they are doing.

If Plan C is to become the main focus of action, as I believe it must, then people will ultimately need to accept two critical notions: 1) that technology will not save us and so we must save ourselves and 2) that we can save ourselves and our children because we are still capable of learning and executing the things we need to do to build a sustainable society.

William James in his essay, "Is Life Worth Living?", wrote:

It is only by risking our persons from one hour to another that we live at all. And often enough our faith beforehand in an uncertified result is the only thing that makes the result come true. Suppose, for instance, that you are climbing a mountain, and have worked yourself into a position from which the only escape is by a terrible leap. Have faith that you can successfully make it, and your feet are nerved to its accomplishment. But mistrust yourself, and think of all the sweet things you have heard the scientists say of maybes, and you will hesitate so long that, at last, all unstrung and trembling, and launching yourself in a moment of despair, you roll in the abyss. In such a case...the part of wisdom as well as courage is to believe what is in the line of your needs, for only by such belief is the need fulfilled.

Let us not hesitate and let us believe what is in the line of our needs so that we may succeed.

Editorial Notes: Jon S. at Peak Energy (Seattle) devotes his Nov. 14 post to this article: the black death and peak oil genocide. -BA

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