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Faustus and the monkey trap

One of the factors that make the crisis of industrial society so difficult to deal with is the way that crisis unfolds out of the most basic assumptions we use to make sense of the world.

Albert Einstein’s famous dictum about trying to solve a problem with the same sort of thinking that created it has rarely been so relevant. Notably, many of today’s attempts to do something about peak oil rely on the same logic that got us into our present predicament, and turn out “solutions” that promise to make our situation worse than it is already.

Of the dozens of good examples in the daily news, the one that seems most worth noting right now is the economic blowback set in motion by the US government’s attempt to bolster its faltering petroleum-driven economy with ethanol. As corn and other grains get diverted from grocery stores to gas tanks, commodity prices spike, inflation ripples outward through the economic food chain, and the possibility of actual grain shortages looms on the middle-term horizon. More than twenty years ago, William Catton pointed out in his seminal classic Overshoot that the downslope of industrial society would force human beings to compete against their own machines for dwindling resource stocks. His prediction has become today’s reality.

It’s all very reminiscent of an old metaphor in cognitive psychology. Many centuries ago in southeast Asia, some clever soul figured out how to use the thinking patterns of monkeys to make a highly effective monkey trap. The trap is a gourd with a hole in one end just big enough for a monkey’s hand to fit in, and a stout rope connected to the other end, fastened to a stake in the ground. Into the gourd goes a piece of some local food prized by monkeys, large and solid enough that it can’t be shaken out of the gourd. You set the trap in a place monkeys frequent, and wait.

Sooner or later, a monkey comes along, scents the food, and puts a hand into the gourd to grab it. The hole is too small to allow the monkey to extract hand and food together, though, and the rope and stake keeps the monkey from hauling it away, so the monkey keeps trying to get the food out in its hand. Meanwhile you come out of hiding and head toward the monkey with a net, if there’s a market for live monkeys, or with something more deadly if there isn’t. Far more often than not, instead of dropping the food and scampering toward the safety of the nearest tree, the monkey will frantically keep trying to wrestle the food out of the gourd until the net snares it or the club comes whistling down.

The trap works because monkeys, like the rest of us, tend to become so focused on pursuing immediate goals by familiar means that they lose track of the wider context of priorities that make those goals and means meaningful in the first place. Once the monkey scents the food in the gourd, it defines the problem as how to get the food out, and tries to solve the problem in a familiar way, by maipulating food and gourd. When the hunter appears, that simply adds a note of urgency, and makes the problem appear to be how to get the food out before the hunter arrives. Phrased in either of these terms, the problem is impossible to solve. Only if the monkey remembers that food is of no value to a dead monkey, and redefines the problem as primarily a matter of getting away from the hunter, will it let go of the food, get its hand out of the trap, and run for the nearest tree.

The monkey trap may not look like a viable theme for great literature, but exactly the same dilemma forms the main plot engine of Christopher Marlowe’s classic play Doctor Faustus. In Marlowe’s vision, Faustus is an intellectual manqué who has mastered all the scholarship of his time and dismisses it as worthless because he can’t cash it in for power. So he conjures the devil Mephistopheles, who offers him twenty-four years of power over the world of appearances, in exchange for his immortal soul. Faustus gladly makes the bargain and proceeds to run riot for the better part of nine scenes, with the ever-obsequious Mephistopheles always ready to fulfill his every wish but one. Finally, the twenty-four years are up, and at the stroke of midnight a crew of devils swoops down on Faustus and haul him off to Hell.

All this came to Marlowe out of the folk literature that gave him the raw materials for his play. What makes Marlowe’s version of the story one of Elizabethan England’s great dramas, though, is his insight into the psychology of Faustus’ damnation. Faustus spends nearly the entire play a heartbeat away from escaping the pact that ultimately drags him to his doom. All he has to do is renounce the pact and all the powers and pleasures it brings him, and salvation is his – but this is exactly what he cannot do. He becomes so focused on his sorcerer’s powers, so used to getting what he wants by ordering Mephistopheles around, that the possibility of getting anything any other way slips out of his grasp. Even at the very end, as the devils drag him away, the last words that burst from his lips are a cry for Mephistopheles to save him.

The logic of the monkey trap underlies the entire scenario, because the monkey and Faustus trap themselves in essentially the same way. Both have a track record of solving problems using a specific method – the monkey, by manipulating things with its hands; Faustus, by summoning Mephistopheles and having him take care of it. Both encounter a problem that looks as though it can be solved in the same way, but can’t. Both keep on trying to use their familiar set of problem-solving tools even when they clearly don’t work. Even when the real shape of the problem becomes clear and breaking out of the old way of thinking becomes a question of immediate survival, they keep on struggling to make the problem fit their choice of solutions, rather than adjusting their solution to the actual problem.

Mephistopheles and the monkey hunter have a crucial ally here, and its name is stress. It’s one thing to step back and take stock of a situation when there seems to be plenty of time and no sign of danger. It’s quite another to do it in the presence of an imminent threat to survival. Once the true shape of the situation appears, stress reactions hardwired into the nervous systems of men and monkeys alike cut in, and make it very difficult indeed to reassess the situation and consider alternative ways of dealing with it. The final scene of Marlowe’s drama, as Faustus waits for the stroke of midnight and tries every means of escape except the one that can actually save him, expresses this dilemma with shattering intensity.

The same dilemma on a larger scale underlies current efforts to deal with the imminent decline of world oil production by finding something else to pour into our gas tanks: ethanol, biodiesel, hydrogen, you name it. Our petroleum-powered vehicles – not just cars, but the trucks, trains, ships, and aircraft that make our current way of life possible – are the food in the monkey’s hand and the pact that binds Mephistopheles to Faustus’ service. The problem of peak oil, as many people even in the peak oil community see it, is how to find some other way to keep the fuel tanks topped up. This seems like common sense, but that’s what the monkey thinks about getting the food out of the gourd, too.

Approached as a question of finding something to fill our gluttonous appetite for highly concentrated energy, the problem of peak oil is just as insoluble as the monkey trap when that’s approached as a question of getting food. The discovery and exploitation of the earth’s petroleum reserves gave human beings a fantastic windfall of essentially free energy, and we proceeded to burn through it at an astonishing pace. Now that the supply of petroleum is beginning to falter, the question before us is not how to keep burning something else at the same pace, or how to find some other way to power a civilization of a sort that can only survive by burning extravagant amounts of energy, but how to scale back our expectations and our technology drastically enough to make them fit the much more modest energy supplies available to us from renewable sources.

Expecting some other energy resource to provide energy on the same scale and level of concentration as petroleum, just because we happen to want one, is a little like responding to one huge lottery win by assuming that when that money starts running out, another equally large win can be had for the cost of a few more tickets. This is close enough to today’s consumer psychology that it’s easy to imagine somebody in this position pouring all the money he has left into lottery tickets, and throwing away his chances of avoiding bankruptcy because the only solution he can imagine is winning the lottery again. And this, again, is exactly the mentality of current attempts to fuel industrial society by pouring our food supply into our gas tanks.

Faustus may be a better model than the monkey, too, because the predicament we face, like his, is precisely the result of what we’re best at. Faustus became so dependent on his attendant devils that he lost track of the possibility that he could do something without them. Change devils to machines and the parallel is exact. We have become so used to solving problems by throwing energy-intensive technologies at them that when technologies themselves become the crux of a predicament, we have no idea what to do. If any of the achievements of the last three hundred years are to be salvaged from the approaching spiral of crises, we need to rethink this now, before the social, economic and political stresses become so pressing that clear thought becomes impossible and our fossil-fueled familiar spirits appear, on schedule, to drag us off to a tolerably close equivalent of the Hell of Marlowe’s play.

Editorial Notes: The great German writer Goethe presented Faust in a more sympathetic light than did Marlowe. As Wiki says:
In the end, Faust deserves to go to heaven because of his unquenchable thirst for knowledge and understanding ("man must strive and err") that exceeds the limits set for human beings.
The two parts of Goethe's Faust were written at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution (1806 and 1832), so one might make a case that the hero's "Faustian bargain" with Mephistopheles reflected our own "Faustian bargain" with fossil fuels. Swiss economist Hans Christoph Binswanger expands on this theme in his essay, "The Challenge of Faust":
In Part II of his greatest play, Faust (1832),* Goethe confronts the promises and pitfalls of the Industrial Revolution and the economic growth that it generated. As finance minister at the Court of Weimar he was well placed to comment on these developments, and his insights remain astonishingly relevant today. Goethe's protagonist is representative of modern man who, through science, seeks to subjugate nature and to build up a new economic realm of freedom and prosperity. Faust's exultation at the "lovely moment" (verweile doch, du bist so schön) that this would bring expresses the delight of modern man at the sheer cornucopia of these new riches. But not all is rosy in this economic garden, for Goethe warns that these riches may be built upon an unsustainable illusion. ...Goethe not only reveals how Faust, the representative modern man, realizes this massive project of economic progress, but also shows the existing and potential dangers associated with it. Human progress entails curbing nature by constructing an artificial world consisting of cities, industry, transport, and intensified agriculture, symbolized in Faust by land reclamation through building of the dyke. With great insight Goethe tells us that the intervention into the natural environment that this demands may have unforeseen consequences because nature reacts according to its own laws, which humans can never entirely predict. ...Faust is so obsessed with his plans to subdue nature that he loses sight of the realities that may require careful reflection and possibly a total rethinking of the project. Hence mankind compounds its natural limitations--its inability to fully understand nature's complexity--with a blindness induced by hubris.
-BA

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