A couple of weeks ago Jerry Mander and I were discussing the best word to use in the heading for the back cover copy of a new short book being co-published by International Forum on Globalization and Post Carbon Institute, Searching for a Miracle: “Net Energy” and the Fate of Industrial Societies (I wrote the main text, Jerry wrote the Foreword). Jerry liked the word “conundrum,” while I argued for “dilemma.” We were in basic agreement, though, about a word we didn’t want: “problem.” Problems can be solved; humanity’s energy and environmental crises will not be “solved,” in the sense that there is no realistic strategy that will enable us to continue, as we have for the past few decades, to enjoy continuous growth in population and in consumption of resources and use of energy. If we are to survive, we will have to accept profound and fundamental changes to our economies and lifestyles.
The word dilemma characterizes a situation in which one must choose between two disagreeable options. This is a good description of the human condition in the early 21st century. Had our species foreseen and begun to adapt to resource limits back in the 1950s or even the ’70s, the transition to non-growing, sustainable levels of population and consumption might have been fairly painless. But now there really are no easy paths from here to a workable future.
This is not how we would like things to be. We want problems with solutions.
Problem: climate change. Solution: renewable energy.
Problem: poverty. Solution: more economic growth (a rising tide will lift all boats, we are told).
Problem: slow economic growth. Solution: more cheap energy (i.e., coal).
As should already be evident, the “problem” mindset can be maintained, in the current instance, only by narrowing our focus to just one variable. As soon as we begin to take multiple variables into account—population, economic instability and inequality, climate change, resource depletion, limits to capital investment—it quickly becomes apparent that some “solutions” just exacerbate other “problems.”
So it’s powerfully tempting just to ignore some of the limitations and trade-offs we face. Many environmentalists, viewing the human predicament almost solely through the lens of climate change, see our choice as follows:
- Dead planet and dead fossil-fueled economy
- vs. living planet and thriving renewables-based economy.
Framed this way, the correct choice is obvious. But economists who see continued growth as the key to ending poverty, and who understand that the build-out of renewable energy sources is currently constrained by practical limits, might frame our choice this way:
- Dead energy-constrained economy incapable of solving its problems
- vs. thriving, problem-solving economy weaning itself from fossil fuels only as quickly as alternative energy sources are capable of picking up the slack.
Well, when you put it that way . . . naturally, option two looks better.
But in both cases the preferable second option is unrealistic, because factors that have been omitted from the framing of the problem preclude that option’s realization.
A more comprehensive statement of our choice might be this:
- Dead planet and dead economy (if insufficient effort is mustered toward reducing carbon emissions, population, and consumption)
- vs. crippled planet (so much climate change, and so many species extinctions are already in the pipeline and cannot now be averted, that a healthy planet is just no longer a real possibility, for at least the next many decades) and sharply downsized economy (if we do reduce carbon emissions, population, and consumption, that will constitute a form of economic contraction that will mean the end of prosperity as we have come to think of it).
That, friends, is a dilemma. Yes, the second option is still mightily preferable, as it is our only realistic survival option; but it’s a very tough sell for policy makers at every level, and for the general public as well. Ugh. Let’s pretend there’s a third option. It’s far more palatable simply to ignore a few factors, assume we have only a “problem,” and then set out to “solve” it.
Now, it is true that within our overall dilemma there exist many problems (the relatively high cost of commercial solar panels is a problem that probably can be addressed with further research, as is bird and bat mortality from wind turbines). But we shouldn’t let the existence of these “trees” distract us from the necessity of dealing with the “forest” in which they grow.
In effect, discounting limiting factors (ignoring the “forest” while focusing only on one or two “trees”) constitutes by far the most popular and acceptable form of denial. Very few people would actually deny the notion that there is something wrong in the world, but framing the situation as a problem rather than a dilemma enables us to avoid harsh reality while appearing not to do so. Indeed, the energetic pursuit of problem solving enables one to strike a heroic pose.
Science and Politics
Denial can sometimes take blatant and irrational forms—especially here in the politically polarized and increasingly bonkers U.S. of A. Here’s a recent example (caution: rant ahead!).
A few days ago my wife Janet and I attended a talk by author Bill McKibben here in Santa Rosa. Bill has been on a more-or-less perpetual lecture tour for the past few months promoting his ad-hoc organization 350.org, which is mounting a world-wide effort to persuade the international community to adopt 350 parts per million of atmospheric CO2 as its official target in emissions reduction efforts. The number comes from analyses by climate scientist James Hansen of NASA, who has concluded that this is the highest number that will enable us to continue to enjoy “a planet similar to the one on which civilization developed.”
Bill’s lecture was informative and compelling, and Janet and I came away inspired to take the 350.org message into our community however we can.
The next day Janet happened to be volunteering as a Master Gardener. For those who don’t know, the Master Gardener program is a Cooperative Extension program of the University of California system, offering free science-based advice to the general public on nearly all aspects of home gardening. Janet mentioned to a female senior volunteer that it might be good for the program to give more attention to promoting ways that gardeners can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The woman replied that Master Gardeners aren’t allowed to engage in “political” activities while acting in their official capacity, and that anthropogenic climate change is “politics” rather than science; she then went on to make a few comments about how some parts of the world are actually cooling, and how scientists disagree on what’s really going on.
Janet was dumbfounded (as was I when she related the story to me). Yet the senior Master Gardener’s attitude reflects the majority opinion in the U.S., according to many polls. Janet immediately emailed her a few choice articles from www.realclimate.org—a website run by climate scientists. Of course, in reality the situation is nearly the opposite of “climate change is politics”: indeed, the scientific consensus that humans’ combustion of fossil fuels is driving the great majority of observed climate change is overwhelming. Even Jim Hansen’s suggestion that 350 ppm must be the highest permissible number for atmospheric CO2 concentrations if we want to avert catastrophic impacts is entirely science-based, and the evidence and reasoning behind the number were published in a peer-reviewed journal. Instead, it is the well-funded effort to doubt and question climate science that is political—an example of denial that happens to suit the purposes of the fossil fuel industry and its friends on the political right.
Yes, I know: there is politics in science too (for examples, read Thomas Kuhn’s classic 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions). Scientists do sometimes let herd instincts overwhelm critical thinking abilities. And absolute certainty regarding the degree of anthropogenic contribution to climate change is impossible to achieve: we can’t run repeated controlled experiments with the entire planet, changing one variable at a time. But the accumulating evidence that the bulk of observed climate instability is due to human action is overwhelmingly persuasive—and the vast majority of scientists accept it as such. As far as I have been able to tell, the objections of skeptics have been satisfactorily addressed. Spend an hour or so at www.realclimate.org, then spend an equivalent amount of time exploring a representative climate skeptic website (for example, www.climate-skeptic.com), then go back and forth matching assertions with evidence. Which one smells more like science, which more like polemics?
Come on, people. Surely as a society we can get beyond this “debate.” If we don’t do so soon, it will be too late in the gravest possible sense of that phrase. (End of rant.)
The hard fact is, denial is part of our human repertoire of responses. It’s adaptive, up to a point. We all want and need to avoid pitfalls, but doing so takes effort, so we need some sort of filter to help us sort real threats from spurious or inconsequential ones. Denial is also an understandable response to information that is so profoundly unsettling that it would be psychologically damaging to us if we were to deal with it head on. But what’s adaptive in one situation can be fatal in another.
I’m thinking a lot about adaptation these days as I read Nicholas Wade’s Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors. The book is a summary of recent evidence from the science of genetics about human origins and evolution—subjects that in the past have been largely the province of archaeology and anthropology.
The new genetic evidence suggests that human beings have continued to evolve right up to the present. Much of that evolution has occurred at the level of culture. But even within the past few centuries, new gene sequences have appeared in parts of the human population. Indeed, Wade suggests that cultural and biological evolution are now proceeding together: for example, genes that tend to make us more peaceful, social, and cooperative are being selected for, because those are characteristics that help us get along in densely populated urban societies.
These recent findings and the speculation surrounding them somewhat undercut ideas advanced in recent years by evolutionary psychologists, who have proceeded under the assumption that we modern humans still have the minds of Paleolithic hunters. The genetic evidence suggests instead that our brains, digestive systems, and immune systems are all subtly adapting to our altered environments.
The news that we humans can adapt rapidly, not only culturally but even physiologically, is certainly welcome: we need to change dramatically if we are to survive. But just how rapidly can we adapt? Can we, crucially, overcome our tendency toward denial before we’ve pushed the climate too far?
Characteristics are selected for when they permit an organism to leave more offspring. If we persist in denial, we may leave no surviving offspring, or very few. We’ve reached a point, or encountered a situation, where denial is not adaptive. We’re on the horns of history’s greatest dilemma, and only by accepting the options actually available, and pursuing the less-awful option with creativity and compassion, will we stand a chance.
There’s no guarantee that we will. Many societies have failed to adapt. Maybe we will too. But on the other hand, perhaps the very act of discussing our dilemma in frank terms shows that, somewhere among our species, denial is being overcome and adaptation is trying to happen.