Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh CXLIX

Steve Bull (https://olduvai.ca)
14 min readSep 7, 2023
Mexico (1988). Photo by author.

Carbon Tunnel Vision and Resource/Energy & Ecological Blindness, Part 1

In my attempt to ‘market’ the article compilation that was recently published, I joined a couple of Facebook Groups in order to post about the document. I subsequently posted my last Contemplation (that shares my thoughts on the extreme difficulties, if not impossibility, of a ‘managed’ contraction by our species) and received some ‘interesting’ comments within one climate-change group, many of which I attempted to respond to (I’ve included some of these conversations at the end of this post).

Most comments were perhaps only marginally connected to my post. They tended to extoll the virtues of technological ‘solutions’ to climate change (not that I discussed climate change).

In reflecting on the ‘pushback’ to my post and my responses to comments, it would appear that the thinking behind the comments were mostly due to what could be viewed as resource/energy and ecological blindness, as well as carbon tunnel vision. These cognitive ‘blinders’, along with much in the way of rampant ‘marketing’ for technological ‘solutions’, have resulted in many viewing the world along the lines of: ‘human ingenuity and technology’ can, will, and is, saving us from ourselves. And, most certainly, the ‘gate-keepers’ for this particular group.

And the following is not to denigrate the perspectives that pushed back against mine (even if some of them wandered into ad hominem territory). We all believe what we believe based on the ‘best’ (and favoured) information available to us, and then we go to significant lengths to rationalise and ‘protect’ our beliefs. All of us.

As this has become a much longer Contemplation than the ‘ideal’ short ones I aim for, it will be at least in two parts (it may be longer as I’ve only jotted down a few brief notes for Part 2).

Carbon Tunnel Vision

There is an evolutionary-advantageous tendency for humans to view our universe through rather narrow keyholes. It’s quite normal and ubiquitous. It is the way we attempt to perceive, in relatively simple terms, the exceedingly complex world that we exist within.

In our attempts to understand the world, we rely upon experience, deductions, and external sources of information (e.g., social milieu). We make relatively quick assessments of the significantly complex world about us and make choices (e.g., should I flee or fight?) or form beliefs using a variety of heuristics (mental shortcuts). This leads to us focussing upon a narrow array of information out of all that is available — usually that which supports our ‘needs’ at the time — and ignoring for the most part superfluous inputs.

Once we’ve gravitated towards a decision or particular interpretation of our environment, we continue to view the world through this lens. We justify/rationalise our decision and/or cling to our beliefs, particularly if it has served us well or it is held by the majority of people. We tend to disregard that information/evidence that challenges our decision/beliefs, creating a bias that serves to reinforce our interpretation of things and maintain the image of ourselves as rational, perceptive, and ‘objective’ individuals.

As Wikipedia states: “Tunnel vision metaphorically denotes a collection of common heuristics and logical fallacies that lead individuals to focus on cues that are consistent with their opinion and filter out cues that are inconsistent with their viewpoint.”

The ‘bias’ that many people (not all) seem to have, including those that have concerns about the impacts of a changing climate and/or atmospheric sink overloading, is what appears to be a hyper-focus upon carbon emissions. To oversimplify, there appear to be two main viewpoints on the issue. There exist many who hold that carbon emissions are not a problem at all because not only have they been higher in the past but they are what our planet’s vegetation requires as food. In stark opposition are those who argue that our fossil fuel burning is leading to excessive emissions that are causing both extreme weather events and long-term global climate anomalies, especially global warming.

As the following graphic demonstrates (with respect to particular aspects of the issue of ‘sustainability’) this tendency to narrow our perspective can prevent the acknowledgement of so many other aspects of our world — and the graphic only includes some of the many others that could be considered, such as land-system change and biogeochemical flows. Perhaps most relevant is that this tunnel vision keeps many from recognising that humans exist within a world of complex systems that are intertwined and connected in nonlinear ways that the human brain cannot fathom easily, if at all.

My own bias leads me to the belief that this hyper-focus on carbon emissions is leading many well-intentioned people to overlook the argument that atmospheric overloading is but one symptom predicament of our overarching predicament of ecological overshoot. As a result, they miss all the other symptom predicaments (e.g., biodiversity loss, resource depletion, soil degradation, geopolitical conflicts, etc.) of this overshoot and consequently advocate for ‘solutions’ that are, in fact, exacerbating our situation.

This rather narrowed perspective tends to be along the lines that if we can curtail/eliminate carbon emissions — usually through a shift in our technology to supposed ‘carbon-free’ ones — then we can avoid the negative repercussions that accompany the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, most prominently climate change. For many this is the only (or, at least, the most prominent) issue that needs to be addressed to ensure our species’ transition to a ‘sustainable’ way of living.

So, let’s try for a moment to open up this rather narrow keyhole and take in a wider perspective. Let’s look at how some of the other significant planetary boundaries are being broached.

When one opens the keyhole wider, the concern with carbon emissions/climate change may be seen as an outsized one in comparison to boundaries that appear to have been more significantly broached, such as: novel entities, biosphere integrity, land-system change, biogeochemical flows, and fresh water change.

This is not to say that the boundary of climate change is not important, it’s to try to better understand why a hyper-focus on carbon emissions is problematic: it’s one of several tipping points that need our attention, and not even the worst. The most pressing areas that we appear to have overshot beyond climate change include:
· Biogeochemical flows: agriculture and industry have increased significantly the flow of phosphorous and nitrogen into ecological systems and overloaded natural sinks (e.g., atmosphere and oceans)
· Novel entities: geologically-novel (i.e., human-made) substances that can have large-scale impacts upon Earth system processes (e.g., chemicals, plastics, etc.) have grown exponentially, even to the point of some existing in all global water supplies
· Biosphere integrity: human demand for food, water, and natural resources are decimating ecosystems (clearing land for mining and agriculture, for example, may have the worst impacts)
· Freshwater change: global groundwater levels in particular have been significantly altered by human activity and expansion (especially our drawdown of aquifers that exceed significantly their replenishment)
· Land-system change: human conversion of land systems (e.g., solar farms, agriculture, etc.) has impacts upon several of the other boundaries (i.e., biosphere integrity, biogeochemical flows, freshwater change) and the significantly important hydrological cycle

Azote for Stockholm Resilience Centre, based on analysis in Wang-Erlandsson et al 2022.

Carbon tunnel vision tends to help minimise, or at worst, ignore these other predicaments of our ecological overshoot. In fact, what I sense and what some of my conversations did suggest is that the issue of ecological overshoot itself is completely off the radar for these commenters. One, in fact, admitted he had never read Catton’s book on the subject but in ‘skimming over’ the summary notes I sent a link for he simply saw “a bunch of vague assertions…didn’t learn anything…probably heading towards a hard wall…”. He then added for effect: “I don’t see any solutions from you. I do see almost entirely your focus on smearing renewables with the exact same material the Deniers and carbon pollution people do. Exactly the same.”

Again, my own bias suggests to me that the reason for this hyper-focus (perhaps the most significant one) has been manufactured by a ruling caste and others that have created a means of monetising carbon emissions, mostly through carbon taxes and cheerleading greater industrial production via a narrative around ‘green/clean’ energy technologies. For, if we were to address those boundaries that have been more severely broached and that require curtailing of the causes contributing to this overshoot (which is human growth — economic and population), we would need to curtail industrialisation and its associated revenue streams significantly; something that would undermine greatly the power and wealth structures that benefit a large but very privileged minority class of humans.

And the marketers of this particular point of view know full well the psychological mechanisms that are effective in ‘persuading’ the masses to hold it and support it — especially the human tendency to defer to expertise/authority and engage in groupthink (see my 6-part series on Cognition and Belief Systems). It should be no surprise, given these tendencies, that the profit-/revenue-seekers amongst us have leveraged them to market the narrative, and associated industrial products, extolling the virtues of them while downplaying/denying/obfuscating the ecologically-destructive nature of what they are marketing.

Even those aware of this issue can fail to see the connection to industrial technology, cheerleading ‘sustainable’ development/practices and ‘clean/green’ (and supposedly) non-fossil fuel-based technologies[1].

As the Energy Blind animated presentation on Nate Hagen’s The Great Simplification website suggests: “…To our ancestors, the benefits from carbon energy would have appeared indistinguishable from magic and instead of appreciating this one-time windfall we developed stories that our newfound wealth and progress had emerged purely from human ingenuity. We had become energy blind.”

This energy blindness (along with ecological blindness) is what I will discuss in Part 2.

We have, as a rationalising but not rational story-telling ape, created myths about our place in the universe and how we have contributed to it. Over the past several centuries, and certainly during the most recent one, we story-tellers have weaved narratives that it is our human ingenuity — particularly around technology — that has led to our expansion and apparent ‘successes’ (not the leveraging of a one-time cache of easily-accessible, storable, and transportable dense energy).

Along the way, we have lost sight of our place and dependence upon Nature, and how fundamentally important its complexities are to our very survival. As a result, many continue to cheerlead that which is most dangerous to our and every species existence on this planet; ignoring or rationalising away the signals being sent.

As I stated to another in a subsequent discussion about another post within the same FB Group that was, again, extolling the virtues of ‘green/clean’ technology:

“We’re going to have to agree to disagree over this. Ideally we would not be debating which industrial-produced transport vehicles or energy sources are ‘better’; they are all horrible. We can’t even get a handle on the growth that is killing our planet so this debate, in that context, is meaningless — especially in a world where the dominant species is in Overshoot. Degrowth, especially in our technologies and industries is where our focus should be. Relocalising everything but especially food production, potable water procurement, and regional shelter needs. All else is superfluous at this point.”

Some examples of comments that suggest ‘narrow keyhole’ perspectives:

Electric Vehicles

KFT: DS what really annoys me is the belief that someone’s time is far too precious to spend it charging an ev. Clearly way more precious than the quality of life of their children. You are correct, people refuse to use their agency.

Me: EVs are no help to ecological overshoot; in fact, they are as bad as ICE vehicles.

KFT: nonsense. Evs cancel out their manufacturing carbon in the first year of driving. ICE vehicles add carbon for their lifetime. By the way evs are likely to last much longer than ICE vehicles further reducing their manufacturing footprint. Ev batteries are 95% recyclable, gasoline is 0% recyclable unless they perfect carbon capture. I don’t anticipate that. By the way people who won’t charge an ev sure as hell won’t ride a bicycle. Just FYI I was bike commuting while you were very likely still in diapers so I know a bit about it.

DS: that’s def not true unless you cherry pick emissions and ignore externalities. in fact, it’s literally impossible for an car to “cancel out” their emissions, that’s literally not scientifically possible and a gross misunderstanding.
and even then, lithium mining still causes drought and leaches brine into natural habitat. mining still chops down rainforests and kills animals. electric vehicles are even more deadly than gas vehicles, even very large animals can’t survive a 7,000lb truck at 45 MPH or higher

Me: I think you need to scratch below the surface of the ‘green/clean’ marketing of EVs and the entire ‘electrification of everything’ narrative. I suggest starting with this article by Dr. Bill Rees: https://www.mdpi.com/1996-1073/14/15/4508. I would also suggest this compilation of articles by a number of writers on ecological overshoot (in particular read Max Wilbert’s entitled ‘Climate Profiteers Are the New War Profiteers’): https://olduvai.ca/?page_id=65433. PS — you must be quite old given I’m 10+ years into retirement.
Also: https://www.skynews.com.au/opinion/chris-kenny/weve-got-a-problem-here-electric-vehicles-require-a-lot-of-minerals-to-produce/video/e6e3a6c000f8a7890657d5cba2f17324

Overshoot and Food Production

Me: It would appear that you don’t understand that overshoot is a predicament without a solution. The best we might hope for is to mitigate some of the inevitable consequences.

DS: I don’t agree with that, you may not like the solutions but they are available. apathy is the biggest problem we face in society now

Me: DS I don’t agree that there is a ‘solution’ to overshoot except what Nature is going to provide. Most of the ‘solutions’ proposed by homo sapiens make our predicament worse, particularly if they involve more complex technologies/industrial production. In an ‘ideal’ world we could degrow our species and its impacts; unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world and most of the ‘decision-makers’ are steering us in an unsustainable and destructive trajectory because there are power and wealth structures that provide their revenue streams and must be maintained regardless of costs (especially environmental). Given that the ruling castes of large, complex societies have been doing this for the 10,000+ years, I see no chance we will do anything different. Of course, only time will tell…

DS: the world currently produces enough food for 16 billion humans
you think reducing food production to 8 billion peoples will make the predicament worse?

Me: Our food production is going to be reduced a lot more than 50% once fossil fuels are no longer available…and the estimates of how many we can feed currently vary tremendously: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2230525-our-current-food-system-can-feed-only-3-4-billion-people-sustainably/

DS: I have no idea why you think that
earth’s agricultural capacity is …..insane…. the Netherlands is the second largest exporter of food in the world next to the USA.

Me: Look into fossil fuel inputs into agricultural. Pesticides. Fertilizer. Herbicides. Diesel machinery. The list goes on. Here’s a paper just on inputs in the UK: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2935130/

DS: I can literally do this for ever
indoor agricultural reduces herbicides and pesticides by 95–100%

Technology

DS: you literally said there is no solution to prevent overshoot, I have to assume you’re a techno-solutionist, basically you’re in the same group as elon musk who believes the future of humanity is on mars

Me: No, technology is what has put us in Overshoot. More of it only exacerbates the predicament.

DS: technology is the only way to survive overshoot, I think overshoot should be avoided. you said we can’t stop overshoot

Me: Please read some of Erik Michael’s work at https://problemspredicamentsandtechnology.blogspot.com/?m=1.

DS: I’m sorry but this is bullshit
“This new series is critical of the Just Stop Oil Movement, specifically for how the movement makes no real sense to anyone who understands the predicament we are actually part of. Just stop oil means stopping the energy that civilization rests and depends upon — do this and civilization also stops, meaning that 7 billion people and countless millions of other animal species die in rather short order.”
“Just Stop Oil is a British environmental activist group. Using civil resistance, direct action, vandalism and traffic obstruction, the group aims for the British government to commit to ending new fossil fuel licensing and production”
Steve Bull let me repeat that to make sure
“THE GROUP AIMS FOR THE BRITISH GOVERNMENT TO COMMIT TO ENDING NEW FOSSIL FUEL LICENSING AND PRODUCTION”
I really don’t think it’s worth my effort to debunk this gish gallop, I specifically used my self agency to live in a 15 minute city and it’s possible if people choose it
you should honestly stop reading this bullshit blog

Me: Your 15 minute city is based and depends upon fossil fuels. It cannot survive without it.

DS: that’s also bullshit, buses can run on biofuel, buses can literally run on garbage. my neighbor Mesa Arizona literally fuels their garbage trucks with garbage, they make a fuel from gases.

Me: And the production of said buses and garbage trucks?

DS: most of the production can be done with materials like hemp and because hemp is efficient at phytoremediation it creates a completely closed carbon cycle.
by the way, carbon neutrality does not require eliminating 100% of fossil fuels, we can create strict environmental standards and reduce production by 90% -100%

KP: Advanced technologies helping humankind reduce our footprint is what Ecomodernism is about.
Without killing billions we can reduce the population footprint and travel to the stars. This preserves wild spaces and restores natural biodiversity.

And to top it all off:

Space: The Final Frontier

JN: You said, “technology is what has put us in Overshoot. More of it only exacerbates the predicament”
Yes, because and as long as we are trapped on this ‘closed system’ planet we call Earth. But if we can escape the gravity trap we will have unlimited resources in Space.
Interesting statement:
“‘Opting out’ in today’s world is more difficult as there are no more ‘New Worlds’ to exploit for their resources”
Comment: Collapse Cometh? Yes, unless we do something! But why in 148 years? Not sure if this is saying that opting out is ‘giving up’ or a ‘solution’? Yes, we need a new frontier to explore — and we don’t have any territory left on Earth to do that. The areas still remaining ‘unexploited’ must be preserved to save the biosphere and cannot be used for ‘exploitation’.
And why using the term ‘opting out’? Why not word it as part of a solution instead?
There are new worlds to exploit in Space. 148 years is plenty of time to set that up — as long as we have an economic system that will allow it! We need a space colonization and mining program as a solution to the human dilemma — which is lack of territory on Earth to ‘exploit’ and to ‘blow the fuse’…
Our species needs to become a space faring species, with future colonization in space and with mining of minerals on the Moon, Mars, and the Asteroids.
‘Why the human race must become a multiplanetary species’
(https://www.weforum.org/.../humans-multiplanetary-species/)

Recently released:

It Bears Repeating: Best Of…Volume 1

A compilation of writers focused on the nexus of limits to growth, energy, and ecological overshoot.

With a Foreword and Afterword by Michael Dowd, authors include: Max Wilbert; Tim Watkins; Mike Stasse; Dr. Bill Rees; Dr. Tim Morgan; Rob Mielcarski; Dr. Simon Michaux; Erik Michaels; Just Collapse’s Tristan Sykes & Dr. Kate Booth; Kevin Hester; Alice Friedemann; David Casey; and, Steve Bull.

The document is not a guided narrative towards a singular or overarching message; except, perhaps, that we are in a predicament of our own making with a far more chaotic future ahead of us than most imagine–and most certainly than what mainstream media/politics would have us believe.

Click here to access the document as a PDF file, free to download.

If you’ve made it to the end of this contemplation and have got something out of my writing, please consider ordering the trilogy of my ‘fictional’ novel series, Olduvai (PDF files; only $9.99 Canadian), via my website — the ‘profits’ of which help me to keep my internet presence alive and first book available in print (and is available via various online retailers).

You can also find a variety of resources, particularly my summary notes for a handful of texts, especially Catton’s Overshoot and Tainter’s Collapse: see here.

Encouraging others to read my work is also much appreciated.

[1] See this, this, this, this, this, and/or this.

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Steve Bull (https://olduvai.ca)

A guy trying to make sense of a complex and seemingly insane world. Spend my days pondering our various predicaments while practising local food production...