Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LVIII

Steve Bull (https://olduvai.ca)
10 min readJul 6, 2022
Arles, France (1984). Photo by author.

Magical Thinking to Help Avoid Anxiety-Provoking Thoughts

Today’s contemplation shares a comment I made to a Facebook Group a number of days ago in response to an article by Dr. Ugo Bardi — whose writing, especially around limits to growth and his proposal about the Seneca cliff decline we are likely to face as we bump into the biophysical limits imposed by a finite planet, I have enjoyed and greatly learned from. While we agree on much, we have a definite disagreement regarding the role and potential of non-renewable, energy-harvesting technologies (what most refer to simply as ‘renewable’ energy — a powerful marketing twist of language given the actual technologies required are in a very limited way ‘renewable’ (i.e., recyclable/rebuildable) and are not energy sources but technologies to harvest ‘renewable’ energy).

Dr. Bardi posted the article I responded to in reaction to another article that was penned by The Honest Sorcerer that I had shared on one of the several Facebook Groups Dr. Bardi hosts. My original comment is in bold below with some links/charts to articles/research that support my perspective and some concluding remarks.

Whether the article is ‘peer-reviewed’ or not (and there are certainly issues with the ‘gold standard’ of peer review), the fact remains that non-renewable, renewable energy-harvesting technologies appear to be an extension of our fossil fuel-based energies relying upon them significantly in both the upstream and downstream industrial processes necessary for their production, maintenance, and after-life reclamation and/or disposal.

Ideally, peer review is an objective and forceful gate-keeper that serves to eliminate poor ‘science’ prior to it being widely distributed but the process is certainly less than perfect and has it criticisms, even from within academia (in fact, the mainstay of gate-keeping — that is, repeating the experiment — is rarely, if ever carried out; mostly because there is not one to replicate):

British Medical Journal — https://www.bmj.com/content/340/bmj.c1409; https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/8/10/e020568
National Library of Medicine — https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25675064/
Mayo Clinic Proceedings — https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0025619618307079
The Seneca Effect — https://thesenecaeffect.blogspot.com/2021/11/when-science-speaks-in-tongues-how.html
Utah Valley University — https://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=21706

While there exist some small-scale examples of ‘renewables’ producing needed industrial products and ‘fuelling’ heavy equipment (and lots of marketing propaganda by vested interests around these; mostly, I would argue, to attract capital), the scale and cost are prohibitive, especially for a world already drowning in debt — to say little about the finite resources required to ‘convert’ the processes necessary. The bottom line is that in the present, and forgoing some miraculous as-yet-to-be-discovered technology, fossil fuel-based industrial processes are required for energy-harvesting technologies:

Cement, Steel, Aluminum production https://energyskeptic.com/2014/alt-energy-too-much-steel-cement-aluminum-but-little-power/; https://grist.org/politics/cement-has-a-carbon-problem-here-are-some-concrete-solutions/; https://oilprice.com/Energy/Coal/Is-It-Possible-To-Make-Steel-Without-Fossil-Fuels.html; https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=7570
Mining https://grist.org/article/report-going-100-renewable-power-means-a-lot-of-dirty-mining/; https://energyskeptic.com/2016/when-trucks-stop-running-table-of-contents-preface-references/;
In Generalhttps://www.mdpi.com/1996-1073/14/15/4508/htm; https://phys.org/news/2021-10-net-policies-emperor-academics.html; https://medium.com/politically-speaking/when-renewables-are-not-renewable-8369808a7cea

These processes also add significant pollutants to a world already experiencing overloading of its various compensatory sinks, to say little of the reality that fossil fuel use has seen little if any contraction in demand despite decades of exponential increase in so-called renewables.

Here are a handful of ‘academic’ articles on how the industrial processes necessary for ‘renewables’ impact negatively the environment. They are neither ‘clean’ nor ‘green’ but are almost always referred to them as such (again, a marketing ploy):

University of Queensland studieshttps://phys.org/news/2020-09-renewable-energy-threat-environment.html; https://phys.org/news/2020-03-renewable-energy-threaten-biodiverse-areas.html
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Institute of Technologyhttps://www.researchgate.net/publication/281550386_Environmental_Impacts_of_Renewable_Energy_Technologies
National Academies Presshttps://nap.nationalacademies.org/read/12987/chapter/6
Nature Communicationshttps://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17928-5

Here are a couple of charts to demonstrate that fossil fuel use has not decreased as ‘renewable energy technologies have increased in use (and significantly increased the past two decades). As this article highlights, the increase in ‘renewables’ has not detracted from our fossil fuel use (our dependence upon fossil fuels has continued to increase), it has simply offset the decline in nuclear-powered energy:

Highlighting the negative aspects of these technologies and the observation that they do not seem to be actually ‘solving’ in any way our fundamental predicament of ecological overshoot, or reducing our dependency upon fossil fuels, or reducing our destruction of the planet, is not ‘a mission received from God’; it is about challenging a narrative that seems quite problematic but is being marketed by many as the ‘solution’ to something that is increasingly looking to be a predicament that cannot be solved — and as William Catton Jr. pointed out in his 1980 text, we seem destined to experience the collapse that always tends to accompany overshoot because: “..habits of thought persist…people continue to advocate further technological breakthroughs as the supposedly sure cure for carrying capacity deficits. The very idea that technology caused overshoot, and that it made us too colossal to endure, remains alien to too many minds for ‘de-collosalization’ to be a really feasible alternative to literal die-off. There is a persistent drive to apply remedies that aggravate the problem.”

*****

My ‘motivation’ for sharing the above is to provide the opportunity for the reader to decide thru their own reading and ‘research’ which story appears more believable. As The Honest Sorcerer recently wrote in this article (and others have similarly argued[1]), it takes some ‘magical thinking’ to believe that non-renewable, energy-harvesting technologies are any type of ‘solution’ for the predicament of ecological overshoot and for attempting to ‘sustain’ our globalised, complex society.

The widespread adoption of magical thinking to avoid anxiety-provoking cognitions is in no way surprising. It is perhaps, as Ajit Varki argues, that “Some aspects of human cognition and behavior appear unusual or exaggerated relative to those of other intelligent, warm-blooded, long-lived social species — including certain mammals (cetaceans, elephants and great apes) and birds (corvids and passerines). One such collection of related features is our facile ability for reality denial in the face of clear facts, a high capacity for self-deception and false beliefs, overarching optimism bias and irrational risk-taking behavior…”[2].

The allure of non-renewable, energy-harvesting technologies is that they can create a story in which a transition to a ‘green/clean/sustainable’ future with most (all?) of our current complexities is not only possible but assured; in fact, for some, it is the only future we should be pursuing if we are to avoid civilizational ‘collapse’.

Such a future may be possible, I suppose, if ALL the right conditions are met — the most significant that I can think of off the top of my head are being far fewer people, far less imperial endeavours by our ruling elite, and the acceptance of far, far lower living standards by those in so-called ‘advanced’ economies.

Revealing the impediments that exist in such a narrative is not a God-inspired mission as Dr. Bardi accuses. But it can create both anxiety and significant uncertainty for those who have hooked their wagon up to the ‘renewable’ horses and are hoping to get to the big sustainable city on the horizon. So it’s not surprising that many (most?) rail against the argument that our current complexities can in no way be sustained via non-renewable, energy-harvesting technologies and our future path is likely going to be far more chaotic and problematic than most imagine — at least for those that ponder such a predicament, since most actually tend not to think about it.

A book I highly recommend to help in one’s understanding of our penchant for clinging to stories that appear ‘certain’ but very often are not is Dan Gardner’s Future Babble (my personal summary notes can be found here).

As he argues:

It is more often than not the confident, self-assured voice providing a simple story (regardless of ‘evidence’ to the contrary) that is the most persuasive and influences beliefs more — one told by the ‘hedgehogs’ as Gardner calls them. Contradictory evidence is rationalised away and certainty assured.

Given our predisposition to avoiding uncertainty and wishing control (to avoid fear and anxiety), we search for certainty, employ magical thinking, and see patterns where none exist; and someone who sounds like they are sure of their story (and especially if they are an ‘authority’ figure or ‘expert’) is preferred to the ‘foxes’ who will acknowledge complexity and uncertainty about their narrative with warnings and unsureness. Research demonstrates, however, that it is the enthusiasm and confidence more than the expert status that persuades people. It instills a sense of trust. Unfortunately, such overconfidence can lead people astray and into accepting false beliefs.

Further, Gardner argues that human cultures have always created stories about themselves and their world. This allows knowledge to be passed from generation to generation, strengthens social bonds, and allows possible outcomes to be practised. These narratives also function to explain and make sense of phenomena but if such stories are left unresolved, we are unsettled and search for resolution. And if the narrative doesn’t fit into our prior beliefs, we tend to ignore it or deny its implications. If we happen upon a ‘trusted’ expert’s story that resonates with our beliefs and values, we cling to it regardless of their prediction record (usually by forgetting failures but celebrating successes).

Misremembering and hindsight bias not only contribute to the illusion that the past was not uncertain but lead us to be less sceptical of prognostications about the future. We don’t recall that we worried about an uncertain future previously and that most predictions never materilaised. We seek certainty about the future and find it in trustful ‘experts’ and their forecasts.

In the end, we all believe what we want to believe; ‘facts’ be damned…

We could ‘debate’ the ‘facts’ forever and in reality be no closer whatsoever to the ‘truth’ as to whether ‘renewables’ could support a complex society, for only the playing out of the timeline can determine which perspective is ‘correct’. From a scientific method standpoint, we would carry out a number of experiments where significant variables would be controlled (hopefully) and eventually reach consensus on an interpretation of evidence.

Obviously, we cannot do such reality-testing for many (most?) of the narratives we create in our attempts to understand the world and sketch a rough picture of the future, so we continue to debate with the psychological mechanisms that impact our perceptions and beliefs influencing us constantly. While it is one thing to recognise that we are affected by these psychological phenomena, it is quite something different to be able to shield ourselves from them no matter how much we try.

In addition, we often have little to no idea about the eventual consequences of a remedy for a perceived problem, especially if it is a relatively newly recognised one — let alone a predicament that has no ‘solutions’. One of the things I have argued about complex systems is that with their non-linear feedback loops and emergent phenomena, they are impossible to predict (let alone control). Even with the most sophisticated models and the most powerful computer systems, the tiniest of errors in baseline assumptions can result in predictive trajectories being completely off-base from what may eventually occur.

I raise the above point because one of the arguments against pursuing non-renewable energy-harvesting technologies is that their production would bolster our overshoot by further withdrawing finite resources and overloading compensatory sinks. It would put us in even worse peril then we already seem to be in. Is this assured? Obviously not since the future is unwritten and unknowable but the danger remains. To argue there is no danger requires some significant denial, bargaining, and magical thinking.

Regardless of the real dangers and the accumulating evidence that our technologies have in fact created our overshoot and pursuing more of them will result in significant ecological damage, I have a feeling that attempting to create more of them is exactly what we will do. For it is the ruling elite who tend to be the ones who steer our economic policies and decisions, and they stand to profit handsomely from the production of such technologies due to their ownership of the industrial processes and financial institutions required for their production and distribution.

The notion of a managed ‘collapse’ which some advocate for is anathema to those that sit atop the power and wealth structures that exist in our globalised complex society. Better to advocate for and cheerlead confidently a path that can be packaged in a shiny techno-box of hope and certainty for the masses while ensuring revenue streams are maintained or even expanded.

Damn the consequences. Full speed ahead.

[1] See Erik Michaels and Charles Hugh Smith.

[2] https://carta.anthropogeny.org/events/sessions/mind-over-reality-transition-evolution-human-mortality-denial

Please consider visiting my website and purchasing my ‘fictional’ collapse novel trilogy and supporting my online presence.

--

--

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...