Could we do more? Why don’t we solve overshoot? Are we in Collapsosphere?
Edited from a discussion on SCORAI listserv in January 2023 which started with a post by Ashwani Vasishth on whether we were doing enough to increase the use of renewable energies. The initial responses revolved around renewable energy but responses from Ruben Anderson, William Rees and others developed into a discussion on cognitive capacity to cope with ecological overshoot.
We have very limited cognitive capacity, and most of us are using most of it all the time, just to get through life. We have very little surplus cognitive capacity, and it is very easily used up. So, when someone knocks on my door to talk about the local puppy rescue, I can’t be thinking about fresh water on reserves, school for girls in Afghanistan, industrial composting system using chickens, or resettling coastal cities to adapt to climate change. When we ask for attention, when we consume attention, it can’t be used for other things. Since it requires enormous amounts of focused and coordinated attention to make any of the system changes we are talking about happen, it is a very real likelihood that most issues will never get across a critical threshold of attention (as needed for fundraising, communications, lobbying, social proof, direct action etc.) There are thousands of well-meaning projects that have no hope of success, and that will never shift the needle. Each one of those thousands of projects is spending—consuming—attention and resources.
Unfortunately, humans are doing the best we can. We are not evil, lazy or stupid, we just have limited cognitive capacity and cannot make sense of and make effective systemic responses most of the time.
Why are we failing to meet the challenges of the pandemic? Why are we failing to meet the challenges of climate change? Not because we are bad people, or stupid people, but just because this is the best we can do—and sadly that is not going to be good enough to maintain high technology societies and some of the goods we enjoy using.
I spent several years running on the ground pilot tests on pro-environmental behaviour change—like recycling and composting. I read stacks of studies and research—and I weighed recycling with a bathroom scale, building probably the finest-grained recycling data ever collected. I looked at sources, like Daniel Kahneman and Roy Baumeister, but especially Alex Bentley at UBristol and Sandy Pentland at MIT, Bruce Alexander, who ran the famous Rat Park study; and his colleague Gabor Mate. Out of all this, there is a parsimonious explanation that neatly fits the data, but it requires a shift in perspective, a different causality. And that is that we are doing the best we can.
Humans are amazing. We have evolved over millions of years, creating tools, making fire, hunting, agriculture. We went from Kitty Hawk to the man on the moon in 66 years. We are explorers, innovators, creative, brilliant, hardworking. So why don’t we solve overshoot? It is because we can’t. If we could, we would have already. We are doing the best we can. This is fundamentally a radically empathetic position. Everyone is just doing the best they can. If you don’t understand why someone is behaving some way, it is not because they are bad people, it is because they have and do live a different life.
This really shows the need for systems change. Everybody is already doing the best they can, so no wonder the success rate of asking them to do more is so low. We need to change the system so their attention is not required. Our brain has not evolved to solve these global-scale cooperation dilemmas.
Changing systems is hard. If it was as easy as putting a man on the moon we would have done it already. So I am a collapsenik. I don’t think we have the social or material capacity to make the changes we need to make in order to keep this high consumption, high technology society running – so it won’t keep running.
The technical problems are small, but the non-technical problems are defeating us.
Can we identify the major barriers to resolving the overshoot crisis?
I approach this from the biological/ecological perspective and suggest that many stumbling blocks are innate, that they are variations of heritable, once adaptive, survival strategies that have been ‘selected for’ in the course of human evolution.
- Humans, like all other species, are capable of exponential population growth and tend to use accessible food and other resources as soon as possible[i] (The later highly adaptive behavior increased immediate material security in the absence of refrigeration or when competition was intense.) Together these traits, when enabled by improved population health and the abundance of resources made possible by fossil fuels, explain the explosive growth of the human ecological footprint over the past two centuries.[ii] In effect, they show that, unleashed, MTI peoples are inherently unsustainable.[iii]
- H. sapiens evolved under relatively simple, more or less predictable environments that posed limited challenges to our developing cognitive mechanisms. People are therefore predisposed to think in simplistic, reductionist, mechanistic ways. Modern humans still focus on one issue at time—climate change, the pandemic, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification—generally failing to connect the dots among what are actually co-symptoms of overshoot (how many have even heard of overshoot?). Simple cause/effect cognition was adequate in pre-holocene times, but evolutionary history has arguably left contemporary humans incapable of coping with the complexity of our radically unpredictable and increasingly unstable modern world. Will we be ‘selected out’ by a hostile environment of our own making?
- Humans are naturally myopic.[iv] Even economists recognize that most people are temporal, social and spatial discounters—we favor the here-and-now and close relatives/friends over the future, distant places and total strangers. Rather than ‘harm’ their own people today by implementing the kinds of policies necessary to eliminate overshoot (or simply reverse climate change), politicians would rather risk the welfare and lives of future generations of people, particularly those in far-away countries.
- Humans naturally form hierarchical social structures. Those high in the pecking order (e.g., with the most material wealth) claim a disproportionate degree of sociopolitical power. For example, environmental protection is compromised in many contemporary societies by ‘agency capture,’ the process by which corporate interests infiltrate or otherwise co-opt corresponding regulatory agencies so that the latter come to identify with, and protect the interests of, the industry rather than the public good. [v] In short, moneyed elites strenuously resist social forces that threaten their privileged status quo. One result: despite fifty years of climate conferences and agreements to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions, atmospheric carbon levels are still rising exponentially.[vi]
- Even ordinary citizens are reluctant to sacrifice their comfortable lifestyles for the general welfare of humankind, present or future. Economists recognize this as a variation on the ‘public good/free rider problem.’ “Why should I give up my vacation house and automobile to reduce my carbon footprint for the public good, particularly if few others do? I would be making a significant sacrifice in exchange for an infinitesimal share of the benefits. Meanwhile, other people would get a free ride on my ‘gift’ to the public.”
- Humans are inherently creatures of habit. Cognitive neurobiologists have shown that repeated experiences, ideas, and thought processes literally help to configure the synaptic circuitry of the developing brain.[vii] Once a particular pattern is inscribed, individuals tend to seek out other people or experiences that reinforce their neural presets. Conversely, “when faced with information that does not agree with their internal structures, they deny, discredit, reinterpret, or forget that information”[viii] Thus, assertions of certainty thus arise “out of involuntary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently of reason.”[ix] It seems that climate and overshoot denial have a neuro-cognitive basis. This trait obviously contributes significantly to the seemingly unstoppable momentum of growth- and technology-obsessed MTI global culture.
[i] Normally, population dynamics reflect a fluctuating balance between positive feedback (exponential potential) and negative feedback (e.g., disease, food and other resource shortages).
[ii] Since the early 19th Century, the human population has expanded eightfold from one to eight billion and real gross world product (~consumption) by over 100-fold. With exponential growth, half the fossil fuels ever used have been consumed in just the past 30+ years (see: ourworldindata.org/economic-growth and ourworldindata.org/fossil-fuels .)
[iii] C. Fowler and L. Hobbs, “Is humanity sustainable?” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B (2003) 270(1533):2579–2583.
[iv] See M. Pratarelli, Myopic man: On the nature and universality of human self-deception and its long-term effects on our environment (Medici Publishing, 2008).
[v] See D. Carpenter and D. A. Moss (eds.), Preventing Regulatory Capture – Special Interest Influence and How to Limit It (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014)
[vii] This was a highly adaptive trait, assisting individuals easily to acquire the beliefs, values, and norms of their tribe which, in turn, confer a sense of personal identity and reinforces group cohesion.
[viii] See B. Wexler, Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, Ideology and Social Change, p.180. (Cambridge,MA: MIT Press, 2006).
[ix] R.A. Burton, On Being Certain – Believing You are Right Even When You Are Not (p.xi) (New York: St Martin’s Press, 2008).
Marina Fischer Kowalski
– If we look at human history, both hierarchical organization and high population growth are matters of particular energy- and socio-political regimes, and not inborn to human nature. For millions of years humans lived as hunter-gatherers with very low population growth and hardly any major social hierarchies. Obviously, our nature allowed for this.
– This changed with the invention of agriculture as a new energy regime with a much higher EROI. There, due to the need to keep possession of the land across seasons, our species gradually evolved highly labour intensive forms of living, high population growth (children as low-food workers), and steep social hierarchies (both religious and socio-political) to exploit human labour.
– The turn to fossil fuels and industrial development allowed us to become functionally much more differentiated and evolve less hierarchical, but much more complex forms of social organization (capitalism, democracy, low population growth), that spread among our species much faster than agriculture did. Our cognitive mechanisms were highly challenged: we learned to think in systemic, complex ways (not everybody equally, I admit).
– These transition processes were not driven biologically, selecting for a chance of better living: The life of peasants was in no ways more comfortable and pleasant than with hunter-gatherers, but it was evolution by the successful, often mainly by violence of hierarchically organized masses – not by intellectual foresight.
– Now, the human species is in the difficult situation of self-defeating success. Large parts of the species are equipped with unprecedented abilities of foresight, and an unprecedented number of different choices. We can and will respond differently, not by our nature, but by differentiated social interests and our historical learning.
– This does not mean we are going to make it – but it is a matter of social power struggles and our socio-political organization – not of our biological nature.
Culture can change, which is different than saying that we can change culture.
The United States fought the Civil War, then a century later went through one of the greatest social upheavals in history with the Civil Rights movement and all the related anti-discrimination laws.
And the Governor of Florida just moved to prevent the teaching of higher level African American history. This was one of the most massive culture change efforts in history, and the statistics show it has failed. It is less bad, but nowhere near good. Cultures can and do change. But can we direct change in the ways we need? There is very little evidence to support that.
In general culture change will come from system change. First you change the behaviour, then the values follow. In this case, first you change the system, then the culture will follow. The US did not create a culture of what Kunstler calls Happy Motoring. No, the US created a massive system of interstate highways, and out of that arose a culture that is auto-centric. There were local driving clubs that lobbied for more roads, better roads, and against jaywalking and other human-centred behaviour. But first they changed the system, and then the culture arose.
The solution lies in the rest of the world, and what remains of MTI society will adopt that solution. It is simply to consume less than the planet produces. This means a much simpler, more subsistence life and a much lower global population. The math is very straightforward.
Three things are needed to make change: Technical capacity, Material Capacity, and Social capacity.
If you have a recipe for apple pie, and some sort of an oven or other way to concentrate heat, you have the technical capacity to bake a pie. If you have apples and flour and sugar and butter and pinch of cinnamon you have the material capacity to bake a pie. And if you have someone who is willing to cut butter into flour, slice apples and wait around while the pie bakes, you have the social capacity to bake a pie. If you lack any one of these three, there will be no pie. Pie will be impossible. You cannot have pie.
Our culture worships The Word. We think all we need is another TED talk. And so people think California can’t keep the lights on due to some technical problem. But it is actually a social problem, a cultural problem. We humans with our brains that have evolved to run our bodies and little else, do not have the capacity for this.
Joe Zammit Lucia
Do I believe we can change behaviour and culture within a time-frame that will prevent serious climate destabilization? I think the chances are so small I feel comfortable saying no chance. We have had the technical capacity for centuries and at least decades. The material capacity is a lot more challenging, but the good thing about subsistence self-provender is that you use way less stuff. But we do not have the social capacity. It is not reasonable to look at the last three years and think we are going to deal with climate change.
Noel Gerard Keough
Our MTI culture may well wither and die along with hyper-consumption but not all human experience will be lost. If humans survive it may well be a different human cultural experience emerges and becomes more influential. There still exists a diversity of human cultural experience that is not planet-destroying.
While our nature as a K-strategic species allows us to live at low levels of extrasomatic energy and thus low population levels, our innate propensity to expand and use available resources is written in our history of developing technologies that increase our energy appropriations (agriculture and especially fossil fuels) and, with this, both longevity and reproduction. With more people and cultural artifacts, we also developed new forms of organizational structure. However, as for our capacity to deal with complexity, it’s all relative.
Certainly the cognitive development of H. sapiens was “challenged” hundreds and tens of thousands of years ago but for the most part the challenges of living in small tribal groups in a fairly restricted and familiar home range were trivial compared to those we face today. Back in the day, the assumption of simple cause-effect relationships probably worked most of the time. Relatively simplistic reductionist thinking was adequate for survival.
Things have changed radically. In just the past two hundred years (eight-fold expansion of human numbers; 100-fold expansion of GWP) humans have created a complex global eco-socio-macro-system of overlapping complex sub-systems (the economy, the internet, the military-industrial complex, communications systems, agricultural and mining systems, the climate system, every ecosystem on the planet, etc.) any one of which is beyond complete understanding let alone control of any one person or group of people.
Modern humans, however, are left with the same brains and cognitive systems as our paleolithic ancestors. We simply don’t ‘get’ this level of complexity; no one is in charge, no one can be in charge. Further, I submit that no level of human foresight can predict the behaviour of complex systems characterized by lags, thresholds and other manifestations of chaotic behaviour by definition. In short, cultural evolution has outpaced biological evolution and even the cultural capacity to adapt (we are fractious, argumentative, competitive and mutually suspicious) is severely compromised by other dimensions of human nature/behaviour. Humans have lost control of a macro-systemic environment of their own making and the present form of civilization may be ‘selected out’ as a result.
Humans, like all other species, are capable of exponential population growth and tend to use accessible food and other resources as soon as possible. They needed three things: opposable thumbs, slightly larger brains, and fossil fuels. Without all of those three things we would not be here. There are larger brains, like in whales, without thumbs or access to fossil fuels. There is access to fossil fuels, like rats living in coal seams, without thumbs or larger brains. And there are thumbs, like the great apes, or maybe even raccoons, without larger brains or access to fossil fuels. Whales, with their giant brains, have been gliding the world’s oceans for 50 million years. Who know what philosophy they have developed. Higher maths—maths beyond our ability to even imagine? But they don’t have thumbs, or fossil fuels. Serendipity brought this all together in humans and any creature that has access to the resources to sustain life will enjoy them until external limits intervene.
We developed a bunch of energy conservation methods so that we could get more done with our limited cognitive capacity. Most of the psychological research is actually studying rules of thumb developed to conserve our cognitive capacity. I think these basic heuristics are very, very old, and are ingrained very deep. These are not biases, as psychology would frame it, but more like a dimmer switch for our brain glucose that allows us to make decisions very economically.
The eagle can soar for hours on the wind, we don’t mock it for not being able to dive deep like a dolphin. The bear can store enough fat to hibernate for months, we don’t mock it for not being able to jump as nimbly as a frog. So humans aren’t myopic; we just evolved scanning grasslands for small changes in the pattern, and we do that extraordinarily well. We discard 99.999% of the information we sense. We could not possibly function if we didn’t. That is all our brain can do. We have evolved algorithms to do that filtering automatically. But what we retain is the tiny disruptions in the pattern that might be a sabre-tooth tiger.
What did we think about as we evolved under simple, but UN-predictable environments?
Simple – water, food, shelter, predators – but all can be capricious. Humans have figured out lots of ways to increase what we are able to do with our limited cognitive capacity. These are like prosthetics for our brains, like: language, religion, books, math, illustration. With these tools we can outsource cognitive capacity on a very large scale: governance, agriculture, engineering, medicine. We no longer had to know everything, we could outsource.
Humans are not predisposed to give away agency. It is just that we have evolved for little more than scanning the grasslands. We developed highly complex ways to outsource cognitive capacity to other people, and we properly trust those people. The last thing we need is a bridge designed by committee.
But experts have also lost sight of the big picture. They also outsource, and complexity is biting us all.
The public good/free rider problem is an adaptation to our limited cognitive capacity. It seems very closely related to “If other people are doing it and surviving it is probably safe for me to do it”.
It maybe deeper in our DNA or just a basic urge at the organism level to not let another organism sequester more resources, giving them reproductive advantage. Regardless, it is not because people are bad or selfish, it is just that is what humans are, with our own distinctiveness, like the eagle or the bear.
Habits are just tools to conserve cognitive capacity. Habits are rarely and difficultly built consciously. Mostly habits are created by repeated behaviour. You do not consciously care which faucet the hot water comes out of, but if you use a bathroom that has the faucets reversed, you will see how strong your habit is. You spent zero conscious effort on this habit, but it lives in your body.
That is how most of our habits are. They have simply arisen from the physical world we live in.
Building habits consciously is extremely costly, in every way, but I mean of cognitive capacity. This is another reason why we must change the physical system, because then people will build new habits that work with system.
We build wide straight roads, and people properly drive fast on them. Then we get mad at them for driving fast, and try to make them pay attention to the speed limit. It is idiotic, and is a failure. If you want people to drive slowly, build narrow, windy roads, and they will drive slowly. You change the system and you change behaviour. You change behaviour and you change the values/story.
A lot of what we call human nature is a second order effect of our limited cognitive capacity, and most of the things do to try to “fix” those problems ignore the underlying reality of our limited capacity—and so they fail.
My top three directions of change are walkable communities, well-insulated homes, and local food.
“So humans aren’t myopic, we just evolved scanning grasslands for small changes in the pattern, and we do that extraordinarily well. We discard 99.999% of the information….”
But I would argue that scanning for small changes only and discarding 99.999% of other information is a good ‘first cut’ description of a major condition for myopia.
I agree that “we have very limited cognitive capacity” and that this is “all our brains can do” but I don’t for a second consider acknowledging this as “mocking” human beings. It is simply a fact of our evolutionary heritage which offers some explanation for our failure to use one of the truly unique qualities of humans the capacity to plan ahead, to alter our future. (Ironically we actually do exercise this ability quite well when the benefits are obvious, but when our “scanning” the future plain reveals unpleasantries, we “deny, discredit, reinterpret, or forget that information”. Perhaps this means our myopia is, to a degree, selective.)
You would also nudge my assertion that “H. sapiens evolved under relatively simple, more or less predictable environments” into a seemingly contrary variant, “we evolved under simple, but UNpredictable environments” on grounds that, for example, our “predators evolved to be unpredictable”.
Quite right, of course, but here I would protest that we are quibbling over degree. First, the probable presence of predators was predictable; the danger was known if not specifiable as to time and place. Second, I deliberately use the term “relatively” compared to the present day. So the predictability of paleolithic environments still seems to me somewhat more that the predictability of today’s environment, a mega-complex system of overlapping complex subsystems (everything from the internet to the military industrial complex, the global economy, climate system and the biosphere. No person or institution can get a controlling handle on any single subsystem (and that cannot end well).
My disagreement is on three points:
- There is a fourth layer which Ruben A’s comment does not refer to. It is the layer of our most fundamental ontological and epistemological presuppositions. This layer is critical. At this level we find answers to such questions as: What is the nature of reality? What is the nature of human beings/persons? What is the relationship of reality to human beings? In what ways can we grasp reality and in what ways can reality grasp us? It is differences at this level that enable us to distinguish the various forms of civilization from each other. If the differences are as important as I see them to be, then it must be the case that both reality and human experience is “plastic” enough to be “taken/construed” in ways that are different enough that the differences matter. (Pun intended.) If this is the case, then we must learn to distinguish among both the various forms of civilization that have emerged to date in human history and the cultures which exemplify each of these forms.
- We can conclude from the above that human forms of civilization and the cultures which exemplify them matter far more than we in MTI cultures understand. This means that any sweeping understanding of human history must include the emergence of the forms of civilization by and through which we have lived as a species. This means that the MTI bias to ignore our evolution as civilizational and cultural species by privileging our biophysical development is no longer adequate. Yes, we are biophysical beings. And yes, many living species have some capacity to develop and live by their cultures. And we appear to be immersed in cultures to degrees that no other living species is. The human story is inherently time-bound and cultural, even the sweeping story of our development. We must learn to tell it how it has been and is.
- Human learning is bi-directional. It moves not only from physical substances to thinking, imagination and O/E presuppositions. It runs from insights that burst our O/E presuppositions to our imagination to our manner of thinking and then what we physically do. Such insights re-orient our lives and practices. They are the great insights of science, psychology and spirituality. The insights which alter the trajectory of human history.
When these things are understood they illuminate our history, our present condition and our future in ways that include, but move beyond the implicit behaviourism of our MTI cultures.
In short, it is the case that we are in bio-physical overshoot and that this alone can do us in. My point is that in order to make enough sense of this fact, we must also understand that we are in civilizational overshoot. Otherwise, we will continue to try to extricate ourselves from the mess of living complex messes we are in by using the very means of grasping and manipulating reality that has brought us here in the first place.
There is a lot of misanthropy in the collapsosphere, of the humans are a virus or humans are a cancer variety. Cancer especially has the tones of something malevolent, something broken, something without conscience.
We agree that we are merely animals with an evolutionary roll of the dice that landed us here, and that other animals with brains/thumbs/fossil fuels would likely have done the same thing.
There is also a lot of misanthropy in the judeo-christian worldview. We arose from original sin and we are all sinners etc., and it is hard to find contemplation of our situation without one or both of these flavours. It seems that human nature is only brought up in the negative, which is not how we talk about any other creature, nor (probably) how any other creature thinks of itself.
And so I always try to reframe. Humans are amazing and beautiful. We are very capable and have done great things. We don’t have any other opinions about how creatures see—bees see ultraviolet, the vision of housecats is tuned to see mouse-sized things moving in dim light and we don’t tsk-tsk them. But for ourselves we speak of it as a shame. It is just what we are, and I wished we loved ourselves more.
I don’t think we are going to save this civilization in any of the ways people usually use the word “save”. But nor do I think humans will go extinct as the Near Term Human Extinctionist and many other Doomers worry about. Humans are a weed species, like rats and deer and crows, and I think some small number of us will walk on some part of this planet for a very long time. Nomadic herding will be a growth industry.
The “rapid simplification”, as Tainter defines collapse, is going to be very unpleasant indeed. It is going to take many, many generations before we are truly “post-collapse”. My rubric is to try to imagine what the humans of 200 years from now will need, and to do my part to conserve and transmit *that*.