The Common Link with Climate Change, Peak Oil, Limits To Growth, Etc. - Belief Systems

Many of the issues discussed on this bandwidth are large, long term, and threatening. Consider the three primary society-wide topics of analysis and discourse: climate, energy and the economy. It is my belief these 3 are linked by an underlying cultural growth/debt imperative running into a planet with finite sources and sinks. But within each category you have, still, despite the same access to facts and considerable passage of time, widely disparate and strongly held opinions. E.g. climate change is largely anthropogenic/climate change is largely naturally forced; peak oil is past/ peak oil is decades away; the financial crisis is passed/ government handouts have made the financial peril even greater etc. If you find yourself in a debate about any of these issues you'll find apathy or you'll find cognitive biases underlying a polarized opinion.

This post will address some social and psychological reasons why the urgency of our resource situation may not be being addressed on an individual level and only at a snails pace on the governmental level. Among the phenomena we will explore are a) why we have beliefs and how they are changed, b) our propensity to believe in authority figures, c) our penchant for optimism, d) cognitive load theory, e) relative fitness, f) the recency effect, and several others.

This essay, first posted in May 2006, was my first attempt at examining our cognitive belief biases. (Note - I've added an a epilogue and a few italics to the essay -I must say it was also interesting to see where my mind was nearly 4 years ago - I was clearer and more genteel (not to mention skinnier).


Our societal infrastructure was built with and expected to continue on cheap liquid fuels and few externalities. This fixed infrastructure coupled with a pretty much insatiable human demand drive for energy services may result in a once-in-a-species crisis if our planetary resource and ecosystems can no longer keep pace. But these problems ultimately are not about geology, technology or sink capacity - those are symptoms. At its core we face a human problem. Our collective cognitive belief systems and the resulting behaviours they engender will play pivotal roles in our failure or success in mitigating and adapting to the vast challenges of both resource depletion and environmental limits.

This post will outline some of the behavioral tendencies we can expect to encounter as we attempt timely and logical solutions to declines in per capita energy availability. It will explore how we process new information and culminate in an examination of our belief systems themselves. As in my recent posts, I preface this one with a discussion I recently had with my Wall St. friend Thomas, (who fittingly has still 'not had time' to read the oildrum story on steep discount rates):

N: Thomas - I'm writing another story for and would like your comments since you seem to represent the 'non-believer camp'.

T: It's not that I don't believe that oil will peak someday - it's just that the doom and gloom people are always wrong - somehow something will come along and in 5 years you'll say "well, how could I have known about 'XXX'? No one knows the future - including you Nate.

N: I've never said when Peak Oil would be, only that it would eventually mean the end of economic growth as we know it - and that technology and capital can't 'create' energy. The market will be too late to react to the signals once they come. The asset allocators on Wall St have used a formula for the 70 years of stock market history based on cheap oil and high energy gain. That era is over - new rules or maybe a new game.

T: No offense buddy - I know you're very intelligent. But there are thousands of smart people on Wall St and elsewhere analyzing data - don't you think it's a little odd that YOUR opinion is the right one over all those people whose full time jobs it is to pore over oil demand and supply figures?

N: Well, when put like that it always shakes my confidence, but I do believe the street is missing the main tenets of Peak oil - that environmental limits and declining net energy will overtake conventional market and technology solutions, and that we've replaced this temporarily with debt at what will be a huge future liability. And by the way - there ARE a lot of analysts talking about peak oil and its implications - the new GAO report on Peak Oil came out last week and pointed out how unprepared we are..

T: Now you trust what the Government is saying? You used to say the government energy forecasts were terrible and we shouldn't believe in them -now they write something that fits your position and you use it for support?

N: Were you always this argumentative? Wait -don't answer that -I've known you since grad school. Can you honestly say that you've read things on theoildrum and other sources for objective information on this topic?

T: I have 3 kids and work 60 hour weeks so I choose how to spend my reading time. Can you say YOU'VE read all the research saying we have plenty of oil until at least 2040 after which there will be plenty of substitutes? You should talk to some of my biofuel entrepreneur friends - they are telling my 10:1 energy return on cellulosic within 3 years.

N: I've started from scratch 3 or 4 times on the core Peak Oil tenets, thinking I might have something very wrong, but I've been over it enough to unfortunately feel pretty confident I'm right, though less certain on the timing of rationing, etc.

T: Nate, I shouldn't tell you this but our asset management arm is in the top 10 in the world in terms of assets and do you know what our number one position is?

N: Starbucks?

T: No. We're short oil futures. We think its going back to $40 well before it goes to $100. (ED NOTE: This piece originally ran in May 2007, when oil was $65. It subsequently went to $145.)

N: Thomas this is all besides the point. I'm not predicting what will happen in the next 3 months or next 3 years - what I'm saying is that very soon, in our lifetimes, the economic system will run out of cheap energy and it won't work in reverse. The bullish supply forecasts either siphon that 'energy gain' from other economic sectors or by robbing it from the environment via water and ecosystem depletion and increased GHGs.

T: Whatever. And even if you're right. We're here to live life. I'm not going to sit around waiting for 'the next big change' when I can enjoy life with my kids and live large. I work hard you know.

N: Actually you're a grifter. But you're still my friend, even though you're closed minded at times. Later.

(Ed. note: post mortem: since early 2008, Thomas and I have stopped communicating, partially due to polarizing conversations like the above)

The above discussion is in many respects a synopsis of this post - that despite facts, we exhibit certain cognitive biases that prevent us from acting on complex or frightening subjects outside of our day to day realities. What follows below is a brief overview of 10 cognitive phenomenon that may inhibit wider understanding and action on oil depletion. (Caveat - Neuroscience is a complex and growing field that has many valuable contributions to offer. In discussing human tendencies for various behaviours, I am of course generalizing, as are most of the scientific studies - when I say 'people value the present more than the future', I make that claim in the same vein that 'men are taller than women (on average)' )


Denial is a defense mechanism where a person is faced with a fact that is too painful to accept and rejects it instead, insisting that it is not true despite what may be overwhelming evidence. A related psychological concept is that of cognitive dissonance, originally coined by social psychologist Leon Festinger. Cognitive dissonance describes the negative tension that results from having two conflicting thoughts at the same time, or from engaging in behavior that conflicts with one's beliefs.

From Wikipedia,

"The theory of cognitive dissonance states that contradicting cognitions serve as a driving force that compels the mind to acquire or invent new thoughts or beliefs, or to modify existing beliefs, so as to reduce the amount of dissonance (conflict) between cognitions. Experiments have attempted to quantify this hypothetical drive. Some of these have examined how beliefs often change to match behavior when beliefs and behavior are in conflict."

Jared Diamond, in "Collapse" quotes the behaviour of people living below a dam that may break:

"“Consider a narrow river valley below a high dam, such that if the dam burst, the resulting flood of water would drown people for a considerable distance downstream. When attitude pollsters ask people downstream of the dam how concerned they are about the dam’s bursting, it’s not surprising that fear of a dam burst is lowest far downstream, and increases among residents increasingly close to the dam. Surprisingly, though, after you get to just a few miles below the dam, where fear of the dam’s breaking is found to be the highest, the concern then falls off to zero as you approach closer to the dam! That is, the people living immediately under the dam, the ones most certain to be drowned in a dam burst, profess unconcern. That’s because of psychological denial: the only way of preserving one’s sanity while looking up every day at the dam is to deny the possibility that it could burst. If something that you perceive arouses in you a painful emotion, you may subconsciously suppress or deny your perception in order to avoid the unbearable pain, even though the practical results of ignoring your perception may prove ultimately disastrous. The emotions most often responsible are terror, anxiety, and grief.”

Reaching social limits to growth is potentially a world-sized dam break. It's no wonder initial reactions to hearing how the world we know might change are met with skepticism. (Note: interestingly, and something I intend to explore on a subsequent post, is the concept of denial is related to the study of addiction.)


"Chocolate Cake?" "or Fruit Salad?"

Cognitive load theory suggests humans have a maximum capacity of working memory. At around 7 'chunks' of information, our working memory maxes out and we can't accept anything else without losing some of the previous 'chunks'. Try remembering the following numbers 1-9-1-4-7-6-7-5-9-5-9. Its quite hard to do. But if they are rearranged in chunks 1-914-767-5959, it becomes much more manageable. Numerous studies have measured this phenomenon - a notable study by Shiv and Fedhorkhin(1) asked a group of people to memorize a two digit number, walk down a corridor and at the end choose a dessert - either chocolate cake or fruit salad. A different sample of people were then asked to memorize a 7 digit number and walk down the corridor (while internally reciting this 7 digit number) and also choose a dessert. When required to memorize the 7 digit number, almost twice as many people chose the chocolate cake as in the sample only memorizing the 2 digit number - the implication being - 'my short term memory is full - I cant access my rational, long term decision-making hardware - just give me the damn cake'.

Of course, in a society with cell phones, taxi-cabs, internet, coffee, soccer practice, Grays Anatomy, corporate ladders and a plethora of other chocolate cake-like stimuli, meaningful contemplation and education about energy depletion and our planet's environment usually represents the fruit salad. Many people are just too cognitively taxed to take on much more.


"The rational vs emotional discount rate"

As discussed in a recent oildrum post, we have evolved neural mechanisms to steeply favor the present over the future (measured by what economists call ‘discount rates’), and modern OECD culture exacerbates this trait. The higher the rate, the more one is 'addicted' to the present moment. Lower discount rates suggest more control of the neocortex in subverting the mammalian/reptilian impulses of 'living for the moment'. Different objects/concepts are discounted at differing rates (e.g. sugar, and money). Different subsets of people (drug addicts, young people, gamblers, men, risk-takers, low math scorers, alcohol drinkers, etc) have steeper discount rates - are less able to act for the future and are easier pulled in by short term desires.(2)

We have evolved to have instant access to our emotional minds in times of stress or danger - a million years ago too much rational thought would have essentially been suicidal. Oil depletion, climate change and loss of planetary ecosystems are long lead time problems. As such, information leading us to believe a peak in global oil production is either a) no big deal or b) beyond 2030 is essentially not 'received' by our emotional minds. The average person and politician will process such information as a free pass to continue the business as usual path. This is especially true if the assessment comes from a confident, respected, mainstream source (such as CERA), because it trickles down through corporate hierarchical society. Collectively it will be difficult to act until these issues become 'in the moment' too.


Steep discount rates work backwards as well - the oil crises and gas lines in the 1970s are today like stories in the history books - nothing that carries too much emotional weight in the present - its almost as if our action and motivation triggers are like one of those maps that show the areas of daylight, only caring about the areas that are lit up - the dark areas are too far beyond our ken. The recency effect is just steep discount rates in reverse - instead of weighting the future less than the present, we weigh the past less than the present.

Cognitive psychologists have recognized that people tend to overweight the most recent data and stimuli they receive in their decision-making processes. A possible reason for the recency effect is that these items still linger in working memory when recall is solicited. This recency effect has two important relationships to the peak oil and global warming issues. First, we collectively assume that today will be much like yesterday and tomorrow will be like today - grocery stores chock full of oil-subsidized tasty treats, gas stations with cheap and easy fill-ups, and a plethora of novel entertainment and diversion options preclude our mind from thinking tomorrow will be any different. Second, in the various campaigns to educate and inform the public and policymakers on the dangers of oil depletion, any 'recent' optimistic piece in the mainstream media that dismisses Peak Oil has a tendency to mentally 'overwrite' some of the prior Peak Oil education one might have achieved.

Part of the reason I looked into research on the recency effect is that I noticed myself yo-yo-ing on peak oil and climate change depending on who I talked to or what I'd seen. I started to notice a pattern that my 'belief' was highly correlated to whatever I'd read or whoever I'd spoken to most recently. Since there are so many unknowns on both topics, to hear demonstrative language from confident sources does a lot to sway one's opinion, until and if one has time to methodically explore the arguments during subsequent individual research.

I am not a climate expert but do know enough to understand that humans are impacting the planet in many ways, some benign, some moderate and some deleterious. As a graduate student under Robert Costanza, a scientist very concerned about climate change, I felt almost embarrassed after viewing The Great Global Warming Swindle. Even though I recognized some factual mistakes, the rhetoric and confident tone in the movie pulled me in - the general tenor made me feel that climate change is relatively benign and concerns about it are overblown. That is, until the next morning when I got a series of emails from my professors about its content after which my opinion completely flip-flopped again. (Note: all of these folks have more knowledge than I on the topic) I expect this is a common experience. The central issues of climate change and oil decline are so broad and complex that both science and advocacy fall victim to the recency effect. Whoever is loudest, most confident and most repeated (i.e. heard last), has an advantage. Advertisers must be aware that the recency effect is both valid and powerful, otherwise we would have long ago decided on which product is superior between Miller and Budweiser on the facts alone.

(12/10/09 Note: This same dichotomy continues today: the global effort in Copenhagen getting closer to finally putting prices/limits on externalities combats the shrill but plausible climategate/natural warming crowd. Piltdown man did not negate the theory of evolution. (this piece reasonably summarizes my own views on CRU situation). The facts will one day weigh in, heavily, but until then, for better or worse, this issue seems more like religion that science, on both sides. I am still no expert on climate, but I'm beginning to be one on belief systems. If you find yourself in a room with a scientist/advocate from both sides of this debate, a socially astute 3rd party knows in advance what topic will find no middle ground and is best avoided....neither peak oil nor limits to growth have yet made it to that tier of social awareness...)


"I have it from high authority that there is plenty of Oil Resource" contributor says "Net energy to fall - society needs to change 'metrics of success' quickly"

Think about your initial reaction to the above two assertions. Depending on your walk of life, your gut reaction and thought process might differ. However, science (and history) has shown that humans have a propensity to be externally validated - we believe in and follow instructions from confident authority figures. Though contributor is clearly confident, he certainly is not an authority figure, at least outside pike fishing circles. The Pope however, influences billions**. With few exceptions, most voices advocating immediate steps for mitigating peak oil are not what society would perceive as 'authority figures'. Recent research suggests that humans prefer confidence and 'cockiness' irrespective of a poor track record compared to a non-confident source....that might explain alot in the energy information community!

But what if the tables were reversed?


Imagine if that headline ran through the media around the country. Corporate leaders would hold emergency meetings on how to lock in prices or even supplies. (Some might liquidate their 401ks and not even show up)…. Politicians would be on television urging people to wear sweaters or even winter coats…. A gasoline tax would be quickly implemented…. Purchases of wind turbines and solar panels would soar… Tuna and chocolate hoarding...Cats living with dogs – real Old Testament stuff.

However, the situation is precisely opposite that. Astute, reasoned analysis by concerned individuals gets easily drowned out by rhetorical op-ed pieces in respected newspapers. Portrayal of concern for peak oil as a 'chicken little', 'Cassandra' and 'boy who cried wolf' phenomenon by a credible news source effectively erases what nagging concern or belief about oil depletion someone had started to foment.

Sociology recognizes that we have a propensity to believe in authority figures. Though the why of this is yet to be sussed out, Richard Dawkins believes it is an adaptive byproduct of children who unquestioningly followed adult instructions during the thousands of generations of our ancestral environment.(3) Presumably, the penchant for adults to easily believe things that are confidently told to them is a carryover from the children who did NOT eat the berries, touch the snake, or swim over a waterfall – these children survived to have children of their own. Social psychologist Robert Cialdini has written a book related to this phenomenon, on how certain people can have outsized influence on others using certain authoritative tactics. (I wonder aloud if Messrs. Jackson and Yergin own copies)

Irrespective of its origins and as uncomfortable as it sounds, we DO inherently believe in authority figures, as the famous and controversial Milgram experiments evidenced. 65% of volunteers delivered what they thought were fatal doses of 450 volt electric shocks to human subjects while being calmly assured to continue by the experiment 'administrators' (doctors in lab coats). The other 35% of participants still delivered high voltage shocks to the point of unconsciousness but refused to administer the 'highest level' shocks. Interestingly, none of these 35% insisted that the experiment itself be terminated, nor left the room to check that the victim was O.K. without first asking for permission. So much for independent thinking. In interviews prior to the experiment respondents predicted that only the most 'sadistic' 1.2% of participants would be willing to hurt another participant with electric shocks, yet 100% of the participants DID administer the shocks. The power of authority figures is indeed strong.

To be honest, when preparing this post, I read and reread CERAs analyses and interviews – the recency effect combined with the utter confident tone they were written in made me (again) question that maybe I have this all wrong – that we have smooth sailing until 2030. But, after some malted milk balls and a quick review of my colleagues work, which at a minimum shows CERA does not incorporate net energy, understand Hubbert Linearization or include environmental externalities, Peak Oil again had me very worried.

** Some interesting trivia about the history of religion and science. In 1992 a Papal commission of the Roman Catholic church acknowledged it's error from 1633 when it sentenced Galileo to life imprisonment (commuted in house arrest) for his belief in heliocentricity (that the earth revolves around the sun).


Risk aversion is a financial and psychological concept that posits consumers (people) prefer a certain but possibly lower payoff than an uncertain but possibly higher payoff. With respect to Peak Oil, there is such a societal Sunk Cost that even if the average person or politician is on board with the understanding of fossil fuel depletion, the risk of stepping outside the warm cocoon of modern grid-connected energy intensive society can be emotionally daunting. Too, there aren't too many blazed paths as of yet illustrating exactly what one person or family can and should do to adapt. Our society is SO dependent on oil that most alternatives are too risky for the average family to pursue. Or at least that may be the perception.


"When you get up in the morning, you do not think about triangles and squares and these similes that psychologists have been using for the past 100 years. You think about status. You think about where you are in relation to your peers." - Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga

My Dad is stronger than your Dad. And Peak Oil is not a 'theory' buddy

Moving up the mating ladder contributed to our ancestors reproductive success - those near the bottom of the ladder are not our ancestors. The advent of language in tribal living expanded the scope of reputation and its influence on mating competition. An individuals comments, actions and opinions thus contributed to increasing or decreasing his status within the tribe. One could argue that a good part of human communication is concerned with getting other people to think, behave and believe as we do. At the same time, those others are trying to get us to behave and believe like they do – it’s the culmination of our biological and political (social) heritage.

This concept has many demand side implications for Peak Oil not the least of which will be some variant of resource grab when per capita liquid fuel availability declines. But it also plays a large role in peoples differing and sometime entrenched viewpoints on the topic of Peak Oil, irrespective of their future actions. My friend Thomas has a career in finance - his income is dependent on his clients buying stocks, which are in turn dependent on the economy growing. He has 3 children and a huge house full of gadgets and requires alot of fuel to continue his planned trajectory (though he admits he could be happier on much less). A Peak Oil world as I've painted it could be perceived as a threat to him, his family and his lifestyle. For him to accept my worldview is in some ways admitting that his own life is built around the wrong premises. Similarly, if our current Disneyland culture continues to extract resources and environmental costs and the day of reckoning comes well beyond my lifetime, perhaps I have wasted some of my time on this planet unnecessarily calling attention to what I view as urgent risks associated with net energy decline and human social traps.

Oh, How sweet it is to hear ones own convictions from another's lips. - Goethe (1749-1832)

For what a man would rather were true, he more readily believes. Francis Bacon 1618

Some who are very vocal about the urgency of Peak Oil will take a 'perceived fitness hit' if information comes to light that delays or moderates the impact of a peak and decline in world oil supply. Similarly, those who think we have plenty of oil production and flow capacity for the next 20-30 years will look foolish (e.g damage their reputation leading to a 'perceived' drop in fitness status), if it turns out we never see 90 million bpd and have 5% annual depletion rates beginning in a few years. In truth, for many the facts are mostly irrelevant - their belief systems are relatively immutable and new facts coming to light that support their convictions are viewed as 'victories' even if they add pain to the world as a whole. Similarly, new facts contrary to their beliefs are perceived as 'failures' and are responded to defensively. Curiously, it puts certain people, myself included, in a position of cognitive dissonance - I sincerely hope society manages to amass an armory of silver BBs and reduces consumption enough so that Peak Oil is a seamless transition to a sustainable future, but if that happens, most everything Ive written about in the past few years will have been incorrect. (But maybe I impacted the experiment...;)

Those readers who've participated in these forums for some time now are especially aware that certain people seem to be 'rooting' for peak oil and an end to the current capitalist consumptive system. I believe at least part of this is even though post peak oil they will have less 'absolute fitness', their 'relative fitness', compared to Joe-Mortgage-Trader-Millionaire-Next-Door, will increase. In the end, we are wired to respond to relative fitness.


"Deceit is the Cinderella of human nature; essential to our humanity but disowned by its perpetrators at every turn. It is normal, natural, and pervasive. It is not, as popular opinion would have it, reducible to mental illness or moral failure. Human society is a network of lies and deceptions that would collapse under the weight of too much honesty." (p 2, Why We Lie - The Evolutionary Roots of Self-Deception and the Unconscious Mind, David Livingstone Smith)

Part of being convincing to others is being convincing to oneself. Humans are refined 'cheaters' and 'cheater-detectors'. We notice pupil dilation, sweating, increased pulse, galvanized skin response, eye movement, flared nostrils etc. all as signs of stress/dishonesty. (There are now even professional emotional screeners at airports to look for such signs). Deception is a fundamental aspect of communication in nature, both between and within species. From alarm calls to mimicry, animals use deception to further their survival. Those who are better able to perceive deception are more likely to survive. It is theorized that self-deception evolved in a social species in order to better mask our deception from those who perceive it well, as evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers puts it: "Hiding the truth from yourself to hide more it deeply from others."

Lest I deceive myself, the concept of self-deception requires its own post, or series therein. The implications even if this theory is partially true, are large.


People vocal about the risks of Peak Oil are often viewed as pessimists, though I suppose they prefer the word 'realists'. We are taught from an early age to 'look at the bright side' and 'every cloud has a silver lining'. Humans do in fact have a penchant for optimism, and this sets up for an immediate bout of cognitive dissonance when discussions of peak oil nasties are undertaken.

Individuals have a tendency to be overly optimistic, and therefore naturally discount 'pessimistic' viewpoints and worldviews. Adults are particularly vulnerable to self-deception when comparing their own intelligence and attractiveness to others.(5) Research has shown that we systematically exaggerate our chances of success, believing that we are more competent and more in control than we really are. 88% of people think they are better drivers than average. 94% of professors believe they are better at their jobs than the average professor, etc. (By definition, almost half of those surveyed are 'overly optimistic'.)

There are good neural explanations for being optimistic. Even if the pessimistic view may be the more accurate, the stress of incorporating the particular negativity into ones worldview releases a cascade of stress-activated hormones that can seriously compromise a persons health.(6) In addition, pessimism can lead to depression, which suppresses the normal functioning of important neurotransmitters such as serotonin, which in turn can lead to reduced physical activity, mood swings, and a number of other physical symptoms and diseases. Optimistic attitudes also reduce secretion of cortisol, a stress hormone that inhibits the immune system, as well as produce more helper T-cells (4). The placebo effect is a well known but little understood medical phenomenon that improves patients physical response with no actual medication. In depression patients, placebos increase wellbeing by an average of 30-50%. Apparently, when we 'think' positively that something is helping us medically - even if its a sugar pill, it 'works'. We are now seeing that the brain is helping this healing to occur through a different neurotransmitter mix.

"Peak Oil - Glass Half Full or Half-Empty?"

An optimistic outlook actually is neurochemically self-fulfilling. Optimism leads to increased frontal cortical activity which itself is a strong predictor of idea generation, positive emotion and overall liveliness of thought. Similarly, sadness is marked by decreased activity in the frontal cortex, which has the negative side affect of reducing the number of overall thoughts and ideas produced. Cognitive neuroscientist Antonio Damasio points out that our brain exaggerates reality - when the glass is half full - the brain adds a little more for zest - when the glass is half empty, the brain subtracts some and things seem worse than they really are.

Being introduced to peak oil can be quite a shock. Its tough to be cheerful about the facts and implications about oil depletion, though ultimately we definitely could (and should) be happier with less energy. But initiation to the concept of upcoming shrinkage of the lifeblood of society can easily cause internal conflict in a species obviously wired to gravitate towards optimism.


We originated in tribal settings where consensus was important. Consensus building and group projects are taught and experienced in our culture from an early age - though in an era facing true scientific problems, the warm fuzzy group decisions can backfire. One famous example of 'Groupthink' was the Bay of Pigs invasion, where President Kennedys key advisors had serious misgivings about the strategy, but in group strategy sessions refused to speak up for fear of disrupting the seemingly overwhelming consensus. The invasion went so badly that the President specifically ordered his staff to speak up and offer dissenting opinions in future discussions, an order that may have averted a war during the Cuban missile crisis. As most media is quick to dismiss Peak Oil, our nation could use another such warning against 'groupthink'.

"Monkey-see-activate mirror neuron Monkey-do"

There is comfort in the herd. The recent discovery of mirror neurons helps explain why our brains are prone to absorb the beliefs and behaviours of others. Neurobiologically, when we see someone performing an action, whether it is a yawn, a smile or eating an ice cream cone, unique parts of our brains respond in the same way as if we were performing the action ourselves.(4)

Homo Sapiens See - Homo Sapiens Do.

Interestingly, USC neuroscientists (Arbib and Rizzolatti) are suggesting that the origin of language began as facial expressions and hand gestures - these communication tools, along with actual speech, are regulated by Brocas area, a small knob found in the left hemisphere of the cortex. As we will see below this has important implications.


Knowledge is a disposition to behave that is constantly subject to corrective modification and updating by experience, while belief is a disposition to behave that is resistant to correction by experience. Eichenbaum, Howard – Boston University (5)

The previous nine points were tenderizer for the meat of the article to follow. If you've read this far you're either unemployed, retired, a psychologist, a blood relative, my girlfriend or someone on the edge of a paradigm shift. Thank you in any case.

The difficult transition to a lower energy gain society by definition has a 'best path'. Also by definition we won't ever know what that path is, or at least until well into the future. How we collectively assimilate beliefs, attitudes, science and policy will be the key determinant in how we sink or swim with the Peak Oil tide. Unfortunately, we have baggage.

So far we've looked at our propensity to believe in authority, optimism, recent events, group behaviour, etc. Taken together, these leanings might suggest that we have some sort of pre-packaged neural software for abstract systems of 'belief'. In truth, we actually have no choice BUT to believe. From the moment of birth we depend on others to instruct us about the world. While young, we are given a specific language, a specific religion, a smattering of science and history and all the while we implicitly assume we are learning facts about the world. But we are not. We are simply being told what to believe. Though this is of course practical, it has resulted in 6.5 billion different (but overlapping) belief systems, somewhat modifiable as we grow up but increasingly less malleable as we get older.

What is a belief?

As defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘belief’ is:

1. A feeling that something exists or is true, especially one without proof.
2. A firmly held opinion
3. Trust or confidence in.
4. Religious faith.

The English word 'belief' originated in the twelfth century, as an adaptation of the German word gilouben, which means 'to love' or 'to hold dear'. It was first used in association with religious doctrines referring to one's trust and faith in God - faith rather than fact being the operative word, as this particular type of belief cannot be tested by the rigorous proofs developed by science.

What is the Scientific Method?

a. Observe some aspect of the universe.
b. Invent a theory that is consistent with what you have observed.
c. Use the theory to make predictions.
d. Test (attempt to falsify) those predictions by experiments or further observations.
e. Modify the theory in the light of your results.
f. loop back to "c" above for another test. (8)

Famed scientist Richard Feynman offers an excellent description of 'good science' vs. 'cargo cult science' here.

At the cottage where I write this, there is the unmistakable sound of sandhill cranes calling for mates - when I first heard it I had no idea what it was. The fourth time I heard it I was with my father who identified it as a mating pair of sandhill cranes. The 10th time I heard it I witnessed the actual cranes by a pond. Mentally, my brain created a hypothesis and eventually ‘tested’ it to be 'true'. A certain sound represents sand hill cranes mating. Our ancestors discovered all they needed to know about the natural world in a process something like this one.

However, many stimuli in our society are much less clear cut. If I see a blue BMW sedan with an attractive blonde in the passenger side 2 or 3 times in a week, my mind will naturally extrapolate the 'ownership of a blue BMW' as a signal of successful male competition, when there could be myriad other explanations for the womans presence (the mans personality, his looks, his intelligence, his sister etc) The fact that he owned that particular car could have been completely random - yet my brain observed this pattern and extrapolated it forward.

"An early hominid couple, forming beliefs.."

During the 2 million+ years of hominid brain growth and development, the environment was roughly constant – in most cases for at least for thousands of years at a time. Here we developed ‘pattern-recognition’ systems of beliefs, the precursors of what economists today call ‘correlation’. The human brain was exquisitely designed to favor correlation over causation. We did not evolve mechanisms to follow regimens like the scientific method because our species would have been systematically snuffed out by predators on the african savannah and a different species might be facing oil depletion. Our neural architecture was being built to adhere to correlations we observed in everyday life, because in these stable environmental timeframes, most correlations DID lead to causations. The periods of largest brain size increase in hominids were probably when some tribal leaders got good at noticing patterns and successfully made tools, or repeated routines that added fitness - these genes and thought processes then multiplied.

"The human mind evolved to believe in gods... Acceptance of the supernatural conveyed a great advantage throughout prehistory, when the brain was evolving. Thus it is in sharp contrast to [science] which was developed as a product of the modern age and is not underwritten by genetic algorithms." The Biological Basis of Morality, E.O. Wilson

Our stimuli laden modern world presents us with millions of small sample size events that offer our built-in pattern recognition systems plenty of fodder for creating 'beliefs' in situations where the scientific method never comes into play. Our pattern recognition system is essentially misfiring in a world of too many patterns – “NFC wins Superbowl and stock market goes up" (I had clients investing on that one) – “I can’t date guys who are Virgos” – ‘Walk under a ladder with a black cat and get really bad luck’ –‘Your second Chakra looks a little weak today’ ‘The market will solve it’ etc. We unknowingly conflate correlation with causation, a danger that is learned to be avoided early on in the career of a scientist. And overriding it all is the theme of relative fitness where we attempt to justify, through social persuasion, that our 'patterns' are the correct ones. The upshot of this tendency is that charisma, rhetoric, advocacy, and politics can all too easily trump the scientific method, just when our species will need it most to tackle climate change and the attempted transition to renewables. (Note: Scientists are humans too, and are not immune to these neural processes – clearly when they write and publish they are accessing the rational neocortex gray matter and take their time to get facts and figures right – but in everyday communication – once emotion gets involved, the built-in genetic priorities fall back on belief systems.)

Our individual constructs of reality are based on beliefs - some beliefs are changed by new information, reflection, and analysis - others are virtually immutable. (Though my friend Thomas has a decent 'factual' understanding of Peak Oil - he may never incorporate it in the larger sense into his belief system.) From recent results of research into brain injury along with those from experiments on animals, we have begun to chart the neural processes active in distinguishing emotions, fantasies and facts. With fMRI and PET scans we can watch as a priest prays or a monk meditates or even when a person encounters new information that is discrepant with a prior held belief. On brain scans, meditative and transcendent states are in many ways similar to when a person experiences pleasures from sex, music or a good meal.(4) The very concept of the peaking and subsequent decline of oil - a vital resource to our lives that may become less and less available is a very difficult one to understand let alone accept. The 'knowledge' we obtain from scientific research on energy largely depends on how our brains interpret the evidence. These interpretations are subject to the same rules that govern our perceptions of reality - they are replete with generalizations, assumptions, misunderstandings and mistakes. By the time newly acquired knowledge reaches consciousness, each of us transforms it into something that fits with our own unique worldview. This process of reconstructing reality is the foundation from which we build all of our beliefs about our world.(4)

But sometimes, reality is not reality, even to ourselves.

Our time bomb is mysticism. It's delivery system is language. And it's hiding place? The unfathomable coils of our DNA. Reg Morrison The Spirit in the Gene(9)

And finally we come to what (for me) is the most fascinating piece of the human neural puzzle. In the discount rate post last month, I pointed out that we have developed a ‘triune brain’, with the 3 layers representing the 3 main periods of our organismal development (reptilian, mammalian, neocortex regions largely corresponding to primitive, emotional and rational thought). However, the neocortex itself is split into two hemispheres, the left and right, separated by a thin straplike connector called the corpus callosum. Neurobiologist Roger Sperry states that patients who have the corpus callosum removed (split-brain patients) behave as if they have ‘two separate minds, two separate spheres of consciousness…in regards to cognition, volition, learning and memory.’

Only our left brain hemisphere has a ‘voice’ for communicating with others – emanating from 'Brocas area’, the speech control center of our brains. Any findings and opinions analyzed by the perceptive and intuitive right hemisphere must first travel through the left hemisphere before leaving our mouths as communication. If you’ve been following along, you might see how this might relate to Peak oil or climate change.

There are fascinating experiments done on split brain patients - one of note was a brain experiment by Michael Gazzaniga at Dartmouth, a patient with his corpus callosum removed, was shown two large pictures – in front of the left eye – some snow – in front of the right eye, a picture of a bird’s foot. Beneath each image were a series of smaller images, only one of which was related to the image above. When asked to point to the picture below that was linked to the birds foot, the right hand (left brain) correctly pointed to an image of a chicken. Similarly, the left hand (right brain) correctly chose an image of a shovel to relate to the larger snow image. When asked to explain the decisions, the verbally controlling left hemisphere offered the obvious explanation linking its own choice of a chicken to a bird’s foot. HOWEVER, when asked why the left hand (right brain) had chosen the shovel (for the snow scene), the left brain replied that the shovel had been selected for cleaning out the chicken shed! Though our brains are not privy to their own internal workings, the left brain should have admitted it did not know why the right brain chose the shovel because it had never seen the snow scene –but instead it fabricated an answer to fit its own part of the story.(10)

Though most of us fortunately still have our corpus calllosums intact, new research is suggestive that the socially conforming and editing power of our left brains is powerful when dealing with pre-existing or strongly held beliefs, such as 'we have plenty of oil', or 'the market will find a solution'. Thus, in addition to being marketed during the waking hours by Madison Avenue, we are being marketed '24-7', by ourselves.

Reg Morrison succinctly concludes the following:

“It seems our loquacious left brain cannot abide a vacuum. As it ghostwrites our right-brain narrative, it obsessively fills in any gaps and injects snippets of its own propaganda wherever it can. Here then is the source of the so called ‘false-memory syndrome’, and no doubt the origin of most of our mystic visions and spiritual fantasies...By endowing the human brain with its language facility, evolution has ensured that human genes will continue to bypass the cerebral cortex at will, disguising fact with significance and imagination into perceived fact” Reg Morrison – The Spirit In The Gene(9)


As humans, we have tendencies towards certain behaviours that increasingly can be scientifically measured. While the neurosciences are still expanding and are now asking more questions than they have answered, it is clear that our minds are not entirely rational, or at least not rational all the time. Thus providing us with 'facts' does not automatically guarantee we will use them to solve problems. Competing voices, both from within and without, can easily morph those facts into something different than the pure scientific form they originated in.

Our modern education system, from which arises the standard for our culture and the education of our children, is anchored by an archaic and incorrect premise: that knowledge can come from the human mind based on assertions that require no proof or verification. The origins of this error go back to ancient philosophers who were quite likely geniuses but did not have access to the real scientific data and physical methodologies available to us today. Many modern philosophers and social scientists still adhere to the fallacy that knowledge comes from thought. New evidence from the cognitive neurosciences is demonstrating that pure thought cannot spontaneously come from a brain designed for correlation, emotion and relative fitness. Special steps need to be taken to teach, understand and adhere to the scientific method, which in turn builds knowledge.

In the calm before the storm, we need to take stock in what our assets and liabilities really are. We have energy assets and liabilities and we have mental ones as well. As energy events conspire, and the average person becomes more stressed, we may distance ourselves even further from the rational aspects of our collective behaviour. Plans should be made ahead of time to address local, regional and national energy (and environmental) problems with hope but careful skepticism, for its unlikely we will get too many second chances. Robert Rapier and I share some viewpoints and disagree on others, but one thing I have always respected about him is his immediate skepticism of high claims. Whether he is an expert on a topic or a novice, he approaches a problem from a scientific, provable, verifiable foundation. If more of our countries civic leaders followed the scientific principles of 1)observe something in nature 2) make a hypothesis 3) test the hypothesis using physical methods and 4)repeat until statistically satisfied, we would find ourselves better served and better prepared for an era of energy declines. We must marry facts about geology and the environment with facts about our neural tendencies. And recognize there will likely always large error bands.


1) Peak Oil is a geologic fact. Global warming involves atmospheric climate science, ocean science, etc. But the words that define them both also represent belief systems. Certain people will 'believe' they are real and others will not, largely irrespective of what future facts come to light.

2) Facts are important and we need to continue to analyze and accumulate them about the natural world. But knowing how our brain will respond to these facts is equally important.

3) Homo Sapiens has been the most successful species on the planet. On a planet now full of humans, our neural tendencies to look for magic solutions will be a blindspot that needs to be acknowledged. Seeking causative forces through scientific methods as opposed to offering correlation as proof is one important step.

4) The stigma of determinism and fear of sociobiology needs to be discarded. The answers to the large scale human problems cannot be solved by facts and science of the outside world alone - we need to incorporate facts about who we are into the equation. The nature and nurture debate has raged for too long without meaningful synergy - there is no nurture without nature. But nurture is how we are going to get through this energy bottleneck.

5) The mere recognition of our tendencies to react positively to authority figures, optimism, recent information, etc, gives our brain a neutralizing agent against these real human phenomena.

6)The motion picture "Homo Sapiens Sapiens" could be nearing a climax. Lets collectively write a happy ending.

References and Further Reading

(1) Shiv and Fedorikhin, "Heart and Mind in Conflict: Interplay of Affect and Cognition in Human Decision-making", Journal of Consumer Research, Vol 26 1999

(2) "Intertemporal Choice" (pdf) Chablis et Al, The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics 2007 (to be published)

(3) Dawkins, R. The God Delusion 2006

(4) Newberg, Andrew, Why We Believe What We Believe Free Press, 2007

(5) Gilovich, T. How We Know What Isn't So - The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life 1991 Free Press

(6) Sapolsky, Robert Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers

(7) Eichenbaum, H. “Belief and Knowledge as Forms of Memory in Schacter and Scarry (eds) Memory, Brain and Belief Harvard University Press 2000

(8) Jay Hansons easy to understand laymans description of the scientific method.

(9) Morrison, Reg The Spirit in the Gene

(10) Gazzaniga, Michael The Minds Past

(11) The Biology of Belief - How our Biology Biases our Beliefs and Perceptions

(12) Steadman, Lyle, Supernatural Natural Selection - Religion and Evolutionary Success. (After reading this book, I now doubt an outside observer can ever know with scientific certainty what someone else's belief is, which upsets the apple cart of behavioral scientists who do research on people based on their self-reporting of beliefs).

(13) Livingstone Smith, David Why We Lie - The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind

Further Reading:
Cosmides and Tooby, The Adapted Mind
Taleb, Nissem, Fooled By Randomness (Thanks to Kurt Cobb who gifted me this book)
Pinker, Steven, How the Mind Works
Pinker, Steven, The Blank Slate
Konner, Melvin, The Tangled Wing
Boyer, Pascal, Religion Explained
Cialdini, Bob, Influence

EPILOGUE 12/10/2009

Last night I watched the movie 'Serendipity' (John Cusack, Kate Beckinsdale) with my best friend and their 11 year old daughter. The movie was a romance about fate, and how certain serendipitous events continued to occur over time to bring a man and woman together. My friend, a scientist, hated the movie, but her daughter loved it. They actually got in a big fight about it. The daughter claimed that it COULD happen that way, and the scientist claiming it would be akin to winning Powerball. I was stuck by how natural it was for the child to believe in portents, signs, and myths, without any training one way or the other.

Among other things, our brains are neural networks that locate patterns in large volumes of imprecise information - such pattern recognition takes place without conscious awareness. The human mind did not evolve to deal with things that change imperceptibly during a lifetime or that we cannot see or sense. It did not evolve to perform statistical calculations and model runs that include %s and other mathematical concepts of the last few centuries. We can do these things, but it requires immense discipline in a structured non-threatening environment. Given the nature of the biology of belief, it seems likely that myth is going to play a large role in our future. I am as yet unclear whether that is a constraint, an opportunity, or both.

P.s. The days of 8,000+ word essays on TOD are probably gone. Today I'm lucky to get about 1,000, with pictures...

Hi Nate,
I gave a peak oil talk over here in Malmo, Sweden yesterday and used this prediction on one of my slides: "Space travel is bunk." Sir Harold Spencer Jones, Astronomer Royal of Britain, 1957, two weeks before the launch of Sputnik. But then again, maybe Sir Harold got his next prediction right.

You continue to amaze me with your writing and thinking. I have mentally put together my Dream Team peak oil speakers and you are at the top of the list.

Hi Debbie,
as you live next to Hopenhagen, how about crossing the Bridge and give the same talk to the folks at the Climate Conference? Maybe it will chear up the crowd a bit.

Funny thing about that. Even when people get it, they don't tend to change their behavior. I think it is a bit like ignoring your doctor's advice about your weight and cholesterol. Nevertheless, it's certainly been an interesting trip. The Swedes are doing lots of great things over here. Just before leaving the conference one man asked if I had heard about "district cooling." While I had heard about district heating, I had never thought of the same concept being used to cool buildings. But here in Sweden, where the summers can't get that warm, they use the cool water from the sea to cool their buildings. That's something I will certainly have to learn more about when I return to Huntington Beach.

Changing one's behavior within the context of this topic would require (a) a desire to live contrary to one's culture....difficult to do as a social species....and (b) an interest in living healthily, which is not as much of a given as you might think. This is where the psychology of low self esteem and sociology intersect. Among others, the german author Arno Gruen writes much about this phenomenon.

And yes, from my interation with Swedish ag researchers, they are far ahead of others in many social respects. A great country for "compare and contrast" exercises vis-a-vis other industrialized populations.

Thanks again Nate.
I "believe" myths will be a liability, and will solidify as the world continues to get more groundless and frightening.

Speaking of groundless and frightening. What about Emperor Obama and the Nobel Prize?!

Do you honestly find Obama more frightening than Bush?

Both of them scare ME.

Of course, they are both emperors, and we shouldn't expect an emperor to serve much of any other interest than empire. What really disgusted me was the press fawning over his speech as "realistic." If it were truly realistic, he would have laid out that the US turned its back on true efforts at living within its means when it spurned Carter's speech on frugality, and the election of Reagan pretty much sealed the deal. We are not turning back, so we will be fighting resource and other wars all over the world forever. The "just war" jargon was total BS, in my book, though the man himself may have believed it.

On the other hand, Obama seems much less likely to foment massive hate and distrust toward the US among allies as well as enemies.

If Obama told the American people the truth, he'd lose another forty points in his polling. Of course, he'd still have his "base" of prescribers of his behavior.

We didn't elect him to do our single bidding, but to solve the problems we, as voters, allowed to happen for the last 200+ years.

When will I hear someone of Nate's perspicuity actually take on the possibility that democracy doesn't work for spoiled children?

On this same subject, does the voting Mob scare you?

Do you think Obama can turn the Mob from its lemming course?

Are you waiting for the Man on the White Horse?

Every time I read the latest version of this post, I am reminded of "On Intelligence," a book written by Jeff Hawkins about how the neo-cortex operates. I recommend it unreservedly, and it is highly relevant to the ideas presented in this post.

This essay is a lot to get through, and it makes me believe you are one of perhaps 1% of the world's people who are truly rational. My brother-in-law, a retired glaciologist, is like that, though he has no time whatever for sociobiology-- he is more of a technocrat. I personally think your approach is largely correct, but I have also come to accept my own irrelevance, so perhaps that isn't really a compliment. My children are bright and successful, but they don't think this way -- in fact, I can't really understand how, or even if they think! So, if you are correct, does it matter? That isn't how Congress works, and much as I hate it, Congress really defines a huge part of my personal reality.

People simply don't behave rationally. The rational function in our brains seems to be there to concoct stories and to justify what we have already decided to do in the "reptilian" part of our brain. Life moves too fast to be able to research every decision. In my field, there is a "new" paradigm -- called "evidence based medicine." Sounds great -- who in his/her right mind would diagnose or prescribe without proper evidential backup? In reality, however, there is "evidence" for only the most trivial of problems, and even then, decisions are often made with a good deal of skepticism about the evidence. People still want antibiotics for their cough and sore throat. Medicine proceeds -- yes, even in the 21st century -- by appeal to authority and through pattern recognition.

I believe that your section on pattern recognition is the most important part of the essay -- to be sure, people are apparently "wired" to believe authority figures, but in day to day decisions the authority figure is not likely to be immediately present, so a decision has to be made on one's own. In that case, the decision will be made by the "best apparent fit" -- and if there is a lot of time for a decision, there will be dithering (called research), and if not, there will be a quick, gut level decision. Either way, if one survives the decision, then the "rational" function takes over and constructs a story about how that was the correct decision.

Going into the future is sort of like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. A lot of the pieces look like they might fit together -- but they don't. Some people get annoyed, and just stuff pieces in, thereby ruining the puzzle, and then they quit. Others methodically keep working. Global warming and Peak Oil are two rather large, awkwardly shaped pieces of the future puzzle, and it isn't really clear where or how they fit. Since we don't really even have the edges and corners of the whole puzzle done, it isn't too surprising those pieces can't be accurately placed.

In any case, we may continue to attempt to place them through pattern recognition if we are of the methodical sort, but if belief in authority is our overriding personality trait, we will probably just trash the puzzle and go get in the BMW with the blonde.

This essay is a lot to get through, and it makes me believe you are one of perhaps 1% of the world's people who are truly rational.

That's an illusion. I have moments of highly rational thought/action, which you see a collection of them combined together in various posts. The other 70-80% of time when I am impulsive, irrational, superstitious, living for the moment, hoping instead of doing, etc., never make it into public space. But then again, by definition I can never know anyone else mind except my own.

That's what the science community is too. Scientists are human first, empirically minded second. Science works best when it has lots of time and open space to percolate, test, rehypothesize, retest, etc. The greatest scientific minds ever assembled would probably still be irrational during a crisis.

Personally I doubt if anything like one percent of the population is mainly under the influence of the neocortex rather than the lower brain centers.

I myself seem to be cursed or blessed , as one sees fit to describe it, with an overactive neocortex which seems to be a trait common to all the regulars here.The rest of the world rightly by definition sees us as odd, being as we are outliers from the main stream-our discount rates are not steep enough, our trust in authority figures is deficient,and so forth.

Probably this trait has survival value as a long shot bet of the type Talib talks about-the odds may be that we are too paranoid for average conditions but when conditions deviate a long way from normal we may be super fit as compared to those in the middle of the distribution.

It seems perfectly obvious to me that I would be a lot better contented if I didn't hang out on this web site, as the general contents are not conducive to being a happy sheep safe in the middle of the flock well gaurded by doctors, lawyers, soldiers, a wise benevolent govt,and scientists and engineers who will solve all our problems.

But that ole over active neocortex says that none of the sites offering comfort and good fellowship and peace of mind PASS IT'S SMELL TEST..So I guess I will stick around here despite the fact that I should know better as far as my own sanity is concerned.

If tshtf soon , my meocortex will be able to send a "told ya!"
down to the mid brain.Otherwise I will have departed on my "last long journey but one".

Nate has done an incredible job here.I wanted to shout yes, yes, yes, just about every other line as I read the post.

My long term search for personal answers to what it's all about led me to pretty much
the same authors several years ago, most particularly E.O. Wilson.

It is my belief that when history is written a century or two down the road Wilson 's Sociobiology will be ranked as one of the half dozen or so most important single books ever written in the life sciences up to this decade.

But back then I didn't have any internet access at all most of the time and only very poor access at anytime and didn't know about TOD.

I assure you, my mood picked up significantly when I got too busy to read/post regularly.

I still check in though, to keep the reality I've accepted in sight.

Guess you are right about a lot not passing YOUR SMELL TEST.
Looks like this bent of mind served you well in some contexts.
I wonder then if in our long pre-history 'we' did evolve to have 'beliefs/belief systems', or is this tendency a more recent cultural exaggeration?
It could have always been important to know the world, such as the cries of mating Sandhill Cranes (Nate's example), but just as important to react to a change in note, a sudden silence that could indicate that something unknown (possible big and furry) had altered the context. A responsive and adaptable cognitive landscape in a kaleidoscopic but joined-up world, should have had its uses?
'Stories', on the other hand, involving 'unreal' scenarios (comforting or scary) could have long been a useful way of reminding us of where the frontiers between the real and unreal might lie? I'm leaving aside the use of stories for social control in more recent history (agrarian, now industrial/agrarian). The latter have shown both advantages and disadvantages, but can lack practical relevance when contexts change - see Dimitri Orlov's ex-USSR.

29 years ago one of my worries was Nuclear Winter, and knowing that at the time the projections for the future population were grim. I was one of those people laughed at by others for recycling things, and talking about the doom we were headed for. I have been on the raft for a long time wondering when others were going to think about swimming over here and getting out of the water.

I've had several jobs where high pattern recognition was what got me the job and helped me keep it. Being able to see the big picture while only having the scattered puzzle pieces on the table, some of them face down, was a trait I have had as long as I can remember.

OFM, We'll be lucky if in a hundred years any books are left to read, If you want them saved, be sure to put them up for safe keeping. You feel the pains of knowing things that you did not see before, the shift from not knowing to knowing sometimes leads to mental and emotional hiccups and those are times when we need all the like minded people handy that we can get ahold of, so hang in there.


I'd rather not know: the psychology of climate denial

Paris (AFP) Dec 1, 2009 - If the evidence is overwhelming that man-made climate change is already upon us and set to wreak planetary havoc, why do so many people refuse to believe it? …

It is the human instinct to shut out or modify a terrifying truth: that the world as we know it is heading for a smash.

"It's a paradox: when it comes to disasters, people do not allow themselves to believe what they know," explained Jean-Pierre Dupuy, a professor of social philosophy at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris.

"It's a paradox: when it comes to disasters, people do not allow themselves to believe what they know,"

I'm not sure that this is correct. It may be:

'better the devil you know than the devil you don't'

When considering that the prescribed treatment for both climate change and peak oil is markedly less fossil fuel use, and it takes 8-10 cal of petroleum to put 1 cal on your plate, even the less sophistcated 'merikan' grasps that billions will die (soon after the decreased use). Given the alternative of billions of deaths (down the road) from climate change or continuing BAU, can you fault the normal person with the normal discount rate of future risk/benefit analysis from subconciously choosing the devil he knows (BAU) (three hots and a cot) from some potential future malady?

In your context, Nate has left out a very significant psychological distance: the caring distance.

I believe it was Adam Smith who stated that he cared more about a hangnail on his little finger than for the lives of ten thousand Chinese. (paraphrase)

It's quite posssible, and obvious to me, that American realize that when the crunch comes, American arms and belligerence and callousness, toughened in all these cruel wars, will be of great use.

American will simply commandeer, under the rubric of George H. W. Bush's "The American Standard of Living is Not Negotiable," as many resources of the world as are necessary to maintain stability of American society. Americans will not agonize nor wring their hands, as Obama was warning in his Nobel speech, if they have to fight a just war to protect themselves against the do-gooders and weepers who wish them to commit social suicide in an acknowledged impossible scenario.

I believe triage is the classic term, and America will get the first bandages and the last bandages. The left-overs will be distributed racially, to the white and the Western.

My wife says I'm not human. I maintain I'm just more in touch with how people behave under mortal stress. I've been in command of a couple good-size boats under heavy storm conditions, and I'm unimpressed by humans. They behave by implementing Nate's mechanisms in an order civilization mostly hides, and it isn't, and won't be, pretty.

Unfortunately your post misses several crucial facts:

1) As the most rapacious nation on the planet, even securing ALL the remaining resources will only allow the "non-negotiable" way of life to extend (at best) an extra few decades.

2) The recent wave of off-shoring has depleted the US of a large percentage of both manufacturing and know-how. The US cannot supply it's OWN needs alone.

3) Do you really believe that the US military can successfully annex remaining widely-distributed resources, and control the local populations to continue extracting them, when they can't even successfully control the places they are currently occupy around the globe?

The problem with the glass half full theory is: when we started drinking from the glass there was about a billion of us. Now there's almost 7 billion and growing. Do that math, no?

Optimist: The glass is half full.

Pessimist: The glass is half empty.

Engineer: Why is the glass twice as large as it needs to be?

You forgot: The glass is full. 1/2 water 1/2 air.


Richard Feynman would have pointed out the large exclusionary spaces between the electron orbitals.
It's all mostly empty space. ;-)

That reminds me of the poem I wrote over 20 years ago while drinking one night.

Some say the glass is half empty,
Some say it is half full,
I say,
Gulp, gulp,
Pour me another.

circa 1988 Charles E. Owens Jr.

I know it won't help us to go around drinking it all down hoping for someone to fill the glass back up, But we should stop worrying about which we are and deal with what we have.

7 billion people and we are still looking about for ways to keep them all, when 30 years ago people knew we were heading for trouble. We seem unable to deal with the issues at hand and pass them off on others, later on in the future. The depression sets in when you see the same pattern for 30 years, knowing that there are too few people that know what is going to happen and they can't seem to make the rest see the picture as clearly.

Now where did I hide the scotch?


Nate, thanks for posting an update to this. Exceptional work and very insightful, I think.

We are, oftentimes, our own worst enemies. Knowledge, education, and broad experience with people and ideas that might be counter to our belief systems are very important. The primacy of the scientific method is correct, I think.

I've harangued, recently, about the need for more public discourse on our global/societal problems. Yet, your essay seems to point out the many insurmountable problems in doing so.

On the one hand, I am reminded about our inclinations as a species, which need to be kept in mind at all times. On the other, I feel more pessimistic about our ability to change.

The problems do indeed seem to be insurmountable, and the scariest thig about the whole issue of possibly doing something truly meaninful in terms of remediation is not that only a very few well educated or overly inquisitive TOD types even realize the scope of the problem.

Maybe there are a hundred million lay people well enough educated in the basic sciences to actually understand the OBJECTIVE overshoot problem and give it some wieght in thier day to day actions or at least thier thoughts.

Maybe there are a hundred thousand scientists who have put some time into studying the OBJECTIVE problem and half that many who have done relevant research.

Maybe ten thousand bueracrats in the employ of various govts and ngo's around the world understand the OBJECTIVE problem and ae playing the bueracratic game as honestly as they can trying to do something about it.

The really scary aspect of the general problem is that only a very small fraction of any of these groups of people seem to clearly grasp the SUBJECTIVE aspect of the problem.They do have some layman's understanding of the issues of human nature of course but my guess is that the vast majority of the climatologists for instance know next to nothing about sociobiology and the real nature of the human mind.

I have spent an enormous amount of time, most of my time actually , for many years reading whatever came to hand,pursueing any topic I found to be of great interest.I think I may safely say that ninety five oercent of all environmental remediation proposals I have ever read about are unworkable in practice because they do not correctly account for the cultural/biological factors Nate writes about.

Greenish (and maybe a couple of others )is the only environmental activist who posts here out of all the regulars who seems to understand the true nature of our collective minds.A couple of days ago his remark about enthusiastic but undisciplined allies gumming up the works of sustainability projects brought this home to me once again.

I suppose that my problem is that while I understand the overshoot issues I am still in a state of bargaining and denial and hoping for some sort of reprieve, whereas the more seasoned sort such as Airdale and Darwinian have moved past that point and squarely faced up to the very high likelihood of a very hard crash.

I hereby resolve to read some good cornucopian literature over the next few days and cheer myself up.

This is why I think you are right about the need for a sustainability pearl harbour - someone needs to sink a supertanker in the strait of Hormuz, give its hull a slow leak and light the oil slick on fire. I have read that such an attack would shut the strait down for at least a month because if the flow rate of oil from the tanker was right, there would be no putting out the fire.

It seems to me like BAU will not stop suddenly without nuclear war, just more and more people will be priced out of BAU until we are living in a different world. I hope to get my mechanical engineering degree before then; I'm not really sure why I'm bothering with it anymore though. TOD truly is harmful to your short-term health.

I have nowhere to bug out to and no means of surviving TSHTF. At least when things start to go downhill faster, I won't have as much expectation-adjusting to do as everyone else. I am sort of following Orlov's advice for people my age; although school and TOD leave little time for anything else I am trying to learn some skills that will be useful in the future.

You must be at least as smart as the averagebear to make it in engineering school.If you are also young and reasonably physically capable you will have no problem finding a place to light where your knowledge and skills will be appreciated if you pick up a few of the right physical skills to go with your skull work skills.

For example, I have in mind include not only knowing how a generator works but also how to assemble and disassemble it without damaging it-this resides as much in the hands and skillfull use of the tools as it does in the head.A mucician knows how to touch a piano key or guitar string just right to produce music.

A mechanic knows how to tap on a stuck component just right to free it without breaking it.You gain this skill by practice and by breaking things when you screw up.It can't be taught in the sense that math can be taught.

Learn how to drive a tractor , drive nails, cut firewood, hoe a garden, handle chemicals,cook, preserve food and above all to inspire a sense of loyalty and family in those you work with.

Any one who can do these things as well as make folks laugh occasionally will find a good spot.

If you need an ace in the hole you can tutor your new family's children or run a one room school for your food and firewood.


cargo science Dick F link not working for me


You don't have permission to access /~loreti/science.html on this server.

Me too -- I get the same message when I try to access the link.


On the Magical and the mystical, it has been my observation that most of the organizations supposedly discussing and addressing the "big 3" constraints facing mankind are practicing their own kind of superstition. The parallels to religion are, to me, frightening. Most who attend these meetings are simply looking for some feel good absolution so they may continue on with BAU until the next meeting. Some make an additional act of contrition like putting the empties in recycle or some sillieness.

All are operating under the pretext of some future scenario that they have latched on to. A fantasy future that has only a tiny percent of probability in coming true. An example would be the most common belief that we will reach a point of collapse where we can then jump in and initiate the change we believe in. This is delusional.

I understand that there is a degree of utility in all of this but unless we understand that that is all this is, and ramp up the discussion to include instigating and controlling collapse to what ever degree possible... well, I would say that the vast majority of us understand that the very worst will most likely happen which will make certain that the opportunity to initiate the change we all have worked so hard for will never happen.

Even the author of Shock Doctrine her self is calling for more radical activisum;

I think its time to get more aggressive and stop the madness.


While the postings are young here, I would like to propose a new concept:


I haven't the time to flesh it out now. The basic idea is that the notion of AGW grates against other models held in the human brain and this gives rise to anxious and uneasy feelings that one might refer to as

I recommend "Mistakes Were Made, But Not by Me-Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts". It is written by two psychologists and the main theme is how prevalent cognitive dissonance is in our current society - they fall short of claiming that our economic system/beliefs is also subject to cognitive dissonant thinking, but the insinuation is there. LOTS of interesting examples.

FWIW I think steep discount rates and addiction to stimulation/novelty are a better descriptor of climate/environmental apathy than cognitive dissonance - the climate nasties that are predicted are just too far away -discounted back to today they are almost fantasies to most people.


With due respect, we are not 80% irrational. We are all 99.9% irrational.
Cognitive dissonance and constant lying to ourselves is an unavoidable consequence of how our brain organs are put together by evolution.

Let me give you a quick and nasty example from your own life experience.

Upthread you posted about your (ex?)-friend retorting:

T: ... No one knows the future - including you Nate.

A rational person --even one who is only 10% rational-- would have quickly replied: You are wrong Mr. T. I can predict the future with absolute certainty. Are you ready? Here it is: I'm going to die and you are going to die.

OK. I warned you it was going to be a nasty example.

But we can't act like that in "polite" company. Why? Because our well being and the well being of our society is based on constantly lying to ourselves and to each other. Once again, think about what those people living directly under the dam are saying as a repeat lie to themselves: the dam will never break, the dam will never break, I am a rational creature, I am a rational creature.

And before you think I'm going high and mighty on you, guess what? I live in California. What lies do you think I repeat to myself every day? Yup. The big earthquake will never come, the big one will never come, I am a rational creature, I am a rational creature, I am that I am ... a pop-eyed irrational man.

A rational person --even one who is only 10% rational-- would have quickly replied: You are wrong Mr. T. I can predict the future with absolute certainty. Are you ready? Here it is: I'm going to die and you are going to die.

Come on, you know what he (Mr. T) meant. Nobody knows the future in the sense nobody knows exactly when peak oil will occur and how the society will adjust.

Remember, just 18 months ago, most people here were convinced that the worst predictions about peak oil were coming true. Oil was soon going to cost hundreds of dollars per barrel, we were going to have shortages & rationing, trucks may not bring food to the supermarket, etc. etc. Instead 18 months later we have $70 oil and the price is falling. Also, most people here did not predict the production of shale natural gas and the consequent collapse in price.

Maybe Mr. T is more rational than Nate. After all what does Nate want him to do? Quit his well paid job on Wall Street and buy a farm in rural Arkansas? Maybe if Mr. T keeps his job for as long as he can and saves some money, he is more likely to survive in the post peak world than a peak oiler who has all the facts on his side but very little money.

[Oh] Come on, you know what he (Mr. T) meant.

Yes I do.
He meant to inject a dose of Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt and Elmer (FUD) in to Nate.

It worked like a charm.

It sounds like sound logic to argue that none of us can "predict" the future.

Actually predicting the future is what all of us do.

There are many many contexts in which we predict the future with close to 100% accuracy.

More Examples:

2) The sun will rise tomorrow

3) You will take a breath within the next 5 minutes

4) You will urinate within the next 24 hours (if I'm wrong sue me)

5) You will fall asleep within the next 72 hours

6) When the light turns green, the cars behind the red light will go

7) It will not be possible to forever increase our production rate (actually extraction rate) of oil and very soon now, if it hasn't already happened, we will look back and say that was the global peak

Another FUD episode: Dog & Cat Can't Spell:

7) It will not be possible to forever increase our production rate (actually extraction rate) of oil and very soon now, if it hasn't already happened, we will look back and say that was the global peak

No doubt this statement is true. But what is not known is how the society will adapt or respond. Are we going to be a poorer, more austere society but with BAU? In 20 years is the first world going to look like BRIC countries with pockets of affluence and modernity surrounded by poverty? Are the BRIC countries going to look like Somalia? If so, over what time frame? How is an individual to respond? Should he buy a farm in a rural area and try to become self sufficient? Should he pay off his debts and try to accumulate as much money as he can before TSHTF? Should he invest in stocks of commodity producers or buy gold? Or is he better off with money in bank accounts? Should he invest in US $ since the US still has a lot of natural resources and has the military might to take oil by force or should he invest in commodity currencies like C$ and A$?

So you see, nobody knows the future. If you are happy with your life (looks like Mr. T is satisfied with his) you are better off staying put, paying off your debts and saving as much as you can. I don't see Mr. T as irrational at all. On the contrary it would be irrational to insist that he should make drastic changes when there are so many unknowns.

And where do ppl who have issues with:
1) The carbon traders being the same groups that brought you Enron energy trading or the CDO?
2) Reports that the carbon trading efforts have only 30% of the funds being spent on actual carbon reduction...the 70% is "overhead".
2a) Overhead with firms like Goldmansachs.
fit in your system?

Nate, thanks for an excellent summary of the social-psychological underpinnings that rule our lives. Unfortunately, for the reasons cited, and others, most people will not take the time to read this, or their subconscious will sanitize the information to fit their world view.

Our brains conduct this covert operation on a 24/7 basis and we aren't privy to even this smallest part of it. Worse yet, research strongly supports the view that precious little of our behavior is consciously initiated anyway.

We can try to educate people using facts, a scientific method and as much logic and reason as we want; however, we are still dealing with a largely irrational and illogical creature. And one that operates mostly on subconscious information processing and decision making. I am afraid that the genetic deck is stacked against us we try to consciously think our way out of this mess.

As some are suggesting, since logic and reason probably won't win the day, we may be better served by appealing to people's vanity and subconscious motivations which are calling the shots anyway.

Our brains conduct this covert operation on a 24/7 basis and we aren't privy to even this smallest part of it.

Actually, we are privy to many parts of the process if we are properly trained and if we pay particular attention based on our preparatory training.

Parts of the brain do talk to each other.

It''s strange that you did not mention

Cognitive biases potentially affecting judgment of global risks
Eliezer Yudkowsky

I hadn't see that one before - thanks.
To do justice to our cognitive biases would require a dedicated website and dozens of psycholgists, sociologists, neuroscientists etc. and even then I bet there would be large blindspots. This post was just to get a flavor of whats out there....

If more of our countries civic leaders followed the scientific principles of 1)observe something in nature 2) make a hypothesis 3) test the hypothesis using physical methods and 4)repeat until statistically satisfied, we would find ourselves better served and better prepared for an era of energy declines. We must marry facts about geology and the environment with facts about our neural tendencies.

Our fundamental dilemma can be understood without invoking the scientific method. Here is an analogy for our economic system. A group of people live in a house which they are constantly expanding in size, and at the same time they are increasing the luxuriousness of its appointments. This expansion of size and luxury is a competition. Whoever adds the most value to the house gains the largest right to consume economic output such a clothes, food, medical care, toys, expensive recreational activities, etc. both now and in the future. If the rate at which you are adding value to the house falls too far below the average you will either be thrown out into the street or restricted to living in a tiny poorly furnished room with restricted access to medical care, luxury items, recreational amenities, etc. No end to this competitive increase in the size and luxury of the common dwelling is ever anticipated.

The scientific method is not required to understand that this process is unsustainable. Furthermore the rational alternative to such competitive accumulation is obvious. If the house is a comfortable place to live, then there is no need to expand it any further. Instead its occupants should concentrate on keeping the house in good working order with minimum expenditure of resources. They should share the work of maintenance and share the benefits of having a comfortable place to live. If maintenance work does not occupy all of their spare time then they should seek psychic in some in other activities than the accumulation of material wealth. If they want to introduce an element of competition into such activities because competition is the spice of life then let them do so. The end.

I realize of course that to many people talk of sharing work and sharing benefits at anything other than the household level implies 'communism'. If recognizing that we have a common interest in preserving the true sources of our long term wealth is communism then any person with a few synapses still firing should be a devotee of such an ism.

Of course in the analogy of the expanding house, the inhabitants could argue that as long as resources are plentiful the expansion can continue, and the necessity of economic maturation can be foisted off on a later generation. In the debate about how soon limits to growth will be reached scientific analysis of the relevant data is important, but to understanding the fact that limits to growth will eventually apply requires only the grossest kind of common sense.

It is true that many people refuse to apply common sense to this problem, but I personally don't perceive that the degree of scientific training has much to do with this refusal. A substantial part of this unwillingness to face facts appears to me to be simple pain avoidance. I have a brother in law who has a strongly scientific rationalist view of the world. He was at one point in a chemistry PhD program, but he switched to medical school and became a pathologist. He is doing well financially, but he is one of the least status conscious people I have ever met in my life. He definitely on the left of the political spectrum and is concerned about environmental and social justice issues. However, he absolutely refuses to come to grips with the idea that private finance capitalism itself may be fundamentally structurally defective.

My perception is that this refusal arises from fear. If the system holds together then he is on a path to gain reasonable comfort and security for the rest of his life. If a major revision of the social contract is required then his welfare and security depend upon a highly uncertain process of political and social transformation. Facing the danger and uncertainly of such a transformation is too painful, so he pretends it is not going to happen.

The scientific method is not required to understand that this process is unsustainable. Furthermore the rational alternative to such competitive accumulation is obvious. If the house is a comfortable place to live, then there is no need to expand it any further. Instead its occupants should concentrate on keeping the house in good working order with minimum expenditure of resources. They should share the work of maintenance and share the benefits of having a comfortable place to live. If maintenance work does not occupy all of their spare time then they should seek psychic in some in other activities than the accumulation of material wealth. If they want to introduce an element of competition into such activities because competition is the spice of life then let them do so. The end.

In theory the is the right approach - but it does not work in reality. The reason is that their is absolute no static situation anywhere in the hole universe - the chinese no that - the ying and the yang includes that concept. It is all either a rise or a fall. That is a big isue most people - even here - do not understand. It's the same with economic growth. Either growth or decline. With population the same. Or mining of a finite resource. Or the expanding of the universe. Or rise and fall of societys (mesapotanians, eqypts, greeks, maya, ankort wats, romans, english, germans, amerikans, cinese, indians,...) Or entropy - growing ever and ever. Growth or decline. The idea of a static - sustainable - thing/sociaty/anything else is a nice idea but has no real evidence!

As i told before - in around 100 million years higher life will be gone from the earth surface because the sun is burning their hydrogen at an ever increasing rate - till the finite hydrogen is mostly gone - and than earth finished either way because the surface is headed up badly (a second Venus)! The "beautiful" nature will vanish in the long run - ying and yang - rise and fall - it's all about that.

dare100em, dude (or dudette?), at least try to look over your spelling a bit before sending a post off. One or two typos is no big deal, but you have at least five howlers in your first two sentences.

I'm not sure if it will be as soon as 100 m years, but, yes, the world will become uninhabitable sometime in the next few hundred million years. One reason that this is sobering, is that most assume that the earth will recover from whatever we do to her. Or as the late great George Carlin put it in his (in-)famously crude style, "The earth is fine, it's humans that are f'd."

But we were already in one of the greatest mass extinction events since life began before the effects of GW started kicking in. GW will essentially be another asteroid-like extinction driver on top of the many abuses already driving massive extinctions. This double calamity could easily add an order of magnitude to the ~10 million year period that seems to be necessary for life to start recovering from a major extinction event.

You bring up yin-yang, but it is not my reading of Taoism that it's no big deal to just wipe life off the face of the earth. We are in the most un-Taoistic global society imaginable, completely driving every scrap of balance out of whack. For us to now use Taoistic equanimity to justify our depredations is...disgusting is not quite strong enough a word.

The reason is that their is absolute no static situation anywhere in the hole universe - the chinese no that - the ying and the yang includes that concept. It is all either a rise or a fall. That is a big isue most people - even here - do not understand. It's the same with economic growth. Either growth or decline.

So why aren’t all human beings grossly overweight? Once you have discovered the pleasures of the table there is no other option but to consume more and more food till you collapse from ill health. Give the pseudo intellectual theorizing a break. I am not proposing an intellectually and artistically static society. I am suggesting that a healthy body politic for society is just as desirable as a healthy physical body for the individual. It would not confer immortality on the race but it would give us a chance to realize more of our potential than chaos and collapse.

I am not particularly hopeful about avoiding a collapse, but I do not buy the theory that the historical patterns of human empire are eternal inescapable verities. I have been reading an economic history of China which is quite depressing in its way, since spectacular economic and artistic success alternates with spectacular crashes where a large part of the population dies of starvation. However, in my view these crashes have clearly identifiable causes: Population increase and wealth concentration. I view both of these problems as potentially solvable. I am not claiming that they will be solved, but I refuse to throw up my hands and proclaim that some abstract principle of growth and decay implies that thinking about their solution is waste of time.

Everyone describes, but no one prescribes.

Yeah, we know humans have fucked up. Nate tells us why. Who's going to have the cojones to bring up genetic modification if the genes are what drives the behavior that causes the cycles?

Too scared of eugenics to even say it? There, I said it for you.

Eugenics, the tuning of the genome for better behavior in extra-large groups far beyond the Dunbar limit, might work.

The alternative is warlordism, the modern name for tribes in competition to the death.

Afghanistan is right in our face, and we can't see it. It's stable at the Dunbar limit.

(Dunbar noted that maximum social group size is strongly correlated with cranial capacity. ~150 for humans.)

Question: Climate change (formerly global warming) "is atmospheric science" or it "involves atmospheric science". Big difference there...?

Another Point: Living in an information age, peoples predispositions may, more than ever, be slanted and reinforced by their bias because those are the sources they expose themselves to. The person who reads the Oildrum and Matt Simmons likely believes in peak oil, while millions have not even come across the term.

The person who reads "climate-gate" websites opposes climate change thought (formerly global warming) while the person who goes to global warming sights believes in manmade global warming. The person who reads the NY Times and Washington Post, CBS and NBC or MSNBC and CNN are more likely to believe in liberal doctrine while those that listen to the New York Post, Talk Radio, Fox are less likely.

The only other thing worth noting is that from what I see (and on this sight) is that some who believe in global warming and liberals often refuse to even study or expose themselves at all in depth to the other side, thus they live in an artificial vacuum.
They should spend 15 minutes or much more searching "climate-gate" on the web. The liberals should really take a full month and spend their time listening to the latter news sources above (many of them, like more and more of the population would never go back).

I personally, find peak oil convincing, the arguments on both sides of man made global warming interesting and very worth watching and many but not all liberal/socialist thoughts very misguided because peoples actual behavior is often guided by real incentives and disincentives (not what seems fair) and likely always will be.

I disagree with many of your posts, but not this one.

I really do appreciate the complement.

I would like a stand on the definitional question?...

I don't recall that wording, but clearly climate change involves atmospheric science - it involves lots of other natural science disciplines as well (ocean currents, sediment, isotope chemistry, etc.) - probably more disciplines than we are aware.

And I would offer that climate change (and other environmental externalities) should involve social sciences as well...;-)

Climate Change is of course a phenomenon. The concern at the moment is anthropogenic climate change -- climate change caused by humans.

We humans have of course been altering our local environment for millennia but never before have we been as populous or as industrialized. This really is the first time in history that we are affecting the global environment and, if this causes climate change on a global scale, there will be some serious winners and losers depending on location. More arable land in Canada might be good for the Canadians but the concern is that there will be many more losers than winners. If the change in climate is rapid enough we might all be losers.

Climate Science is a branch of science that uses data from paleoclimatology, oceanography, atmospheric science and other fields to determine existing trends and global climate models to predict future ones. Models vary in complexity and the most sophisticated ones are coupled ocean-atmosphere models. You have to understand that the processes in the ocean operate on very difficult timescales from processes in the atmosphere. Yet each exerts influence on the other so there is an inherent chicken-and-egg problem. All models are driven by a combination of measured input (atmospheric measurements, solar flux, etc.) and assumptions about the physics of the system. Also, all models have 'tunable parameters' (fudge factors) that are tweaked to improve the 'behavior' of the model. Without impugning the science embedded in the model calculations I can pretty safely say that setting up and running climate models is definitely 'still an art'.

As someone who has been too close to the details of climate science to be a 'true believer' and as someone who inherently distrusts predictions of the unknowable future I am always looking for the data-based, indisputable facts that need no 'tunable parameters'. Here is my favorite collection that relate to climate science:

  1. Humans have dumped a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels and this has caused the atmospheric concentration of CO2 to rise in the last 100 years to levels not seen in the last 500,000 years. The Keeling curve is an indisputable fact.
  2. Basic physical chemistry assures us that an increase in the partial pressure of CO2 above water will increase the acidity of the water. (Try measuring the pH of your next can of Coke.) The increased levels of CO2 are resulting in the indisputable fact of ocean acidification.
  3. Glaciers respond to slight but prolonged changes in climate. The current global glacier recession in mountain glaciers is indisputable evidence that the global Alpine environment is experiencing a profound warming.

Beyond 'indisputable facts', there are of course next levels of 'accepted practice', 'generally agreed upon results', etc., etc.. We're talking science here. If we were even 90% certain it would be called engineering.

For me, the three facts above are enough to say -- "Hey, maybe we should play it on the safe side and try reducing our emissions of CO2." But then I was never much of a gambler and the slower pace of life this implies is one I have already come to enjoy.

The bottom line is that I don't think you need to become a 'true believer' of all that the climate models predict in order to come to the conclusion that it might be time to rethink Business As Usual.

Best Hopes for common sense decision making!

-- Jon


Nicely said!

Jon --

That was perhaps the best presentation on why we need to play it safe regardless of the brouhaha over the climate models that I've read in a long time. As someone who has worked with hydrologic and water quality modeling, I know all about tweaking and tuning. You've come up with a good set of indisputable facts.



But deniers are everywhere.

Let's plant the "inconvenient truths" of your links in their face:

Keeling curve: undeniable

Glacial Recession: undeniable

Left click on images to go to source pages

Agreed. I'm a believer - I only need to look out the window to see what is happening to the glaciers. It seems impossible that we could dig up and burn the innards of the earth over a couple of centuries without any impacts.
Climate change denial is a waste of time. Even if climate change is not happening, peak oil begs for drastic changes to the way that we live, work and play.

Let's get going!

I did some elementary math that leads me to believe that humanity has converted over 100 CUBIC miles of the stuff into CO2! In a geologic blink. Stephen Hawkings seems to believe in it so I assume he might be right...

Thanks for the interesting article.

Wallstreet, you're right about the importance of where people look for information. And the people who look to the "conservative" media are not looking for or getting information. They are looking for and getting yet another dose of self-flattery/nationalist religion, with a peppering of a priori cornucopian reassurance.

However poorly the liberal and radical side has done, the "conservative" side is miles worse. Most liberals and lefties know that Climategate is a serious scandal, but not one that comes close to reaching the level of disproof. Every single rightist takes it as disproof. And the right simply won't talk about peak resources, because the facts there are hardly debatable. Even "optimists" admit big trouble is a few decades away...

For what it's worth, the latter point extends to the centrist MSM, which does no more than drop hints on the facts, and often runs flimsy dismissals.

About a third of Republicans think Obama isn't a citizen of the US, for Xsake, and another third think he might not be. This (and a love of Sarah Palin) are reason enough for me to see that the far right have gone right off the cliff as far as giving up on rational thought.

(And yes, of course, various extremists on the left have held wacky theories on various topics as various times.)

The interesting thing to me is that even though more Democrats than Republicans understand the implications of AGW and resource limits, there isn't much difference between the two as to how they actually respond as far as changing their lifestyles and living more frugal, less ecologically harmful lives. Desire to do so seems to be more of a personal trait than one driven by party affiliation or even by full understanding of the predicament before us. (Sorry, don't have the link right now of the article on this--if anyone else has it, please post.)

Remember that the other guy had an act of Congress declare him a citizen.

many but not all liberal/socialist thoughts very misguided because peoples actual behavior is often guided by real incentives and disincentives (not what seems fair) and likely always will be.

I do not understand what distinction you are trying make here. All human actions are guided by incentives and disincentives of one sort or another, among which a desire for fairness sometimes plays a role. The most common conservative criticism of socialism is that it is unfair because it robs people of the fruit of their labors. Are you claiming that this stated concern with fairness is completely cynical and that conservatives are primarily concerned with hanging on to their ill gotten gains?

Of course for human beings our incentives and disincentives are a strong function of the social and political institutions which help to define our relationships to each other. The primary function of any political thinker whether of the left or the right should be to propose a set of social incentives/disincentives which prevent us from destroying the physical basis of our welfare. I do not see much sign that conservative or liberals either one have made any significant progress on this project.

No, not at all. I meant fairness in terms of the argument that "it is unfair that some people have more wealth than others (or own a Ferrari) so we should redistribute the fruits of ones labor and therefore disincentivize work and incentivize leasure because it is fair (but I can see where you could have interpreted "unfair" ambiguously in prior).

I was also not directly speaking toward peak oil in terms of the term liberal, since many on this site opine on liberal political issues and climate change which are three separate (but sometimes indirectly linked)issues. And you are totaly right when it comes to the two major parties, all our presidents and by far most politicians are not addressing the deteriorating resource base.

I conclude that unfortunately it has been deemed too politically expedient to hide the truth...and too politically difficult to tell the American people the truth...that we can not keep using energy as we have...also that we can not support 1/3 of our population on a social security and medicaid system that was designed when people lived on average to 68...and that a country can not keep piling on debt forever without severe economic impact.

As Ronald Reagan (those who think he was "stupid" as per prior discussion, can read "Reagan In His Own Hand" - The Writings of Ronald Reagan that Reveal His Revolutionary Vision For America, by Kiron Skinner/Annelise Anderson/Martin Anderson) said "I would say the problem with liberals is they spend money like drunken sailors but that would be an insult to sailors because at least sailors spend their own money".

I am still confused about your position with respect to income distribution. Your original post seems to imply that there is some amount of unfairness in the current wealth distribution but that it has to be tolerated in the name of promoting productive efficiency. But what happens if the game of competitively accumulating consumption rights is faced with a financial collapse in the face of resource limitations? Efficiently consuming resources in the present in order face misery and want in the future does not strike me as an intelligent strategy.

I currently have a fairly substantial net worth, not a fortune by American standards, but I am solidly in the black. I have absolutely zero confidence that this ‘stored wealth’ will have any significance in ten years time, let alone twenty years. Yes if we eliminated social security, and Medicaid and reduced the military budget by a factor of four (You are in favor of reducing military spending aren’t you, Mr. Small Government?) I might be able to hang on to ‘my money’ for longer than I would otherwise. But such actions would only delay the day of reckoning (at the cost of substantial human suffering). When it becomes clear that growth has really come to an end the outstanding financial claims against economic output, which are always much larger than current productivity, must collapse.

Somehow we need to figure out a way to incentivise wealth preservation rather than resource consumption. Laissez-faire capitalism with minimalist government does not seem to fit the bill any better than neo-liberal capitalism.

I thought my explanation of the ambiguity in my original post was clear. We are doing plenty of income distribution already with 50% of taxpayers paying no Federal or Income Tax...and some of the highest corporate taxes in the world (which is driving business out of America to locations like Ireland).

In terms of Laissez-Faire capitilism it depends what you are talking about but even in the writings of Adam Smith there were at least two exceptions, Civil Defense and Social Goods. No extreme is good and everything in life is about balance. If we are speaking in general, capitilism is the system that made the U.S. the wealthiest nation in history and is quite possibly now making China the wealthiest nation in the future. There always should be exceptions, such as Adam Smith's "social goods" (such as peak oil, clean air,) where government may have to protect a resource that could be used up. It's just we've swung so far the other way we've lost sight...

50% of workers are now on Govt. payrolls (and 19% are making over 6 figures...and all Government workers with both average better pay and extremely better benefits than the private sector).. and if healthcare bill goes though...another 17% on the Govt. roll that capitalism (rhetorical q...I don't think so).

Most importantly, and I disclaim...invest at your own risk...I would suggest you make sure to protect your earned wealth... in 10 years and beyond.

I love the saying "In every problem there is an opportunity..."

Protect your wealth or at least diversify it. I keep 100% of my investments outside the U.S. mostly in Canadian Oil Companies such as Penn West Energy and ARC Energy, a very little in gold and silver and the rest in Canadian Bonds. Maybe I'll eventually also buy some Australian bonds.

You have not responded to my central point. Capitalism needs continuous growth to function properly. Adam Smith emphasized this point over and over again in Wealth of Nations. He seemed confident (correctly as it turns out) that limits to growth were a long way away. They are not far way any more. China is in for a rude awakening in comparatively short period of time. They have come to the game too late. Even if we turned the clock back on the U.S. government to whatever time period you think of as being closest to the ideal, if we did not also turn back the resource clock we would still be knee deep in the brown sticky stuff. We need to need to become true conservatives and preserve wealth rather than eating through it as fast as we can. If you are using Adam Smith as guide to how accomplish this task then you are lost in the wilderness without a map or compass.

The person who reads the NY Times and Washington Post, CBS and NBC or MSNBC and CNN are more likely to believe in liberal doctrine while those that listen to the New York Post, Talk Radio, Fox are less likely.

A book that I highly recommend is "The Naked Brain" by Dr. Restak.

One of the topics he covers is how the brain responds to "family" and "familiarity".
The limbic layer of the triune brain is evolved to cause us to join as families or tribes.

Matter of fact,if you pay attention, you will note that Fox News calls it viewers "friends". They are indoctrinating their viewers to feel as though part of the Fox friends and family network. Any cognition that goes against the Fox message is a cognition that goes against family. Who would dare betray their "family"?

The same phenomenon goes on here at TOD. Certain commentators come to be seen as repeat customers. They become "familiar" to us and what they say seems more convincing because they are part of the TOD inner circle.

I'm sure some people laugh when I argue that we humans travel in herds.

Of course I don't mean that you will go out on a sunny day on Wall Street and see a herd of stock brokers stampeding towards you. What I mean is that mentally we congregate into herds. All that is part of how our limbically driven brains operate.


Jurassic Park: OMG, they do travel in herds!

I will look at "The Naked Brain" for a possible read. I would probably agree with it because I have always believed in a sociobiological interpretation of behavior (we had millions of years to evolve and only a tiny fraction as a complex society). It could be interesting.

I have absolutely no problem with Fox using the term 'friends' as a marketing technique. It's not hypnotic indoctrination, it's marketing.

Also, many people listen to Fox and other "conservative" sources who are liberal (and I am liberal on several non-economic issues). Talk radio WABC, which would be my number one recommendation for those who want to hear the other sides rational and what an in depth discussion sounds like, has a huge listenership on both sides of the isle, as does Fox, and based on what I can see MSNBC and CNN (NBC etc. quickly heading that way) have basically no listenership at all. I believe in the intellegence of the American people to sort things out when both sides of a debate are given (and it's more interesting) while many mainstream media view it as their mission to educate the ill informed masses as to how they should think. I have seen the ridiculously intellectually dishonest presentations in the mainstream media (I have barely seen a single hard question and especially with a follow up or criticism of President Obama on Any topic since the beginning of his campaign...also remember when they used to report the dead count in Iraq on most stations about every single day...until the election.)

Studies of juries find that they are remarkably accurate in there final conclusions. People are intelligent. Based on both viewer preferences and trends most of the American people have figured out where to get there information.


Yes do read "The Naked Brain".

Warning though. It's not about what it promises to be about on the front cover. All that stuff is just a marketing trick. Obviously, the word "Naked" gets your attention when browsing through a book store. And the promise of a futuristic "neuro-society" gets your limbic juices flowing.

But when you get deep inside the book, you'll find Dr. Restak talking boring neuro science. You'll start learning about the different anatomical structures in the brain, you'll learn about the fMRI, you'll read about a lot of scientific experiments. You will discover the "you" are not you. If that kind of stuff fascinates you, yes definitely do read it. If you want to stick to yesterday's Alchemy, a.k.a. pop psychology, then don't read it.

BTW, "I" watch MSNBC.
I also occasionally tune in to Glen Beck to watch his head bopping up and down like one of those bobbing head toys you put on the back window of your car and I also occasionally tune in to Oxycontin Rash Limbaugh to listen to and admire his techniques. He is a Master at what he does. (Suffering Succotash!)

MSNBC is basically the most dishonest broadcaster on TV. Having two liberal talking heads speaking with an ultraliberal commentator is not a way to gather impartial or any information.

The basic economic argument (MSNBC vs. Glenn Beck) continues and it depends on which theme you believe in...America is a place where there is no opportunity for many and the Government must protect them from a cruel capitalist system or ...America is (or at least has been) a place where (just about) anyone who has the desire and will can succeed.

and Government is important in fighting poverty (by giving people free food, welfare checks, rent subsidies and free healthcare) or government causes poverty (ie. by creating a culture of poverty by segmenting the poor and disincentivizing the poor)and by wasting money that could be better spent in developing businesses and allowing the consumer to choose where to spend their money.

I say the evidence is overwhelming for the two latter.


I forgive you. Neuro-science says you have no free will but to say as you do.
After all, Bill-O the Clown is in your family, friends and fauxes network.
To betray one's familiars is to go against the very core of human nature.


OMG, they do travel in herds!

If it looks like a herd, thinks like a herd and acts like a herd, it's a herd!

we ducks have heard that one before --Quanks !

Evolution could not leave humans entirely in charge of their behavior, just as it could not leave us in control of our heartbeats and breathing. Acquisition of energy/nutrition is not a choice. We are programmed to behave in a manner that will ensure our individual survival vis-à-vis our competitors. The destruction of ecosystems and fossil fuel energy deficits are abstractions that cannot be ameliorated because reversing or stopping the energy flow is completely counter to our individual survival programming. Survival has always been a result of acquiring more and reproducing more than one’s competitors.

In light of the corruption that exists at the highest levels of governance and finance (an expected outcome), it is clear that containing the survival instincts of billions of the world’s survivors will not be accomplished. I think many individuals would prefer losing in competition to being allotted a certain and diminishing amount when government and associates are gaining an advantage through their regulatory powers.

Uprate Dopamine - Very well put. Excellent summary of "us".

Thanks for another insightful and provocative post. When are you going to put this stuff in book form so we'll have something to mull over after the internet goes dark?

I have the phenomenal privelage of age and time. The latter gives me, unlike my earlier years the chance to think about things such as the environment, energy and the economy.

I was a very early professional environmentalist and left an aerospace/defense industry consulting practice in 1967 to spend the next 8-20 years on resource matters. First on the Environment in general and Federal legislation and second on Energy in particular for the first House Energy Sub Committee chaired by John Dingell who, by the way, wrote nmost fo the early environmental legislation.

Since the mid 80's I have concentrated on the Economy as I was last formally trained in a business school.

The the three issues are closely related can not be in question.
I have yet to read, much less digest your full article, but idle time to think and reduce one's observations is a privelage offered to few in our currnet society.

It is not easy to be so idled in today's world where trivia is forced upon one to saturate any open time for basic thinking. Some see this as the " bread and circus" control of the hoi poloi. But let me suggest it is generally a self assumed condition as the real world, if viewed clinically, is so disturbing that it must be ignored or at least blanketed with a deafining tinitus of noise.

Thank you for the article. I will continue to read an hopefully understand.

I am dyslectic and can not find my spellcheck.

"the real world, if viewed clinically, is so disturbing that it must be ignored or at least blanketed with a deafining tinitus of noise."

This is my general impression. We are all up to our eyeballs in...offal, but almost all of us expend almost all of our psychic energy denying that this is the case. Asking people to start seeing what they have been spending much of their emotional energy to not see is an exercise in frustration. Certainly, anyone coming along with a story that confirms the stories people have told themselves about how they are not in fact up to their eyeballs will be readily and eagerly believed. This is what we are seeing now in the swing away from understanding/accepting of AGW.

Dear Nate,

Thanks for posting this. A lot of food for thought. If I were to comment in detail, I would end up writing an even longer and heavier text than your own, so I'll resist the temptation, as the ideas are already multiplying in my brain.

I often think about the concept of self-deception in relation to the invasion of Iraq. For example it always seemed to me that Britain's then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, had the ability to ignore facts and criticism relating to Iraq to a remarkable degree. He seemed to believe what he wanted to believe, or rather, what he needed to believe, or what was useful and expedient to believe. Was he practicing self-deception? That is, he first convinced himself that his lies about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and the threat they posed, in order to deceive the public more effectively.

First one must learn to lie to oneself, in order to deceive others more effectively.

But then I began to think that, no, this didn't seem to really fit. Was he just a typical, or stereotypical socio-path, or something far worse?

Blair seemed, (and a couple of my friends who work in the field of psychology, were convinced he was exhibting typical socio-pathetic traits), to have the ability to lie without normal constraints. He would literally say anything in order to get his way. And this was despite critics who publically shredded his arguments and pointed out the error of his ways. At the same time he was accutely aware of the need to carefully cover his tracks and hide the fact that he was deceiving his own country and the world at large. This would imply that he was aware that he was lying.

So it would seem that certain individuals believe what they need to believe, and say what they need to say, in order to get what they want. Though in Blair's case their is evidence he was aware of his own self-deceptive methods, otherwise why bother to cover ones tracks?

But it isn't just Blair. He's just recent and very public example. Don't we think what we think, and believe what we believe, because it serves a useful purpose? One could call it pragmatic self-deception, perhaps?

There's also the question of ones position in the social hierarchy and ones interests in protecting and deferetiating between ones own interests and those of others. One could call define this as the role of "class ideology" in society and in relation to the individual who is a member of distinct group or "class."

My family were masters at this. We moved from country to country in Europe. To wherever the pickings were best and the grass greener. We adopted the social customs we needed to adopt and integrated and assimilated everywhere, as long as it was profitable for us. We believed what we needed to believe, but mostly we beleived in ourselves, our extended clan, and in money and power. At the same time we actively discouraged others, especially the "reds" from understanding, or adopting our practices. We were the real internationalists and "socialists" inside the walls of our own class, but we were damned if we were going to let the proles in our factories and mines follow in our footsteps!

My great, great, grandfather, knew Bismarck and discussed the socialist threat with him, and I believe influenced him in small way. Bismarck developed the first "welfare state" in Germany as a bulwark against the threat of social upheaval. My ancestors also built schools in every town where he had a factory or mine, despite the expense. Others thought he was mad. But he replied that it was an investment in the future, or was it an insurance policy? I forget. We thought that the right sort of education, not too little, and not too much, but just enough, was important. The workers had to learn to think the way we wanted them to think, that is, accept and internalize our values and intersts as their own. Which is pretty much how I still see society functioning, only now we have the mass-media to help. My family would have loved to own a few television stations!
Our biggest mistake was to encourage the nationalists in central europe as a bulwark against the reds. This got terribly out of hand, though to be fair, it wasn't just us that were responsible for the rise of Fascism. We lost almost everyhing, and some of lost our lives, crushed by our own machine.

The myth of nationalism and race were central to the rise of Fascism. This belief in what's not true, and what's clearly not in ones "class interest" didn't just come out of nowhere. It came out of a particular time and place, and reflected, or served, some people's interests more than others, or so it seemed at the time.

This is already way too long, sorry. I do think though that one needs to be aware, or take into account, that beleifs don't exist in neutral vacuum in society. Politics, economics, history, culture, and ideology play their part too.


I tend to view the ability to decieve the self and others as an ability that we all possess to a greater of lesser degree , as a TALENT if you prefer the term, which may better communicate my point.

A car salesman exists an works at a level of society that involves convincing people to do something WITH HIM ,as opposed to some else,that they are going to do anyway, buy a car.

If he is reasonably skilled in making friends and truly loves and believes in cars that's enough-he can convince his customer that he (the customer) is doing the right thing and sell him a car.

But I have talked to sales managers and attended sales schools and a good sales manager actually prefers that a salesman really know very little about cars, other than the features and the status associated with models and makes , etc, because the MORE a salesman actually KNOWS about cars,the LESS he can believe in them.(You must be pretty dumb if you can seriously study the bible and still believe it literally.)

A politician, especially one that has made it to the top , has survived a long winnowing out process that in nearly every case will have eliminated anyone without both a very realistic world view (meaning the world as it relates to his party, disrtict, country, constituency, the bau world) and a truly exceptional ability to tell believable lies.

The car salesman is a successful duffer liar with a twelve handicap playing his fourteen handicap customers for his sales commisions.

The prime minister is a Tiger woods liar with a minus 6 handicap playing for the ultimate stakes-the position of leader of his country, which in terms of psychology or culture is the ultimate possible prize- being the alpha.

As I see it your psychologist type friends have made a rather asinine but very understandable mistake.Thier thinking is confined within the envelope of thier professional training and when confronted with an example of a statistical outlier, they describe his behavior as ABNORMAL or diseased, whereas it is a perfectly normal example of a certain talent or ability possessed by this individual to an rare degree.

They would never describe the Tiger as a freak or abnormal because he plays golf so well which is just a display of a DIFFERENT TALENT Tiger possesses to a rare degree.

The fact that a behavior or pattern of behavior is harmful to large numbers of individuals means absolutely nothing in terms of evolutionary fitness so long as it increases the fitness of the individual displaying the behavior.(Unless it leads to the extinction of the group incliding the individual.)

In short, the prime minister's sociopathic tendencies would be viewed by an open minded biologist as an ARTIFACT of the psychologist's overly narrow understanding of the human mind-something that exists only in thier imagination-a diseased behavior that in fact is perfectly normal and expected to be seen occasionally when the sample is large enough.

If this man is able to attract comely females and play the role of caregiver for thier children successfully in addition to achieving the alpha position in his society the very idea that there is something less than perfectly adequate and satisfactory abouut his mind from the pov of his own selfish genes is absurd on it's face.

The zen masters tell us that what exists is part of nature, that if it exists, it is normal and good.We just have to expand our horizons to encompass it.

I probably have gotten myself far enough out on a limb in a field in which I am not an expert that somebody will saw it off just to see me fall but I think I have a point even if I have not expressed it well.

Those with a strong urge to saw my limb off ought to read the Feynman address linked elsewhere in this post first.

He does a much better job describing what I'm trying to talk about, but then he's a pro and probably spent several hours at least composing his address.

Is there a role to be played by positive psychology? In the last year or so I have developed a curiosity around the books 'Happier'; 'Gross National Happiness'; and the 'Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology'. I am inclined to think that many of the conclusions currently held will be rejected in the future, it just seems like early days for the field. But I guess I'm gullible enough to think an attempt at a scientific approach to managing our own feelings might be fruitful. I guess I am toying with the idea that if people became more comfortable that we could improve our ability to take care of each other we might move our association of progress away from faster 0 to 60 times. Maybe softening the edges of our immunity to awareness. I don't know if that would make it easier for people to deal with harsh realities.

What about the concept of birth order having an effect on political/economic beliefs. First born children believe business as usual will continue and tend to be conservative. It goes back to the tradition of the first born inheriting most of the father's property. He has vested interest in supporting any decision his father makes because if he ever points out that his father is making mistakes he risks losing his inheritance. Later born children have little hope of inheriting anything substantial and face a life of subservience to his elder brother. His motive is to strike out on his own and do things different from what his father has done. Later in life first born sons hold the belief that the prosperity they enjoy is due to their own efforts and discount the fact that he stands on the shoulders of his ancestors efforts. Younger brothers have also obeyed their father and helped build up his riches. Therefore later born sons believe that their richer brother has a responsibility to help out his siblings and must change his ways if he doesn't deliver.
I have seen this in my own family even though my father left them nothing but a mother deep in debt. My oldest brother is very much a republican while my second oldest brother is very much a democrat. They both grew up in identical conditions and are only 11 months different in age. Yet they harbor opposing beliefs about political and economic matters. We younger siblings (I am fifth born in a family of ten children) are all over the political spectrum with myself being a radical progressive democrat and a younger brother of mine being a very conservative republican even though both of us being long term union members.

3) Homo Sapiens has been the most successful species on the planet.

Pure vanity. Bacteria are the most successful species on the planet by a long margin. The exist in extreme conditions that humanity, even with our current energy surplus, could only dream of surviving in.

And each human on their skin has more bacteria than they have in human cells. (per one of the wack job radio programs I listened to in the last 2 weeks. Commonwealth Club methinks.)

There is an old saying - people learn from experience. I would suggest that more often - people simply keep repeating the same old experience over and over again - until the pain of repeating the same experience becomes greater than the pain of changing.

I read of farmers in Australia - 13 years of drought, they are watching the river which once irrigated their orchards disapear. They are bulldozing their dead fruit trees and they live off of drought subsidies from the government cause they can't grow anything anymore. Yet these farmers almost unanimously deny that climate change is behind this - they continue to believe it will start to rain again any day now. They simply cannot face that the life they were used to is gone. If people face to face with disaster still cannot accept that it is climate change - there is little hope that people who are not yet experiencing directly the results of climate change will begin to accept AGW or PO. It will take absolute calamity that will make change completely unavoidable.

I have a slightly critical comment about your approach in this piece. First off, let me start by saying how important it seems to me are the factors you mention regarding belief formation and maintenance in the face of contrary evidence in assessing our current dilemma and trying to figure out a collective way through them. Cognitive dissonance theory, all of the fantastic work that's been done on cognitive biases, hyperbolic discounting, self-deception, and their neuro-psychological underpinnings are really essential in my view in understanding not only how we got into the mess we are in but also have to be taken into account as we try to disentangle ourselves. However, I wonder if you are overemphasizing the psychological side of things. That might seem like a strange point to make in response to a posting that is explicitly about BELIEF formation. But individual as well as collective behavior is not only based on the internal states that we can loosely refer to as beliefs, and desires and goals and so on, but also on many external social and institutional factors that are out there in the world influencing us in one way or another regardless of what we happen to believe.

What I have in mind here is perhaps best illustrated by an example from the recent book by Dan Ariely called "Predictably Irrational" (I think it's from there it could also be from Thaler and Sunstein's "Nudge".). Apparently some researchers noticed huge discrepancies between rates of organ donation in otherwise culturally similar countries like Germany and Austria. After scratching their heads for a while wondering what internal (psychological) factors might explain the observed differences, someone realized that in countries with high rates of organ donation individuals had to opt out of donating and in those with lows rates of donation they had to opt in (the countries compared all solicited organ donations through the driver licensing procedure as we do here). In other words, peoples' behavior differs radically based on nothing but a change in the default option they are given in making a choice. And in fact attributing their different behaviors to different beliefs would be a textbook case of the "Fundamental Attribution Error" from cognitive psychology. This is a point made repeatedly in many different contexts by Thaler and Sunstein as well as others and seems to bear further investigation as it applies here.

Getting people to change their beliefs in other words may be, to put it a bit too strongly perhaps, simply irrelevant if there are various "external" constraints on their actions that lead them to act in certain ways. Beliefs in this case may be little more than after the fact rationalizations for things that we do simply because that is the way the world works. A case in point is the sheer logistical difficulty of living in an ecologically more sane way in the car-centric culture of the USA. How much does this contribute to the fact that Americans are so willing to deny climate change, profess their "need" for gas guzzling vehicles, etc. as opposed to Europeans? (A gross generalization to be sure, so take with a grain of salt please.) And the difficulty is not just psychological, but physically built in to the way we live. That of course provides a hugely powerful motive for believing in all of the myths this culture is based on -- perpetual growth, technological and market based solutions to whatever problems we face and so on. I wouldn't go so far as Marx did when he basically wrote off all of culture, politics, and ideology as nothing but a super-structure determined by the real underlying material conditions of existence, blah, blah, blah. That seems too strong a claim to make. But the complex dynamic interplay between belief systems and institutional/physical/social constraints on behavior is certainly something worth looking into in my humble opinion.


George the Philosopher -

Being an engineer by training, I am not well versed in psychology, sociology, or any of the other behavioral sciences, so I cannot comment critically on the more esoteric technical aspects of this discussion.

However, I am with you regarding the general notion that the structure of one's belief system is heavily influenced by the external pressures one experiences and that one's behavior is not necessarily the direct product of a belief system, but rather a rational response to a set of external pressures. Thus, I think the belief system is often the effect rather than the cause.

One of my favorite quotes from Mark Twain says it so much more succinctly:

"You tell me whar a man gits his corn pone, an I'll tell you what his 'pinions is."

For the (mercifully) short time I was in the corporate world, I saw this phenomenon in action again and again. I wouldn't describe it so much as delusional thinking or cognitive dissonance as I would a perfectly rational attempt to ingratiate oneself to the people who have power over your livelihood and well-being. In other words, a survival response. Unfortunately, if you repeat the party line long enough, chances are that you will eventually wind up believing it. One might call it self brain washing in the interest of advancing of one's career and social position.

Nevertheless, it is also quite true that people will find all sorts of reasons (many of them quite rational and well thought-out) that will enable them to avoid facing or admitting certain unpleasant facts. People respond most immediately to pain, and the educated American upper middle class has not experienced all that much pain ...... yet.

Engineering, it turns out, is not so far removed from the behavioral sciences, and in fact mechanical engineering is a pretty good place to learn about minds. The recent history of cognitive science shows this quite well I think. For years, cognitive scientists studied minds as if they were they encapsulated belief systems to be studied on their own apart from the embodiment of these belief systems in physical creatures with bodies. And when some of them tried to build robots that would actually function as intelligent machines, they basically followed the model of "the walking encyclopedia." Of course robots built along these lines didn't work. But these cognitive scientists were working within the accepted picture of how we work -- we have beliefs in our heads, which we get in there by manipulating data coming in from the world according to the rules of logic, and then we plan actions and act on those plans. It was only much later, when cognitive scientists started looking at how much simpler real live creatures like insects interacted with the world that they started to actually understand how intelligence works in the real world, and they got much better at building smart machines. Insects, as we all know are pretty stupid, but they are fantastically adaptive. Their adaptive intelligence as it were comes from the way in which their simple nervous systems are coupled with their bodies which are in turn coupled with the environments in which they live. That is their intelligence is an artifact of their engineering by natural selection to get by in the real world with extremely limited on-board resources. My point to Nate was along similar lines. We should also be taking into account how it is that our social and physical environments both enable and constrain our behavior and provide a kind of framework within which beliefs arise, often as a post-hoc explanation for what we do anyway. That seems important as we not only assess the damage we are doing to the world we depend on, but also as we attempt to come up with alternative, and hopefully less damaging ways of living.

Hope that makes some sense.


I agree that there is a danger in looking things too exclusively from a psychological perspective. For one thing, is makes it hard to see how we could change all those minds. While if minds are largely shaped by a few external cues and incentive patterns, it seems much more likely that such incentive patterns could be altered or manipulated.

Everyone might not be able to attain some kind of ecological satori in time for meaningful change, but a change in the tax code or the advertising emphasis...might move a lot of people to act in more ecological ways, even if they didn't think of it in those terms.

The solution has to be top down. Its much easier to force change by state policy than try to educate everyone at a grassroots level to a standard where scientific method and analytical reasoning become enough to alter the situation.

The problem then goes back to corporate manipulation of state politics.

hi Joule,

I would argue that for all practical purposes the educated upper middle class as a group doesn't even know what pain IS.

George the Philosopher said

However, I wonder if you are overemphasizing the psychological side of things.

There seems to me to be a real n-prisoners' dilemma inherent in an inevitable social/economic collapse. The highest payoff seems to go to those who play the business-as-usual game to the fullest extent: defectors. They gain wealth and power that may stand them in good stead (or seem likely to) in the event of collapse. Those who commit themselves to "solving" the problem (cooperators) would seem to get the sucker's payoff in terms of gaining resources to cope with the coming chaos. An intuitive sense that there is an nPD at work here may complement the mechanisms described in the article.

Thanks for a well-rounded precis of the sociobiological aspect of world econopolitics.

I await the fearless applications of these insights.

Otherwise, doomster.

I'm on the edge of a paradigm shift, WOO HOO!!


Very interesting post.

I must in all conscience, however point out the glaring flaw.

You are effectively saying "Human cognitive bias is like this [long explanation follows] THEREFORE I am right because they suffer from those biases."

Are you and those who are on the limits to growth side of peak oil and climate change not affected by cognitive biases that affect the rest of us?

Clearly the world economy cannot grow forever inside a finite system. The limits to growth model, however, has some fundamental flaws. Firstly it doesn't take into account that people STOP HAVING CHILDREN as they get richer (which is the real source of growth in resource depletion - population growth). Secondly they don't take into account that we tend to spend more on services as we get richer, which use less resources. Thirdly, it doesn't give sufficient due to substitutes (specifically renewables) and doesn't give more than a nod of the head to pollution control.

And I have to say I agree with your friend who said that wall street does know about peak oil. There was a VERY good report out a few months ago from Deutsche bank about peak oil.

My take is they were too pessimistic because they discounted the effect of all that shale gas and huge substitution effect it's going to have on the long distance trucking that Kunstler says is impossible.

In addition, need I draw attention to the flaws in the theory that our financial system is based on unlimited growth?
It is NOT. It is based on bubbles of optimism followed by crashed of despair. Speculators buy stocks based on their GUESS that the market will go up, but it may not and most investors other than the incredibly naive are fully aware that they could lose their money. Interest on fixed principal is likewise not guaranteed and neither is it based on oil.

What IS based on oil is the sheer productivity of the economy because of all the invisible oil slaves. But as you must be aware, there are also electricity slaves.

To conclude:

I remain unconvinced that the doomers among us have a monopoly on the truth. They just believe fervently in one particular MODEL with a particular set of assumptions.

There is more than one MODEL that describes the outcome of peak oil. Is your model better than my peak oil model?
Make your choice and place your bet.

Dan I probably should let it go but I just don't agree with the stetment that "people stop having children as they get richer". Maybe if you define "richer" I would understand.
A consumer orientated society demanding both parents work, to provide a "better life" for their offspring is a recent western cultural phenomenon.
IMO as the economy disintegrates and the furnaces of consumerism get starved of fuel, the opportunities for "working couples" will be very limited.
A return to an average of three children per family is very likely but will be somewhat balanced by declining life spans and rising infant mortality rates. As per the collapse of the SU.

India, China, The Middle East, South East Asia all have growing economies but due to circumstances like religion, discrimination, cultural behaviors etc they continue to grow their populations.
The big picture is still population growth, soon to be tempered by the calamity brought about by reaching resource limits.

Good points. He also makes the overly simplistic (at best) claim that population increase is the real cause of increased resource depletion. But increases in wealth, and the newly wealthy's attempt to mimic wasteful western lifestyles such as car owning and heavy meat eating have lead to some of the fastest reductions in resources. Take away the poorest one or even two billion in the world, and you will have done essentially nothing to reduce the use of limited resources. Take away the richest two billion, or even less, and there would be plenty left for the rest to live in their humbler lifestyles.

Population is important, but it is population times consumption that equals total resource depletion.

Some comments:

1) Peak Oil is a geologic fact. Global warming is atmospheric climate science.

Second sentence should read: "Anthropogenic global warming is an atmospheric climate science fact".

Also, there is no mention of how the substantial LPG and NG reserves in the world will ease the transition from oil to renewables.

Nate----were you by chance a psychologist in one of your previous lives?

The problem may not be with our belief system.

We are simply not capable as a culture of "reading" the idea for "finite energy supply".

We just can`t get our heads around the idea that an energy source could disappear in toto.

It is pretty clear how we came to believe that. We used crops, wind, waves for millenia. They never went away. We were led to understand that that is what you get when you process energy---a steady, constant forever flow.

But after this we may be able to process the information that some energy comes in a finite supply. A few people have processed it and of course Hubbert did and some others. More and more, but only a small minority.

Also the disposal of waste. We were led to believe, by leaving pottery shards, horse manure, old straw sandals, and other "waste products" of the past ages that waste would just go away by itself. It is quite a revelation to find out that isn`t the case when it is plastic and old TV sets. We can hardly quite comprehend the consequences because we haven`t yet had millenia to "think" about this.

I think it just takes a very long time for a culture as a whole to process necessary information. More than one lifetime at least. Probably a few generations. Don`t give up hope.

were you by chance a psychologist in one of your previous lives?

Answer to SAT Miller Analogy Problem:

    (C) Psychology is to Modern Neuro-Science

    Alchemy is to Modern Chemistry


I realize the SAT is intended to measure the likelihood of academic success mre than anything else but it is often utilized an iq proxy.

This question points out one of the many problems with such tests as measures of intellectual ability.

A student with a superb brain may not have heard about either field.I did just fine on this kind of test but I could have picked up a few more points if my school had had a decent library or if we had had news magazines and books in my childhood home.

Of course there are a lot of questions and this sort of thing is supposed to average out.But in my opinion a kid from a home with two college educated parents should have his score docked a hundred points to get a faot comparision to a kid from a poor working class family and another hundred to compare fairly to a city slum kid.

Recent Pentagon study: 75% of our nation's youth aged 17-24 are unfit for military service due to combinations of inadequate education, criminal activity, physical or mental unfitness. If the current generations of adults cannot face or solve these grand global problems now, will "wake 'em" simply evolve into "weed 'em" down the road?

Ouch, you are getting close to the situation in Russia regarding fitness for military service.

Very dense article, very much on the mark.

Of course, all this is very old hat. The world has gone through an almost identical situation with an almost identical set of relative risks.

Prior to November 8, 1923 very few people outside of Germany had ever heard of Adolf Hitler. On that day and during the next, in the company of associates and Generalquartiermeister Erich Ludendorff, Hitler attempted to gain control of the Bavarian government by force. The attempt failed when Munich police fired into Hitler's group. Hitler ran away but was later arrested and charged with treason.

During Hitler's trial and subsequent confinement, he made no efforts to disguise his intentions to gain control of Germany and thence hegemony over as much of Europe as possible. His approach meant to do so with as much bloodshed as possible. In his book, 'Mein Kampf', written in 1924, Hitler outlined an aggressive and deathly hostility toward mon- Germans, Russians, Jews and other 'subhumans'.

During Hitler's quest for political position, his forces used whatever means were available, including street violence and intrigue. Hitler's fundamental 'problem solving' approach was well known to Germans and to anyone able to read a newspaper.

After Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in January, 1933 he rapidly consolidated power. Events such as the burning of the Reichstag in February, 1933 were orchestrated to concentrate authority into Hitler's hands. The concentration camp at Dachau was opened in March, 1933.

Many of Hitler's cronies as well as prominent political figures were massacred in June, 1934 during the 'Night of the Long Knives'. Among the victims was former chancellor Kurt von Schleicher. Hitler gained control of the military immediately afterward. The Nuremberg Laws, depriving Jews of citizenship were enacted in 1935. Later that year, Hitler renounced the Versailles limitations on armaments, announced universal conscription and began to openly rearm. All of this was covered by the press at the time.

German Jews were being openly persecuted in 1935. Many of these emigrated, many to nearby countries, the rest ot England, Palestine and America. All reported persecution and terror on the part of the authorities. In 1936, German troops entered and re- militarized the Rhineland district adjacent to France. Hitler sent a battalion, the French had available many divisions. Repelling - or arresting - the German force would have put an end to Hitler as most of the German military staff was opposed to the adventure. In November, the Nazi government organized a pogrom against Jews, seizing and destroying property and assaulting them; this action became known as 'Kristallnacht' or 'Night of Broken Glass'. Beginning in 1936, Hitler sent military equipment and personnel to Spain to fight alongside Nationalist forces. German actions in Spain were well- covered by the press.

In March, 1938, Hitler annexed Austria; his SS forces and Gestapo were soon openly terrorizing Austrian cities and town. Members of the prior regime, intellectuals, leading citizens and Jews were subject to harsh treatment or random killing after arrest. Austria was not closed during the period of Anschluss and treatment of Austrians by German authorities was no secret. It was also no secret when Jews were deported to concentration camps from both Germany and Austria.

In September, 1938, Czechoslovakia ceded its Sudeten provinces to Hitler; in return, the new British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain received assurances from Hitler that this concession would be the last Hitler would demand. Six months later, Hitler moved to occupy the entirety of Czechoslovakia.

In September, 1938, Hitler's armies invaded Poland, overrunning half of the country in four weeks. The Soviets occupied the eastern half of Poland. In April the following year, Hitler conquered Denmark in one day; a few weeks later Norway fell. Hitler invaded Netherlands and Belgium on May 10, conquering France by the end of June.

During the run- up to all out war, the Western Allies had numerous opportunities to solve the Hitler problem. In addition to the Rhineland episode, the German high command was prepared to detain Hitler had he invaded Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain's feckless surrender to Hitler gave him a bloodless victory ... and left him untouchable to the disgruntled generals. The European governments' unwillingness to confront or contain Hitler amplified his political moral supremacy within Germany. Absent that gift of moral supremacy, Hitler would have been one in the long chain of obscure Weimar politicians; he was as much a creature of European vacillation as he was an offspring of his own warped willpower.

The 'James Hansen' character during the run- up was British MP Winston Churchill. A constant harangue in Parliament during the 1930's was Churchill's demand for more and better fighter aircraft to defend Britain from the air. Stanley Baldwin's premiership was resistant. Neither Baldwin nor the French government wanted to provoke Hitler. Both countries were recovering from the Great War and had severe economic difficulties. Churchill wheedled the British establishment for five years with small results. After the Fall of France in the Summer of 1940, the Luftwaffe launched its all out air attacks on Britain in preparation to an assault by sea. What saved the country from invasion and conquest were Churchill's lonely fighter aircraft and overworked pilots.

The Soviet Union was in denial about Hitler and his intentions, even though they were outlined in black and white in his book. In 1939, Hitler and Stalin signed a non- aggression pact. Up until June 22,1941, the USSR was sending train loads of grain and other materials to Germany. On that day, the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa which destroyed most of the Russian armies within three months. Despite having intelligence from the British, the Soviets were completely unprepared.

A big reason for Hitler's political success was that he was thoroughly modern and stylish. He embodied in himself and in his supporting establishment the hyper- aggressive potential of machinery and advanced technology. In the Hitler regime, all humans were cogs in a deterministic and ultimately fatal environment. A similar but not as 'moderne- style' environment existed in Japan, where service to the point of suicide was the expected norm of behavior. Japanese fashion derived from military caste traditions that had been absorbed into the conscript army and navy as a matter of policy.

The US was completely unready for entry into the newly unwinding war. Japan invaded the part of China it did not already control beginning in 1933. Japan held dominion over what is now Korea and all of northern China. Japanese military activities and atrocities and covered in the press. There was no secret about Japanese intentions in China. A Japanese assault on Russian forces in Mongolia in 1939 was repulsed with great Japanese losses. In 1940, after the fall of France and the Low Countries, Japan moved to take control of French and Dutch colonies in SE Asia, what is now Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Indonesia. As a consequence, the US embargoed fuel and scrap steel shipments to Japan. The US was in the beginning of mobilization, authorized in 1938. A 5 million man army was in training, but equipment was meager.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and simultaneously Manila and Australian and Dutch bases in Philippines and elsewhere in the Pacific, the US was unprepared to defend against the attacks. The US army had one radar station in Hawaii and no air traffic control, even after the British had demonstrated the effectiveness of radar and air traffic control over a year earlier during the Battle of Britain. Most of the American aircraft were lost on the ground to Japanese fighters in the initial strikes. Aircraft were lined up in neat rows, unfueled and unarmed, waiting to be shot up by the Japanese.

During the run- up the establishment, mostly competent political leaders, civic leaders, realistic and hard- headed military commanders ignored or denied the threats to democracy posed by Hitler and aggressive Japanese militarism. Consequently, in the six war years almost to the day, fifty million lost their lives violently. Europe and much of Asia was almost completely ruined. Much of Eastern Europe fell under Stalin's dominion. The consequences of ignoring solvable problems until they became too large to address inexpensively were demonstrated. Everything that Nate mentions in his long and thoughtful post was experienced in Europe, America and the USSR.

The Germans were in denial about Hitler as was the rest of Europe. The Germans never lost faith in Hitler's ability to win the war in the end even when German cities were being rained with British and American bombs. Germans kept an almost mystical faith in Hitler right up to the point of there being Allied forces marching up the streets in German towns. Both German and Japanese soldiers and civilians have testified to being 'mesmerized' and 'under a spell'. Large events have a way of warping the minds of participants. This is one reason why so many now are unprepared and unpreparing. History is larger than day to day life in which we are immersed.

The same submission to both authority and compelling fashion that existed in the totalitarian regimes is obvious among the world's citizens today. The same fetish cult of machine aggression exists today as it did during the 1930's and 40's; it an be very appealing. One thing machines do is make the users feel more powerful and able to act out that power. Fashion is power, it embodies it. Had Hitler and his henchmen behaved as had the Kaiser, they would not have been taken seriously within industrial Germany. Likewise in Japan, the traditional bushido fashion did not allow a level of modern machine aggression; this was imported from the British military services along with much modern military technology.

Because all of the leadership that learned and endured the Second World War are dead, there are no leaders to bring forth the lessons from that era. There is no Winston Churchill - a politician with a pragmatic bent and the eloquence that moves minds.

The compelling public voices of the current crises are the deniers ... the Hitlerites and appeasers of the now. Their motivation is the same as their Quisling forebears; they advertise what they desire to possess. Hitler was bleeding edge fashionable, a supreme fetishist of motorized modernity, a charismatic rationalizer of aggression and hostility without limits, a compulsive liar, a glamorous psychopath. He was the machine- man of his and all modern times. It was nothing for the Chamberlains of Europe to hand over Czechoslovakia to the camps; just as it was nothing for the Hitlers of Europe to ask for it. Just as it is nothing for industry to ask for the world for the fleeting sensation of eradicating its last natural bits and pieces. The industrialists are all the same. Czechoslovakia is expendable, the world is expendable, in the end all of us are.

In the end, Hitler and the Japanese were defeated. The approach was simple; fight them both everywhere at the edges and work toward the centers. At some point, the denial will be abruptly ended. Reality has a way of doing this, ending foolishness. There was no fooling about Hitler after he invaded Poland. Katrina was close to removing the illusions about climate change. It's hard to say when the turning point will be reached, but it is coming and soon. At that point, the deniers will be silenced and the hard work will begin. How will it turn out?

"Americans always do the right thing ... after they have tried everything else."

Been out of pocket for the last month. Your comment and analogy is one of the most profound i have read in the past year. How will it turn out? Lots of pain and suffering. Thanks for sharing your remarkable insights.

One thing machines do is make the users feel more powerful and able to act out that power.

Well put. Likewise with the machinery of a well-oiled state apparatus. Fascists and others with genocidal ambitions usually appeal to people who feel powerless by offering them power. This was true in Nazi Germany, in Rwanda and Yugoslavia in the 1990's, and now among the Palinistas and tea-baggers. When the masses start to have a dim sense that things in their lives are not quite right, that the future is no longer so rosy, along comes a charismatic leader who offers them power over their own lives, often at the expense of some weaker minority or scapegoated group. In spite of the tendency here at the Oil Drum to dismiss Palin as a joke, which I partly agree with, there is a part of me that worries about her, or her handlers' ability to manipulate the masses' growing sense that something is amiss in the world for her political gain.

Since you are giving an extended exposition of known atrocities by axis powers before US involvement in WWII, let us not forget the rape of Nanking, Dec. 9, 1937--hundreds of thousands of civilians killed and tens of thousands of women raped.

Nanking -- certainly one of the more sordid events in the twentieth century, and little recalled. In the same league perhaps as what both the Germans and the Russians did to Poland at the outset of WW2. I've been reading up on the latter in connection with recently having read my grandfather's memoirs, translated by my uncle last summer from the original Polish manuscript written in the late 1980's. My grandfather and grandmom and mom were from L'vov, then part of Poland, and he was shipped off to Russian prison camps in 1939, which he somehow survived, and ended up fighting the Germans under the British command in Italy, where he was wounded (by friendly fire apparently). Meanwhile while mom and grandmom were languishing in central Asia. All managed to get through and wound up in England, then the US, via Iran and Lebanon.

It seems to me that we should all keep the suffering of the victims of those atrocities in mind as we face an uncertain future. It absolutely amazes me what the survivors managed to get through. In spite of our deep flaws humans can be pretty damn resilient. Gives me a little hope at least.

George, you hit the nail right on the head. Humans are tough. People can endure a great deal, if they have a sense of purpose.

Nate's essay appears here frequently and it is always apt, the world is naught but expressions of our ganglia. We think up images of ourselves and try to live up to them ... maybe if we thought in music the world would be whole.

Our machines make us godlike and all powerful:

A sense of derived power propels deniers. Prestige does not fit on a sandwich but gives those who immerse themselves in it a form which contains great force.

The theme is sexual submission even to the point of death. The impression is to project irresistible power at the same time submitting to it. This is theater run amok ... because humans refuse to exercise control over their own lives. "Drill, Baby, Drill" is suggestive of a control that actually does not exist in the real world.

The theatrical gains more and more attention while events unravel offstage.

That is why the problem is so easy to solve, some adult has to close the theater and direct the (passive) audience to go home and to work. A fetish that becomes habitual loses its potency. This is where our culture is now, flaccid and contaminated with marketing. Evil and brutality aren't banal any longer, they are a consumer category.

All I can say is--very disturbing, and very brilliant.

I second that! Sort of like the late Roman empire on steroids and crack.

Great post from Nate, as always.
Though I do think he needs one of those papal funny hats and some robes ;-)

Right at the end of your article you mentioned the movie 'Serendipity' and how the scientist hated it and he daughter loved it. To me, this dissonance points to how the most scientific people (and engineers) selectively choose theorem to test and evaluate. They as a rule, do not LIKE exploring theories that threaten their current BELIEFS about reality. Scientists and engineers in my experience are even more curmudgeonly in this regard.

I think the movie Serendipity points toward one of the bigger anomalies. Accurate records of dreams and synchronistic events exist that point toward some invisible domain of connected information. Call it holographic species memory if you wish.

Perhaps the most documented and well researched example of what I am talking about is the research done by Ian Stevenson on reincarnation. For a great scientific investigation of numerous documented cases of children accurately recalling past lives, I would recommend the recent book "Life Before Life" by Jim B. Tucker, M.D. who has been continuing this research. I would challenge you to review the data and not find yourself realizing reincarnation is the only scientific explanation that makes sense.

So what does reincarnation or synchronicity have to do with Peak Oil? For one, it points out that we don't fully understand the nature of reality and the meaning of human life. Two, it points out that large scale dramas that humanity is facing: overpopulation, end of easy petroleum, changes in global climate, are all taking place within a much larger interconnected reality. If reincarnation is even possible, we will not only get to deal with the results of our past errors and waste, but will get more chances to learn these hard lessons.

They as a rule, do not LIKE exploring theories that threaten their current BELIEFS about reality.

Probably because scientists do not believe in anything ;-)

Hi Nate,

Good post, lengthly, but good research and references. As a practicing scientist, I only want to make a few points which may repeat those of others here that I missed reading. First there are different types of science....what have probably broadly been divided into the directly testable versus extrapolatable. If in my laboratory I want to test the hypothesis that "geneX" will confer herbicide resistance to corn, I will make a transgenic plant (GMO) that now expresses that gene. Then I will test if it indeed is resistant to the herbicide in question. Even in such a controlled situation, can we conclude that the product of "geneX" actually, directly confers resistance in corn to the herbicide? In some cases, it can be shown to be 'causal', but in most others there actually are many possibilities. These include the chance that "geneX" activates something completely different in the corn genome to confer the resistance. Alternatively, "geneX" may indirectly cause coloniziation of the corn by species of bacteria that are known to breakdown the herbicide in question. These and more unknowns arise even when the system is relatively simple and "testable". Imagine how difficult it is to really prove that compounds in milk bottles ingested during infancy might cause cancer in those over 50?

With regards to evolution, I can actually test for the "evolution" of a plant virus population as it's genome shifts to accomodate new antiviral strategies that are implemented to control it. It is an "extrapolation", however, to say that this "proves" that through evolution humans and chimps have a common ancestor. I happen to believe that we do, but I would consider myself a poor and foolish scientist to say that science has proved this to be so.

There is the hypothesis that global climate change has a man-made component. There is a hypothesis that we may run out of economically extractable oil. There is a hypothesis that we might build starships and colonize other parts of the universe. Looking backward, there is a theory that man originated in Africa and later crossed the Bering strait to the Americas.....there are other hypotheses that it could have gone from the Americas to Africa any number of ways.

My point here is that science is a works pretty well on simple problems, but I would argue quite poorly on the large ones. By comparison, we tend to "dis" indigenous cultures for their "silly mythologies", yet mythologies arose through a desire/need to explain the observed and science is subordinate to the larger gift of "observation". Many, but not all, indigenous cultures didn't call it "science", but they did over many thousands of years "observe" what worked and what didn't,....and NOT just using some multi-year replicated trial. (Corn provides a good example: Euros would like to pat themselves on the back for advances in corn breeding....but the original corn that they started with had already been selected and re-bred by indigenous peoples over thousands of years.) These observations lead to the accumulation of a knowledge, transmitted trans-generationally by oral tradition. Those populations with a careful eye trained on the limits imposed by nature would build these limits into an ethic.

To me, it comes back to the question of "just because we can, should we?". Personally I agree with those who might say that we, as a species, can think our way out of many imaginable catastrophes (most of which will be of our own creation). But if your imagination is filled with wonder at the though of being on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, dancing about in a holodeck, and eating either synthesized or some space-age version of slaughterhouse pork, then we part ways. I simply will not feel much connection with that version of "human". It's why, having lived (though not with complete immersion) in a rural setting for the past 15 years has made it impossible for me to return to the city as anything but a visitor.....and then, rarely.

So can we "prove" that climate change is caused by human activity? Can we "prove" that we will run out of oil? To me, it doesn't really matter. Your Wallstreet (un?)-friend summed up the difference between his attitute and mine when he said "We're here to live life. I'm not going to sit around waiting for 'the next big change' when I can enjoy life with my kids and live large. I work hard you know" Hear the loaded words ping-pong around inside your head...."live life"...."enjoy life"......."live large".....and the coup de grace "I work hard you know"....which seems to be the ultimate justification these days for the destruction of the planet.

I'm a retired scientist from a different area of science. I was trained in physics and my father was a physicist. I came to study Darwin only in retirement. Proving that something is *true* about nature is what most people take to be the purpose of science. But there is little agreement on what *is* a legitimate proof. One feature of physical science, as an intellectual activity, is the naive belief that the most simple explanation is the best explanation. This idea is called Occam's Razor. I quote
from my (old) paper dictionary:

A rule stating that entities should not be multiplied needlessly, which is interpreted to mean that the simplest of two or more competing theories is preferable or that an explanation for unknown* phenomena should first be attempted in terms of what is already known.

* I think 'unknown' is a poor word choice, and should be replaced with 'puzzling'.

This idea is attributed to William of Ockham (1285?-1349). William was a religious person of his time, so 'what is already known' meant, for him, The Word Made Flesh and other teaching of Christianity. But the idea has been lifted out of the context of his time, and elevated into an acknowledged principal of how-science-is-done.

But what of Darwin's natural selection? And of all science of living things, including Man and his political activities? Surely, the simplest explanation is almost never what actually happened.

What actually happened is far too complex to meet any plausible standard of simplicity. And it is largely unknowable - lost in the mists of time. So life science, and rational thought about human activity, must somehow proceed without Occam's Razor. It does proceed, and with some difficulty. I think this is what is referred to as the-human-condition.

And Science is itself a human activity. Scientists talk to other scientists. They discuss their work, talk about progress they are making, or ask for help. Science is a human activity, which might be studied 'scientifically'. And Science can study the effects of other human activity on the general environment on Earth. The results of such scientific studies of human activity can lead some people to believe that they need to take political action. Other people see no need to take action or even to believe (or disbelieve) the results of study. Hubbert's work on estimating the URR of the contiguous 48 States is an interesting example of what actually has happened when people attempt action. The issue remained undecided in the public arena until the peak was passed, and further argument had become moot.

I think political action on the global problems of our time is doomed to failure. Humans simply do not act globally, however globally they may think. The human population will crash. There will be a significant under-shoot, but not extinction. The population will then grow exponentially until some new, different resource limit comes into play. In that future time, it will be useful to that generation if they have a reasonably accurate historical record of what our problems were, and how we failed to deal effectively with them. In that context Nate's essay will make interesting reading, if it survives.

On the nearer term, it would be nice, IMHO, if we could manage the population decline so that it is largely achieved through drastically reduced birth rate coupled with death from old-age, only. But even this is unlikely.

I agree that political action is doomed to failure because it simply can not understand 21st century problems, it doesn't really care, and just wants to make money from it (carbon tax). The market place, however, could overcome future energy problems IF cheaply mass produced solar and wind exponentiates like beer cans...
I think that population control should be promoted through the mass media along with science, as the kids would probably love to be on the Starship...

Hi, I just watched a supposed to be respectful political talk on a Bulgarian TV - one of the guests showed a little model of a car supposed to run on WATER - yes water as a source of fuel. To my full surprise nobody questioned this and continued to talk nonsense about the climate change etc. I believe that if anybody has mentioned peak oil he would have been violently argued. People would believe in model cars like this just to avoid reality. Well in fact for me it was very funny!

Awsesome, but my mind is not "trained" enough to continue with the psychology of peak oil and climate change without reverting back to "only" wanting to talk, or even argue about the main issue. As I try to reprehend the bouncy, unfocused mind within, I realize that I would rather go to the belief system of "I am right since I have facts". It just plain feels better to yell out the "obvious" facts (as to why I believe in PO and AGW). Kinda like a religion.
I really appreciate this article as it reminds me how unrational I am (and have been on prior posts).

I believe that even though it seems impossible to escape through the bottleneck alive, science will save most of us. I know that it only has up to now because of the excess of oil but believe that it can without them IF we use oil to build the next energy economy. If (my dream of) robotically mass produced solar mirrors and PV doesn't come to light, then we will have to rely upon nuclear and reprocessing (as the French do). If that doesn't work, perhaps we could mine the methane hydrates (before global warming releases it?). I hate the idea of tar sands, but I am now starting to "justify my belief" by adding more fossil fuels to it!

By the time we scrape up all the last economical reservoirs, (this is where belief really kicks in) science will have made it possible to do the robotic thing, that is, make the mirrors or PV grow like a virus (not literally)! Same with the LiFePO4 (or better) battery or thermal storage.

Conspiracy theories obviously come to play in my head because "I KNOW" that if they can mass produce everything else for so cheap (retail, not counting), why can't they already do so with solar... I think it's just money (but still very serious).

However, I recently had a bubble bursting too... China apparently holds most of the rare earths market, needed for the billions of electric cars and wind turbines (in my dream). I would think that if just 1% of 1% of the people became educated in science, even these problems would be solved.

Because of the above psychology, I find it hard to train my brain to be a REAL scientist. This is where smart people need to help, to make it possible for others to be more scientifically adept!

My intent is basically to promote large scale solar and wind as there is no hope for freedom without energy.

My intent is basically to promote large scale solar and wind as there is no hope for freedom without energy.

True. But one could argue there will be little energy without freedom...

That is one of my worst nightmares...

as I can not comprehend any solution to that other than (possible) self preservation.

Is that a picture of you Nate?

Thanks for the article.



Hi Nate , on the subject of magic ,it's not a bad belief system at all
in " war and peace " Tolstoy give the example of a steam locomotive
an informed spectator , if asked how it work , would start with thermodynamic , mechanic , laws of motions ETC...ETC without ever ending
the peasant would said's because of the devil inside
a perfect , complete explanation for him .

magic is an open ended system , it accept the unknown and is not really bothered with it

during WW2 the U.S. Army had bases in the Solomon islands ,
local were used for various tasks , they would drive trucks ,load ammunition , discharge ships
smoke cigarettes and eat ice cream
but would put food offering under the trucks to keep them working ,
even though they knew they were running on petrol since they refilled them
After the war they would pray for the ships with the goodies to come back ,
it was the original cargo cult

I saw an interview with a New Guinea islander , he lived in Australia for many years
but was a stone age kids when the first white men came , they were attacked of course
but a few gun discharges later , peace negotiations started
at first they though the whites were otherworldly ghosts ,
but saw quickly they were only weird humans when they were observed to shit
the biggest shaman of the tribe , observing a soldier parade fell frothing at the mouth
at the sight of the synchronized and glistering bayonets ,
he told the warriors that the white man was powerful beyond any imagination
it was not the guns , they understood weapons ,
it was their magic which was awesome .


This was one of the best essays to appear on TOD IMO. Can some of the other better papers also be pulled out from the past for re reading?

A best of TOD section perhaps?


Incredible artical Nate. Without the Science all we have is speculation. This is the Achilles Heel of Science. It must be 100% absolute and pitted against belief and the belief system along with the failure to want to believe that we have come to the cross roads I fear we will continue down the slippery slope. Economists are running the world.

From Don McLean (no relation)
When the signals are flashing
and the barriers are down
and the whistle is blowing in vane
but you stay on the tracks
ignoring the facts
well you can't blame the wreck on the train


"Most people can't think, most of the remainder won't think, the small fraction who do think mostly can't do it very well. The extremely tiny fraction who think regularly, accurately, creatively, and without self-delusion – in the long run, these are the only people who count."
-- Heinlein

Why do people believe what they believe? For most people, the most people who can't think, won't think, etc., it is because they were influenced to do so by:
1. someone with Authority
2. someone to whom they owed something (Reciprocation)
3. someone they Liked
4. someone/something to which they felt a Similarity
5. Consistency with past behavior
6. Scarcity, related to intermittent reinforcement

Cialdini should have been at the top of your sources.

The evidence and facts are clear that evidence and facts and almost completely irrelevant. Having a mental model that coincides with physical reality is far, far less important than having a mental model that coincides with what your social support system tells you. You said it yourself, we didn't evolve to process calculations, model runs, and percentages.

But we did evolve to process social and sexual cues. Evidence and facts work only on a tip of a sliver of a minority of the population. Everyone else gets their beliefs and behaviors from the process of being influenced.

You cannot "get through" to most people using facts and evidence. It simply isn't possible. You must use different tools and different tactics to get the behaviors and responses you expect or want.

Everyone "thinks".
Everyone has cognitions.

Most people think they are "special".
That includes you and I.
We probably think we're special because we "know" about Peak Oil.
Others may think they're special because they "know" about the Hoax of Global Warming.
Yet others because they "know" to invest in gold.

You may think the others are crazy. But their realities do match with their models.

Those who believe the market provides, find gasoline being served at their local gas station every day.
Those who believe Global warming is a hoax manage to find an extra cold morning every winter.
Our beliefs ARE our realities.