Why is that reasonably rational individuals who are able to follow an argument and who are unable to refute it are at the same time incapable of making the transition from thought to action? What is stopping them? Humans are clearly smarter than yeast, what does that matter if they are incapable of acting any more intelligently?
As I promised, I will attempt to address this question in this one, helped by all the comments I have received. Ugo Bardi was quick to contribute this:
People just don't care about understanding what's going on and what's going to happen. If they are rich they care about how to make money on oil; if they are poor they care about miracle devices that will save us from the brink of the cliff. Then, as we start falling, interest in understanding what's going to happen will fade even more.
Ugo also cited Too Smart for Our Own Good by Craig Dilworth, summarizing it as follows:
The gist of Dilworth's book is that we are smart, individually, but that we aren't collectively. So, we are very good at solving individual problems, but that has the cost of creating larger collective problems which, then, we can't solve.
Dilworth's own summary of his book contains this:
We are destroying our natural environment at a constantly increasing pace, and in so doing undermining the preconditions of our own existence. Why is this so? This book reveals that our ecologically disruptive behaviour is in fact rooted in our very nature as a species. Drawing on evolution theory, biology, anthropology, archaeology, economics, environmental science and history, this book explains the ecological predicament of humankind by placing it in the context of the first scientific theory of our species' development, taking over where Darwin left off. The theory presented is applied in detail to the whole of our seven-million-year history.
This provides me with as good a jumping-off point as any, so let me begin.
Do you know of any humans that are living sustainably, in complete balance with the natural world? Chances are, you don't, unless you are an anthropologist, and even then only if you are lucky. Such humans are by now quite thin on the ground. Most of them have been either murdered or herded into “civilized” (i.e., unsustainable) society. Sustainable humans are a difficult subject to study, because our history is the history of unsustainable living, and ignores long, undocumented periods of time during which nothing notable took place in a multitude of sparsely populated locations.
But had these nondescript humans been left alone, the result would have been largely the same. You see, groups that live sustainably, in balance with the natural environment, do not experience exponential population growth. And so the populations which did not exhibit the fatal traits that give rise to Dilworth's “predicament of mankind,” even if left unmolested, would have quickly found their numbers dwarfed by the initially tiny part of humanity that increased its numbers exponentially by consuming nonrenewable resources while degrading the natural environment. As with a yeast sample, population size doesn't matter; all that matters is that you have a few viable specimens of the right strain, to start a culture.
A spike and crash in human populations is not unprecedented: out of a population of humans living in homeostatic equilibrium within their constant environmental footprint a small group emerges that, through some technological development—stone-tipped spears useful for big game hunting, or a plow design useful for breaking sod for agriculture, or toxic fracking fluid cocktails useful for getting at the dregs of fossil fuel resources—gains access to a new energy resource. Made delirious by their newly-gained powers, they throw all caution to the wind. Their population soon starts to double, crowding out everyone else. In the process, they hunt the big game to extinction, turn prairie to desert and deplete reserves of fossil fuels. Once further investment of energy in exploiting their favorite resource begins to produce diminishing returns, the population dies back, and a new homeostatic equilibrium reemerges, at a lower population level than before, because of the lowered carrying capacity of the now degraded environment. What makes the current experiment in unsustainable growth different is that it has engulfed the entire planet, depleting not just some but all natural resources in tandem.
The human populations that can live in equilibrium with their environment for thousands of years, and those that destroy it in a hurry, are not different species; they are not even different subspecies. Evolution has precious little to do with their differences: it is a matter of culture, not genetics. The time scale on which these events take place is far too short for long-lived organisms like humans to evolve any traits as specific adaptations to them. There are a few adaptations that develop this quickly: darkening or lightening of skin in response to sunlight, which takes less than 10000 years; resistance to diseases, through attrition of individuals who lacked genetic resistance to specific pathogens; changes in body form, lanky and hairless to shed heat in hot climates, portly and hairy to conserve it in cold ones. Beyond that, humans exhibit remarkably little genetic variation.
Although “culture” is an easy label to apply, and although cultural differences do abound, what distinguishes a population that insists on looking seven generations back and seven generations into the future when making decisions from one that is mainly concerned about the quarterly revenue and the year-on-year growth and their effect on stock price is their different thought processes (or lack thereof), which are, in turn, determined by their different priorities. You see, the man who lives and dies by the quarterly earnings report is already living right at the brink of extinction, eating through nonrenewable resources faster and faster, riding the exponential curve on the way up. As soon as that ride stops, he might as well promptly drop dead, but he will usually want to give cannibalism a try first. Thinking about the remote future is just not an effective short-term survival strategy for him. Asking him to invest in a sustainable development strategy based on some medium to long-term projections is like asking a man who is being chased by other men armed with knives and forks—and feels that he is in immediate danger of being eaten—to stop and help you with a crossword puzzle.
And herein lies the conundrum: to preserve all that's worth preserving—which, to me, is all the culture that is actually worth the name—art, literature, music, science, philosophy and fine craftsmanship—and to carry it over into a sustainable, low-energy, low-impact way of life, requires access to resources, and that, in turn, takes substantial quantities of money. But money is controlled by people who are always busy running away from their competitors lest they be eaten, and who cannot see how investing in a scheme which will never “pay off” could possibly be to their personal advantage or benefit (which is all the poor fools seem able to think about). How can we make it so that “the fool and his money are soon parted”? I have some ideas, and I will take up this question up in the next post or two.