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The Future Needs An Attitude Adjustment

By Tom Murphy

29 December, 2011
Do The Math

Kids these days. When I was a lad, tantrums were redressed with a spanking. Heck, spankings (at school) were answered by further spanking (at home). In polite company, we might apply the euphemism “attitude adjustment” to mask the unpleasant image of a bawling kid bent over the knee getting red in the tail. I’m not going to wade into the issue of whether or not such treatment is the most effective way to shape responsible adults, but I will say that I think our society needs some sort of attitude adjustment when it comes to expectations of our future. I’ll take a pause from the renewable energy juggernaut recently featured on Do the Math and offer some seasonal scolding. Think of it as my “airing of grievances” component of Festivus: “a holiday for the rest-of-us,” as introduced on Seinfeld.

People Want Stuff

Over the years, my diligent observation of people has led me to a deep insight: people want stuff. I know—bear with me as I support my argument. Donald Trump. Okay, I think I’ve covered it. No, it’s true. On the whole, we don’t seem to be satiable creatures. Imagine the counter-examples: “No thanks, boss. I really don’t need a raise.” “I’m done with this money—anybody want it?” “Where should I invest my money to guarantee 0% return?” (Answer: anywhere, lately.) I’m not saying that the world lacks generosity/charity. But how many examples do we have of someone making $500,000/yr (in whatever form) and donating $400,000 per year to those in need, figuring $100,000/yr is plenty to live comfortably? I want names (and actually hope there are some examples).

This basic desire for more has meshed beautifully with a growth-based economic model and a planet offering up its stored resources. The last few hundred years is when things really broke lose. And it’s not because we suddenly got smarter. Sure, we have a knack for accumulating knowledge, and there is a corresponding ratchet effect as we lock in new understanding. But we have the same biological brains that we did 10,000 years ago—so we haven’t increased our mental horsepower. What happened is that our accumulation of knowledge allowed us to recognize the value of fossil fuels. Since then, we have been on a tear to develop as quickly as we might. It’s working: the average American is responsible for 10 kW of continuous power production, which is somewhat like having 100 energy slaves (humans being 100 W machines). We’re satisfying our innate need for more and more—and the availability of cheap, abundant, self-storing, energy-dense sources of energy have made it all possible.

As we stand on the precipice of a transition away from this magic elixir, we are still heady with our sense of progress. We feel the wind in our hair and we know with certainty that the present would have been unimaginably rich and complex to someone living 200 years ago. Humans—and especially homo economicus—are ruthless extrapolators, and “know” with the same apparent certainty that the future will be as mind-bogglingly rich and complex and incomprehensible to us simpletons alive today. I get it. I admire the sentiment that we would be foolish to think we know where the far future leads. But as I’ve already pointed out, the same humility can be applied in the opposite direction: “Who, in the year 2011, at the height of the fossil fuel binge, could have possibly imagined that here we would sit in 2211, huddled around a fire, sharing stories—ever less believable—of the days when we could walk on the Moon? Hey, you gonna eat that last grasshopper?”

How many people are offended, scandalized, or just plain irritated by my suggestion that the future may be a step backward from where we are today? If you’re one of these, then you’re a candidate for an attitude adjustment. Don’t you give me that look!

The Case for Reversal

Bear in mind that I am no more qualified than any living person to know what the future will bring. Be very wary of anyone who expresses confidence about where we will be in 200, 100, or even 50 years from now. In truth, the future could be unrecognizably harder than today in as little as 20 years. To reject this real possibility is to be willfully biased toward a bright future. Just because I warn of a possible future of hardship does not mean that I reject the notion that we could pull through the transition ahead in glorious fashion to a splendid shiny future for all. In fact, I’d love to see this happen, and I’d love it if we find a way around all my worries. But given the scale of our challenges, we would be foolish to assume that this path will materialize.

For me, the most compelling way to put the present era in perspective is to look at a cartoon plot of fossil fuel availability over the long term (as in the sustainable post).

On the long view, the fossil fuel age is a blip, with a down side mirroring the (more fun) up side.

This plot snaps us out of the short-sightedness of our own lifetime (that things are always growing/improving as we have always known them to be), and highlights the utterly special nature of the here and now. We learned from the Copernican Revolution that we should adopt humility in assessing our place in the cosmos: we are not at the center of things the way we tend to think. Perhaps we have taken this lesson too much to heart, because it makes it harder for us to appreciate that we actually are near the center of the fossil fuel curve. Assuming that a high-tech future will naturally unfold on the back-side of this curve is dangerous. If you’re stuck in this mindset, I’ll give your backside something to think about…

On a related note, the fossil fuel boom has brought with it a population boom, unprecedented resource exploitation, global warming, etc. Yes, humankind has always faced challenges. And we—arguably—have a good track record for coping with them (if we exclude the moronic Romans, Mayans, Easter Islanders, etc. from our club). Many are tempted to extrapolate past successes into a postulate: that we will always innovate our way out of problems. The only thing that remains mysterious is just how we will manage. But for us to pretend that we are not stressing the ecosystem on a multitude of fronts at a scale never before seen in this world is irresponsible. It really is no wonder that we have a sense of unraveling. The future is unwritten, and the recent past may not be a good template for the near future. We must accept that we face in the decline of fossil fuels the mother of all problems for humanity, and that past success has been against the backdrop of cheap and abundant energy. An unfamiliar phase awaits.

See the Do the Math post on peak oil for particulars on one scenario that has me worried. In brief, a declining petroleum output leads to supply disruptions in many commodities, price spikes, decline of travel/tourism industries, international withholding of oil supplies, possibly resource wars, instability, uncertainty, a sea change in attitudes and hope for the future, loss of confidence in investment and growth in a contracting world, rampant unemployment, electric cars and other renewable dreams out of reach and silly-sounding when keeping ourselves fed is more pressing, an Energy Trap preventing us from large scale meaningful infrastructure replacement, etc. There can be positive developments as well—especially in demand and in “attitude adjustments.” And perhaps the market offers more magic than my skeptical mind allows. But any way you slice it, our transition away from fossil fuels will bring myriad challenges that will require more forethought, cooperation, and maturity than I tend to see in headlines today.


People often misinterpret my message that “we risk collapse,” believing me to say instead that “we’re going to collapse.” It’s interesting to me that the concept of collapse is taboo to the point of coming across as an offensive slap in the face. It clearly touches an emotional nerve. I think we should try to understand that. Personally, this reaction scares me. It suggests an irrational faith that we cannot collapse. If I did not think the possibility for collapse was real, I might just find this reaction intellectually intriguing. But when the elements for collapse are in place (unprecedented stresses, energy challenges, resource limitations, possible overshoot of carrying capacity), the aversion to this possible fate leaves me wondering how we can mitigate a problem we cannot even look in the eye.

Others react by an over-use of the word “just.” We just need to get fusion working. We’ll just paint Arizona with solar panels. We’ll just switch to electric cars. We just need to go full-on nuclear, preferably with thorium reactors. We just need to exploit the oil shales in the Rocky Mountain states. We just need to get the environmentalists off our backs so we can drill, baby, drill. This is the technofix approach. I am trying to chip away at this on Do the Math: the numbers often don’t pan out, or the challenges are much bigger than people appreciate. I have looked for solutions to things we can just do to alleviate the pressures on the system. With the exception of just reducing how much we personally demand, I have been disappointed again and again. I’ll come back to personal reduction in the months to come: lots to say here.

Another common reaction (that I have had myself) is to get excited about a technology that is not yet demonstrated, but seems awfully promising. Some refer to the effect as “hopium,” and yes, it is addictive. What I have found in myself is that the less I know about something, the more prone I am to the “hopium” effect. This is another part of human nature. I have noticed in my professional life that when multiple people are involved in the diagnosis of a complex problem involving many interacting components/subsystems to which each member has contributed some piece, there is a tendency for each person to cast suspicion on the component they understand the least. Conversely, when looking for a solution, we give a pass to the concepts with fewer known, demonstrated hangups.

It may well be that our energy/resource salvation lies in some presently obscure or unappreciated technique. But realizing that obsession with these notions means bypassing tried-and-true “conventional” technologies like solar photovoltaics, solar thermal, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, conventional fission, lead-acid storage, etc. to me is a tacit acknowledgment that the main ideas we have on the table are not obviously going to cut it. Such enthusiasm for the unproven—often accompanied by statements of unmitigated hope (“our best hope,” “the only real solution,” “we must aggressively develop,” etc.)—carries with it a ring of desperation. It’s maybe like a dog whistle: I’m not sure all of us hear it. The trick is to remain attentive to the real potential underneath the shrill sound of fantastical thinking, in case salvation actually does lie within.

Addiction to Growth

I kicked off the Do the Math blog with a two-part argument that growth is fated to end. A surprisingly common reaction to the irrefutable physics telling us that growth on Earth must cease was the exuberant assertion that we would just move our growth show to space and to other planets. I was (temporarily) at a loss for words. I later addressed this attitude in a post on the hardships of space, but was still dumbfounded by the cult-like tenacity of the space-faithful. How did we create this phenomenon? Again, I’m not opposed to the notion that space futures may be possible someday, but how will we confront our near-term challenges in a rational way when many see space as the solution?

Aside from the cadets, the message was clear from reactions that growth is a sacred underpinning of our modern life, and that we must not speak of terminating this regime. After all, how could we satisfy our yearning for more without the carrot of growth dangling in front of us? Some argue that we need growth in the developing world in order to bring humanity up to an acceptable standard of living. I am sympathetic to this aim. So let’s voluntarily drop growth in the developed countries of the world and let the underdogs have their day. Did I just blaspheme again? I keep doing that. I perceive this compassion for the poor of the world as a cloak used to justify the base desire of getting more stuff for ourselves. Prove it to yourself by asking people if they would be willing to give up growth in (or even contract) our economy while the third world continues growing for the next half-century. You may get rationalizations of the flavor that without growth in the first world, the engine for growth in the third world would be starved and falter: they need our consumer demand to have a customer base. I’m skeptical. I think people just want stuff—even if they’ve got lots already.

So I don’t know how this impasse gets resolved. Growth must one day cease, but human nature seems to be stacked in opposition to this prospect. Maybe it means we’re incapable of establishing a steady state, and are instead fated to boom/bust cycles on a global scale. And that doesn’t taste very nice, does it, precious?

A colleague pointed me to a well-thought article in The Nation by Naomi Klein making the case that climate change poses a legitimate threat to capitalism, so it’s no wonder that we find opposition to the science on ideological grounds. But the point is valid whether talking about climate change, peak oil, resource limitations in general, or the very notion that there are limits to growth. All challenge the prevailing economic scheme, and therefore threaten sacred ideologies. Capitalism and democracy are a match made in heaven—together maximizing the potential for growth. But physics puts us on a collision course. Democracy in particular will have trouble coping with limits, because to the extent that the right answer involves scaling back, an adult politician (I know—snort) proposing such austerity will be handicapped against a candidate promising a chicken in every pot.

As an aside, science has enjoyed broad public support as a foundation for technology. But as science increasingly tells us what we can’t expect to do in a world of diminished resources and compromised environment—rather than only opening up new possibilities—we’ll see how popular science remains. The ideological lines are already forming.

Where are the Adults?

We’ve all seen kids present parents with irrational demands. It could be a pony, a jet pack, a real light saber, a trip to the Moon, or a swimming pool on the roof of the (single-story) house. Adults are adept at deflecting these requests—sometimes with logic, and sometimes with distraction tactics. Adults know that some of the demands are technically impossible, or that others are simply outside their financial means. Just because we want something doesn’t mean it is possible to have it. Just because we want our fossil fuel alternatives to be as cheap and convenient doesn’t mean they will be, no matter how much we might belly-ache.

Somehow, kids who vow to eat only ice cream as adults or look forward to never having to go to bed learn for themselves as young adults that these are not viable strategies—no matter how desirable they seemed to be as a kid. Likewise, kids grow out of fantasies like believing in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. Yet, just as we don’t shake all of our mythical beliefs as adults, we don’t shed all of our irrational expectations and demands for the future.

When we are told we can’t keep growth going, that we face resource limitations, or that alternative energy sources may not be able to maintain our current standard of living, we see tantrums. When we’re told we can’t have free checking anymore, we howl in protest. When fuel prices skyrocket, airlines dare not raise airfare enough to cover costs, or the fits we throw will cause significant loss—so they lose money with under-priced fares and hope to make it up by keeping prices a bit elevated after fuel prices begin to ease. When taxes go up or stamps cost more, what do we do? We kick and pound the floor. Granted, some injustices are addressed effectively by tantrums, and sometimes with stunning results (Boston Tea Party). But on the whole, our tantrums are not held in check by the equivalent of a parent. We’re free to howl.

Many look to political leaders for, well, leadership. But I’ve come to appreciate that political leaders are actually politicians (another razor-sharp observation), and politicians need votes to occupy their seats. Politicians are therefore cowardly sycophants responding to the whims of the electorate. In other words, they are a reflection of our wants and demands. A child who has just been spanked for throwing a tantrum would probably not re-elect their parent if allowed the choice. We all scream for ice cream. Why would we reward a politician for leading us instead to a plate of vegetables—even if that’s what we really need. Meanwhile we find it all too easy to blame our ills on the politicians. It’s a lot more palatable than blaming ourselves for our own selfish demands that politicians simply try to satisfy.

My basic point in all this is that I perceive fundamental human weaknesses that circumvent our making rational, smart, adult decisions about our future. Our expectations tend to be outsized with respect to the physical limitations at hand. We quickly dash up against ideological articles of faith, so that many are unable to acknowledge that there is an energy/resource problem at all. The Spock in me wants to raise an eyebrow and say “fascinating.” The human in me is distressed by the implications to our collective rationality. The adult in me wants less whining, fewer temper tantrums, realistic expectations, a willingness to sacrifice where needed, the maturity to talk of the possibility of collapse and the need to step off the growth train, and adoption of a selfless attitude that we owe future generations a livable world where we can live rich and fulfilling lives with another click of the ratchet. Otherwise we deserve a spanking—sorry—attitude adjustment. And nature is happy to oblige.

Okay: “Airing of grievances” complete. Now for the “feats of strength.”

Tom Murphy is an associate professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego. An amateur astronomer in high school, physics major at Georgia Tech, and PhD student in physics at Caltech, Murphy has spent decades reveling in the study of astrophysics. He currently leads a project to test General Relativity by bouncing laser pulses off of the reflectors left on the Moon by the Apollo astronauts, achieving one-millimeter range precision. Murphy’s keen interest in energy topics began with his teaching a course on energy and the environment for non-science majors at UCSD. Motivated by the unprecedented challenges we face, he has applied his instrumentation skills to exploring alternative energy and associated measurement schemes. Following his natural instincts to educate, Murphy is eager to get people thinking about the quantitatively convincing case that our pursuit of an ever-bigger scale of life faces gigantic challenges and carries significant risks.




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