Chapter 4: What can psychological science, and evolutionary psychology in particular, offer to
help to address these problems?
Can humans be "smarter than yeast?" Can we be the only species that
can successfully avoid ecological overshoot and collapse? Can we differentiate
linear from exponential increases in growth? Can we accept that some
resources on our
planet, particularly oil, are finite? Can we forgo some short term gratifications for long term
sustainability? Can we understand that our actions today may have some profound
consequences for future generations, for our children and grandchildren?
These are psychological problems -- are we psychologically
sophisticated enough to manage our own collective behavior to achieve sustainable
human societies on a finite planet?
Evolved adaptations (including psychological adaptations) are all solutions to problems
inclusive fitness in ancestral environments. Our ancestors' "inclusive
fitness" refers to the number of genes they projected into the next generation
reproduction, and by helping those who shared their genes (close
Inclusive fitness has been the "designer" of human psychological
Evolution cannot look forward; it cannot anticipate what it has never encountered. We have
no psychological adaptations to avoid ecological overshoot. In fact, we have just the
Here's the sobering rub:
Inclusive fitness is always
relative to others; it is not absolute.
That is, nature doesn't "say,"
"Have 2 kids (or help 4 full sibs), and then you can stop. Good job!
You did your genetic duty, you avoided contributing to ecological overshoot, and you may pass
"Out-reproduce your competitors. Your competitors are all of the genes in your
species' gene pool that you do not share. If the average inclusive fitness score is 4, then you go for 5...
In other words, our psychological
adaptations are designed to not just "keep up with the Joneses" but to "do
better than the Joneses." This is in whatever terms that
increase inclusive fitness -- number of children, and things that have led to them, such as status,
multiple wives, resource acquisition and control, etc.
An unfortunately corollary of the relativity of inclusive fitness is that an
organism can also increase its inclusive fitness by reducing the inclusive fitness of others. That
potentially makes murder, genocide, warfare, and other nasty stuff potential genetic pay
suggest that, with every interaction with others, we have a choice to either cooperate or to
on this see:
How can we set up a situation wherein it is in everyone's interest to both reduce oil
consumption, as well as invest in renewable energy sources?
Evolutionary psychology and the problem of the "Tragedy of the
Evolutionary psychology suggests we will tend to be altruistic (not expect repayment) toward close kin
(especially those with high reproductive value), and we will tend to be nice to non-kin with whom we
have established an on-going, mutually beneficial reciprocal relationship. We will tend to be
selfish otherwise. Also, we may be spiteful (hurt another even at a cost to self) to reduce
the inclusive fitness of others, especially when they are reducing our inclusive fitness and/or the overall
resource pie is shrinking.
will tend to act altruistically when certain conditions are met. One of the them is called
Obviously, we are
inclined toward nepotism.
reciprocity (also called "strong reciprocity," or "generalized
We tend to behave as if we still lived in small tribes as did our ancestors. This ďerrorĒ makes
generalized cooperation, or "strong reciprocity," possible. We may be willing to help
strangers, without an expectation of repayment, as long as we perceive them as members of our
"tribe." It may be a set of adaptations that were designed for small in-group cohesion
during times of high inter-tribal warfare with out-groups.
Today, the capacity to be altruistic to in-group strangers may result from a
serendipitous generalization (or "mismatch") between ancestral tribal living and today's
large societies that entail many single interactions with anonymous strangers. We think members
of our in-group are part of our "tribe." Result: strong reciprocity -- acting like a
"good Samaritan," cognitive concepts of justice, ethics and human rights.
Ironically strong reciprocity also has a dark side. It may also underlie adaptations for
aggression toward "out-groups," including the capacity for xenophobia, racism, warfare,
genocide. And, for fighting over increasingly scarce resources.
Strong reciprocity is more likely to occur in a "positive
sum game" (when the entire pie is growing) because the costs of non-cooperating are
higher. One simply has to cooperate to expect a progressively larger slice of the pie in the
reciprocity works well when the overall resource pie is growing (in a "positive sum game").
But, as was noted above, the Peak Oil
crisis is a "shrinking energy pie" situation (a "negative sum
shrinking energy pie:
Successful adaptation to peak oil requires that the whole world to cooperate as oil resources
dwindle. Is that possible?
Fooling evolved mental adaptations with virtual reality
So, what are we up against to avoid ecological overshoot? Nothing less
tenacious than human nature. Hopeless? Not sure yet.
If we are to have a chance to be "smarter than yeast", we have to
be smart enough to understand and manipulate our own psychological adaptations. We
have to "fool Mother Nature." We have to agree to fool
Can we? Yes. In
fact, it happens all the time today.
can enjoy films, TV and photos because they were not part of our ancestral
environment. We have no adaptations to counter these novel tricks -- we often have
difficulty distinguishing between virtual reality and reality.
For example, when
we watch a TV sitcom such as "Friends" we are fooled (at least on an emotional level) into
thinking the characters really are our friends. We may smile and say hello if we see Jennifer Aniston on the
street (she was in our living room, after all).
But, don't expect a reciprocal response, though. To Jennifer, of course, we are an intruding
stranger she has never met.
We cry and laugh at movies, despite the fact that we know what we are watching is just light
projected through film, the actors are reading from a script, and there is a sound guy holding a boom
mic standing just out of the frame. Sure, it is sad that the ship sank, but no one on the set
actually drowned. Nevertheless, our psychological adaptations are fooled, and we may leave
the theater a bit misty.
So, just as we can be
fooled by perceptual illusions, we can also be fooled by virtual reality psychological
Can we fool our psychological
adaptations to help to live sustainably on a finite planet? Probably.
If we know
enough about what "psychological buttons" we have as part of our evolved human nature,
we might be able to figure out which of our own psychological buttons to push to modify, or self-
control, our own behavior.
Engineered social self-influence, intentionally
designed activate psychological adaptations, may help to modify our own behavior to
help to mitigate ecological challenges. For example, we could consent to allow
government sponsored Public Service
Announcements (PSAs) -- media advertisements -- to help to change our self-destructive oil
helped to reduce another self-destructive habit -- smoking:
PSAs have also helped to increase the use of seat belts while
We need many more PSAs to help to reduce our self-destructive oil addition, and to
encourage the use of renewable energy.
We might also use our knowledge of our psychological
buttons to help us "keep 'down' with the Joneses." That is, if "down" is
redefined to mean higher status. Psychologist Robert Cialdini has written
several books about using "psychological illusions" to persuade people to do things they
otherwise might be disinclined to do. For example:
In one San Diego suburb, Cialdini's team went
door to door, ringing the doorknobs with signs about energy conservation. There were four types
of signs, and each home received one randomly, every week, ...for a month. The first sign urged the
homeowner to save energy for the environment's sake; the second said to do it for future
generations' benefit. The third sign pointed to the cash savings that would come
from conservation. The fourth sign featured Cialdini's trick: "The majority of your neighbors
are undertaking energy saving actions every day."
...(Cialdini also) decided to target the below-average
energy users with a special message.
"When we sent them the message saying you're doing better than your
neighbors, we put a smiley face emoticon next to their score," he said. "And that
kept them down below what any of their neighbors were
how simply redefining high social status (in this case, energy conservation) helped to change
In addition, women may
have a special role to play. They need to be prepped to find "ecological men" of
limited resource consumption really, really sexy. Unfortunately, sexual selection has designed women
to tend to prefer "alpha males" -- high status, high consumption, high resource control
men (in ancestral times, they helped women's children survive and thrive). Men are adapted to do
their darned best to give women what they want, or face reproductive oblivion. One way that
today's men have demonstrated their high status has been to drive big SUVs.
However, what if tomorrow women found the guy behind the
wheel of an electric car, electric scooter, or a bicycle irresistible? And, what if women sexually
rejected the guy driving a big, gas guzzling SUV?
And, again, powerful media / advertising messages can help
to fool our psychological adaptations. (This is called "social advertising" or "
social marketing.") We need to develop a strong "social narrative" of
mutual cooperation on a finite planet.
However, right now, we are getting advertising messages from oil and coal companies that
implicitly discourage the use of clean, renewable energy. For example, here is a commercial developed
by the coal industry that makes some dubious claims:
in the video above that the coal companies are not trying to directly sell you coal. They are
attempting to change your attitudes about coal, and thus create a social and political climate
favorable to their industry.
Here is a
parody commercial -- an oil company trying to change our attitudes about mixing oil and
Below is a video parody of a "clean coal" TV commercial:
Needed: A sustainability movement and world leadership that is not "near-
A new social movement is needed - a sustainability movement. This is particularly important for anyone who plans to live in the
Young people in particular need to mobilize and demand change
now. A grass-roots movement of the magnitude of the civil rights movement in
the 1960s, and the women's rights movement of the 1970s, is needed. Today no one
wants to be called a racist or a sexist. Those movements had clearly defined out-groups to
vilify as the "enemy" -- and that may have helped to mobilize and motivate
But who is the enemy
now? There is no out-group. The enemy is us. We are fighting against ourselves --
our base psychological adaptations to compete for relative status, mates and
And calling someone a
"non-sustainablist" doesn't have the same stigma or sting. Perhaps sometime in the
future it will.
In addition, will
those who are currently powerful expend their political capital to effect the desperately needed
emergency transition to renewable energy, and do so in time? This is an ultimate issue of vision
There is the rub.
Here is a brief video about the problem, and what we need to do to help to prepare
for a post-carbon future.
Politicians are like weather vanes; our job is to make the wind
blow. -- David Brower
The trouble is that once you see it, you canít un-see it. And once youíve
seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. Thereís no
innocence. Either way, you're accountable. -- Arundhati Roy
The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and
difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it.
-- President Obama, 1/21/2013
You can help to get the
word out. You can help to inform your family and friends. Email them the link to this, and to
other, peak oil web pages (see below for more resources). You can place posts with relevant
web links on your social media pages about the problem. You can keep informed.
You can meet with others in your community who understand the problem. You can help
your community develop the resources, and resilience, to prepare -- to re-localize
and become increasingly self-sufficient.
Below is a video clip from the film Fuel
about the "bottom up" political change that is
As noted in the video clips, you can help to inform and
lobby politicians. You can vote out of office those who don't support an emergency transition
to renewable energy.
You can start
to "be the change you want to see" by conserving energy and using renewable
energy. Sure, it may be a very small contribution. But other people will
Let's do our best to recognize and to accept the serious oil depletion problem we face,
and let's work cooperatively to help to mitigate what is likely to be a very challenging and difficult
transition period to renewable energy.
aware" psychotherapists who know the stress of the dawning awareness of Peak Oil, and who
wish to assist others in learning how to transform any frozen or destructive emotional reactions into
more proactive, productive responses.
PeakOilPreparation If you would like to read
and/or contribute to a new wiki about preparing for peak
1. Initially, higher prices for energy and food
items and a major recession. 2. Longer term, a decline in economic activity. 3. Transportation
difficulties and electrical outages. 4. Possible collapse of the monetary system. 5. Failure of
economic assumptions to hold. 6. Changed emphasis to more local production. 7. Reduced
emphasis on debt. 8. Reduced emphasis on insurance and pensions. 9. More people will perform
manual labor. 10. Resource wars and migration conflicts. 11. Changes in family
relationships. 12. Eventual population
Interview with 'Twilight in the Desert'
author Matt Simmons. Are the Saudis running out of oil, and are their reserve estimates
accurate? What other sources might help fill the gap? (Originally aired:
BBC Connections: The Trigger Effect. Excellent
program on our interdependence on fragile links between different forms of technology, with a focus
on the 1965 New York blackout, and the cascading technological collapses that followed. The film has
some quite ironic coincidences, showing the twin towers and an incoming flight with the flight number
911. This is the documentary that prompted the 1996 film by the same name.
Collapse. Film featuring Michael
Ruppert, by director Chris Smith. (2010)
Roundtable -- Financial Sense Newshour Features discussions with James Howard
Kunstler, author of "The Long Emergency," and Richard Heinberg, author,
"Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World." Also, Kenneth S. Deffeyes,
Beyond Oil:Current Events, "... we passed the peak on December 16, 2005..."
U.S. National Commission on Energy Policy -- Oil
On June 23, 2005, a group of nine former White
House cabinet and senior national security officials convened to participate in a simulated working
group of a White House cabinet. Their task: to advise an American president as the nation grapples
with an oil crisis over a seven-month period. As they enter the room, they are unaware of the
circumstances or nature of the oil crisis.
Behavioral Aspects of Peak Oil: Basic Contingencies, by Lyle Grant. Summary at TheOilDrum.com, and full paper (PDF) "Peak Oil as a Behavioral Problem" that appeared in
Behavior and Social Issues, 16, 65-88 (2007)
"peak oil aware"
psychotherapists who know the stress of the dawning awareness of Peak Oil, and who wish to assist
others in learning how to transform any frozen or destructive emotional reactions into more
proactive, productive responses.
Hope for some possible energy "technofixes"
(knock on wood that they
time, are rapidly scalable, have a high EROEI, are
renewable, clean and cheap):
The wiki New Energy Congress reviews
the most promising claims for up-and-coming clean, renewable, affordable, reliable energy
technologies, in order to come up with a weighted list of recommendations of the best technologies.
See, in particular, their Top 100 Technologies. Some of these are controversial (a
few might be criticized as outright cranks), while others are scientifically proven and commercially
available. See, in particular, the MagLev Wind
WSJ: The World Has Plenty of Oil, By
Nansen G. Saleri "Where do reasonable assumptions surrounding peak
oil lead us? My view, subjective and imprecise, points to a period between 2045
and 2067 as the most likely outcome."
"Most people assume linearity in environmental processes,
but the world is largely non-linear: it's a complex system. An important feature of complex
systems is that we donít know how they work. We donít understand them except in a general way;
we simply interact with them. Whenever we think we understand them, we learn we donít.
Youtube video: Global Warming and Other
Catastrophes Humorous (?) look at previous botched
predictions of pending world catastrophes in the media (to the
soundtrack of REM's "It's the End of the World As We Know