The un-Denial Decision Tree

This post was inspired by a comment from reader Kira. She asked if denying climate change was the same as denying death. I answered as follows:

“I suspect there are 2 main groups of people:

One group is the 95% of the population that doesn’t really understand the science or the severity of the problem. They see bad things happening with the weather, but they also hear on the news that countries have signed an agreement to prevent the temperature from rising more than 2 degrees, and they see neighbors buying solar panels and electric cars, which they’re told by experts are solutions to climate change, so their optimism bias that comes from genetic reality denial leads them to conclude that the climate problem is being addressed, and they put it out of mind.

The other group is the 5% that does understand the science and the severity of climate change. These people have enough intelligence and education to conclude that we are already screwed regardless of what we do, and that any effective mitigation effort must involve a rapid decrease in population and/or per capita consumption. It is within this group that genetic denial of unpleasant realities is operating in full force. Most of these experts genuinely believe that climate change can be safely constrained, and economic growth can continue, by replacing fossil energy with solar/wind energy and by using machines to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. These beliefs are so absurd, and so contrary to basic high school level science, that there can be no other explanation than genetic realty denial. In this group, maybe it is death that is the main thing being denied.”

Kira said she agreed and then suggested it might be better to let people, and especially young people, remain in blissful ignorance so that they do not become depressed and lose a sense of purpose.

I thought about it and created the following decision tree of possible paths to answer her question.

  1. Humans are in serious trouble
    1. Disagree (I believe in God or Steven Pinker)
      • path: Carry on and oppose anything that threatens your beliefs and lifestyle
    2. Agree (I believe my eyes)
      1. It’s too late to do anything useful (nature’s forces now dominate human forces)
        1. Agree (a reasonable position given the data, but only if you think other species don’t matter, and 8 billion suffering humans is no worse than 8 billion minus 1 suffering humans)
          • path: Try not to think about it and enjoy the good days that remain and/or do some prepping to extend your good days
        2. Disagree (there’s still time to make the future less bad, even if all we do is reduce harm to other species and/or total human suffering)
          1. Humans can’t or won’t change their behavior in time
            1. Agree (most of history says we only change when forced, and the coming debt/energy/climate collapse will be too severe for any good to come of it)
              • path: Try not to think about it and enjoy the good days that remain and/or do some prepping to extend your good days
            2. Disagree (I believe Sapolsky that behavior is plastic and we have enough energy left to build a softer landing zone)
              1. Genetic reality denial blocks any useful change
                1. Disagree (I deny that I deny reality)
                  • path: Make yourself feel good by recycling your garbage, shopping with reusable bags, buying an electric car, and voting Green
                2. Agree (it’s not possible to act optimally without understanding reality)
                  1. Awareness of genetic realty denial will increase awareness of reality
                    1. Disagree (most people just want to pay their bills and watch TV)
                      • path: Try not to think about it and enjoy the good days that remain and/or do some prepping to extend your good days
                    2. Agree (most people want to learn)
                      1. Awareness of reality will cause positive behavior changes
                        1. Disagree (if the majority understood reality it would be Mad Max)
                          • path: Try not to think about it and enjoy the good days that remain and/or do some prepping to extend your good days
                        2. Agree (most people want to do the right thing, especially if pain is shared fairly)

This tree of (usually subconscious) decisions a person must make to decide which path to take about human overshoot results in 7 possible paths.

Six of the paths do not improve the outcome. One of the paths might improve the outcome, but has a very low probability of success because it’s currently occupied by a single old uncharismatic antisocial engineer.

Most people who really understand our overshoot predicament would probably discard my complicated decision tree and focus on a single issue: humans can’t or won’t change.

This view was recently voiced by reader Apneaman in a comment:

But can’t/wont. Have not.

Why? Like Sabine says…………

Now, some have tried to define free will by the “ability to have done otherwise”. But that’s just empty words. If you did one thing, there is no evidence you could have done something else because, well, you didn’t. Really there is always only your fantasy of having done otherwise.

No plan, no matter how spiffy & technically feasible, or logical argument can convince me that the humans are capable of collective change. I’ll need to see it to believe it. Same as God. Only Jesus floating down from the firmament & performing 10 miracles that are so spectacular they would make illusionist David Copperfield blush could convince me of the supernatural.

While true that it’s difficult to cause people to collectively do things they find unpleasant, or that conflict with the MPP objectives of their genes, it’s not impossible and not without precedent. I gave the following examples:

When the Canadian government says to its citizens:

  • Everyone must pay about 50% of their income as tax to operate the country.
    • Most citizens comply, and those that don’t are usually caught and forced to pay an extra penalty.
  • Germany has attacked our friend and we need our young men to risk their lives by fighting a war on a different continent.
    • Most eligible young men volunteered.
  • A virus threatens to overrun our healthcare system and we need citizens to stay at home except for essential activities which must be conducted with a mask.
    • Most citizens will comply.

Now if the Canadian government said to its citizens the combined threats of climate change and diesel depletion threaten our food security within 10 years, so we are putting in place incentives to encourage local food production and processing, and to decrease food imports, I think most citizens would support the plan.

If then after a couple years of further study and communication on the threat, the government said we don’t think there will be enough food to support our population in 10 years so we are stopping immigration and requiring families to have no more than one child, I think most citizens would comply.

The issue of course is that the Canadian government is not going to acknowledge or act on our overshoot threat in this manner.

Why?

I think it’s due to our genetic tendency to deny unpleasant realities, whenever we can get away with it.

Taxes, war, and viruses are very unpleasant, but they’re in your face and impossible to deny.

Food shortages 10 years out are easy to deny.

How do we change this?

It has to start with discussing and trying to understand our genetic tendency to deny unpleasant realities. Hence the path I’ve personally chosen in the above tree.

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