Why My Interest in Denial?

I’ve been aware of our overshoot predicament for a decade and have moved on from studying specific aspects of human overshoot. 

What fascinates me now is our collective denial and inability to discuss or act on overshoot, despite some threats being imminent.

I used to believe denial was caused by a lack of awareness and understanding, but having made an effort to educate many people, and observing that they almost always aggressively choose not to understand, I began to look for a different explanation.

I concluded that denial must be an inherited behavior because every country, culture, political party, and religion is in denial. And denial must be central to who we are as a species because of its depth, breadth, and aggressiveness.

A few years ago I stumbled on Varki’s Mind Over Reality theory and a light went on. Varki’s theory provides the most simple, logical, plausible, and probable answer to the big questions that demand an answer:

  1. Why has no other species achieved our brain power despite common evolutionary forces and fitness advantages? Other advantageous inventions, like the eye, evolved several times, yet our brain, which is so advantageous it enabled us to take over the planet, has evolved only once.
  2. Why did all 7 billion of us emerge from one small tribe in Africa? And why did that tribe replace the many other similar hominid species?
  3. What genetic change occurred about 100,000 years ago that must be both modest in complexity and extreme in effect to explain the explosive emergence and dominance of behaviorally modern humans?
  4. Why do most people deny the many obvious dimensions of human overshoot like over-population, climate change, sea level rise, peak oil, resource depletion, soil loss, aquifer depletion, nitrogen imbalance, species extinction, fisheries collapse, and ocean acidification?
  5. Why do many people deny personal health realities like smoking, poor diet, lack of exercise, and obesity?
  6. Why do people who are aware of denial (like myself) deny the cancer risk of red meat? 🙂
  7. Why do many people deny scientific realities like evolution, climate change, thermodynamics, vaccine utility, and the improbability of UFOs?
  8. Why do most people deny economic realities like the impossibility of infinite growth on a finite planet, unsustainable debt, and asset bubbles?
  9. Why do many people choose to believe fake news, like the Russians are to blame?
  10. Why do many people seek to avoid all forms of reality with mind altering drugs?
  11. Why do democratic elections never discuss, or debate, or even whisper about, the issues associated with overshoot? What could be more important to vote on?
  12. Why don’t environmental political parties, like the Green party, have overshoot policies in their platforms?
  13. Why do experts commonly and aggressively ignore or deny the most important (and unpleasant) facts associated with their domain? Economics, climate change, renewable energy, and nutrition being notorious examples.
  14. Why do people who understand climate change rarely modify their lifestyles to reduce CO2 emissions?
  15. Why are humans the only species with religions?
  16. Why did religions emerge simultaneous with the behaviorally modern human brain?
  17. Why has every human group everywhere through all history had some form of religion?
  18. Why does every one of the thousands of religions think it is the only (or most) true religion?
  19. Why does every religion, including new religions like Scientology, have a life after death story? Many aspects of religion can be easily explained by their positive affect on group survival, but it is not easy to explain why every religion denies death with a life after death story. A few random religions with life after death stories might be reasonable, but not every religion, unless the need for a life after death story has a genetic basis.
  20. Why do many atheists retain some form of spirituality which usually includes a belief in some form of life after death?

By Alice Friedemann: Big Fight: 21 top scientists show why Jacobson and Delucchi’s renewable scheme is a delusional fantasy

This summary by Alice Friedemann of a dispute in the scientific community over the viability of renewable energy is excellent and worth reading in its entirety.

What really stands out for me is that the 21 scientists that criticized the absurdly optimistic renewable energy plan of Jacobson and Delucchi completely missed the most important points that require criticism.

It is amazing that otherwise intelligent experts frequently ignore THE most important things they should understand.

Other examples include:

  • economists who ignore debt and the relationship between energy and wealth;
  • climate scientists who ignore the relationship between CO2 and wealth;
  • dietary health experts who ignore the link between sugar and obesity;
  • environmentalists who ignore over-population;
  • citizens who believe in life after death and deny other unpleasant facts.

This denial behavior is so common and so powerful that it requires an explanation like Varki’s Mind Over Reality theory.

http://energyskeptic.com/2017/big-fight-21-top-scientists-show-why-jacobson-and-delucchis-renewable-scheme-is-a-delusional-fantasy/

Many authors have been writing for years about why Jacobson and Delucchi’s (J & D) plans for a 100% low-cost renewable energy is a cloud cuckoo-land fantasy (references below).  But never so many, so loudly, and in such a prestigious journal (Clack 2017).

The 21 authors of the PNAS article felt compelled to write this because J & D’s irresponsible fairy tales are starting to influence actual policy and waste money.  If cities and states set renewable goals of 100% and try to achieve them with the J & D plan, their spending will be wasted because the J & D plan leaves out biofuels, grid-scale battery storage, nuclear, and coal energy with CCS.

The most important problems with achieving a 100% renewable system are not even mentioned (Friedemann 2015c).

Renewable contraptions cannot outlast finite fossil fuels, because they are utterly dependent on fossil fuels from birth to death to mine, crush, and smelt the ore, deliver the ore to a blast furnace, fabricate 8,000 wind turbine parts at hundreds of manufacturing plants all over the world, and deliver the parts to the assembly plant.  For each turbine, dozens of trucks are needed to prepare the wind turbine site so that dozens of cement trucks can pour tons of concrete and steel rebar for the platform, deliver pieces of the huge parts of the turbine, and diesel powered cranes to lift the parts hundreds of feet into the air.

In their 2011 paper, the J & D 100% renewable system would be accomplished with 3.8 million 5-MW wind turbines (50% of power), 49,000 solar thermal plants (20%), 40,000 solar PV plants (14%), 1.7 billion rooftop PV systems (6%), 5350 geothermal plants (4%), 900 hydroelectric power plants (4%), and marine hydrokinetic devices (2%).   Their 2015 paper has somewhat different but equally unrealistic numbers.

It is questionable whether there’s enough material on earth to build all these contraptions and continue to do so every 20 years (wind) to 30 years (solar).  Fossil fuels will grow more and more scarce, which means cement, steel, rare (earth) metals, and so on will decline as well.  Keep in mind that a 2 MW turbine uses 900 tons of material: 1300 tons concrete, 295 tons steel, 48 tons iron, 24 tons fiberglass, 4 tons copper, .4 tons neodymium, .065 tons dysprosium (Guezuraga, USGS).  The enormous demand for materials would likely drive prices up, and the use of recycled metals cannot be assumed, since downcycling degrades steel, perhaps to less strength than required.

The PNAS authors propose grid-scale batteries, but the only kind of battery for which there are enough materials on earth are Sodium-sulfur NaS batteries (Barnhart 2013).  To store just one day of U.S. electricity generation (and at least 6 to 8 weeks would be needed to cope with the seasonal nature of wind and solar), you would need a 923 square mile, 450 million ton, $40.77 trillion dollar NaS battery that needs replacement every 15 years (DOE/EPRI 2013).  Lead-acid: $8.3 trillion, 271.5 square miles, 15.8 million tons.  Li-ion $11.9 trillion, 345 square miles, 74 million tons.

There are dozens of reasons why wind power will not outlast fossil fuels (Friedemann 2015b), including the scale required, the need to increase installation rates 37-fold in 13 years (Radford 2016), population increasing faster than wind turbines to provide for their needs can be built, wind is seasonal – very little in the entire U.S. in the summer, no commercial wind year round in the South East, a national grid, no commercial energy storage at utility scale in sight, plus a financial crisis or war will likely break the supply chains as companies go out of business.

Okay, drum roll.  The biggest problem is that electricity does not matter. This is a liquid transportation fuels crisis. Trucks can’t run on electricity ( http://energyskeptic.com/category/fastcrash/electric-trucks-impossible/  ).

The Achilles heel of civilization is our dependency on trucks that run on diesel because it is so energy dense. This is why diesel engines are far more powerful than steam, gasoline, electric, battery-driven or any other motive power on earth (Smil 2010).  Billions of trucks and equipment worth trillions of dollars are required to keep the supply chains going over tens of millions of miles of roads, rail, and waterways that every person and business on earth depends on.  Equally if not more important are off-road mining, agriculture, construction, logging, and other trucks.  They not only need to travel on rough ground, but meanwhile push, lift, dig and perform other tasks far from the electric grid or non-oil distribution system.

Trucks must eventually be electrified, because biomass doesn’t scale up and has negative or break-even energy return, coal and natural gas are finite, and hydrogen /hydrogen fuel cells are dependent on a non-existent distribution system and far from commercial. In my book, I show why trucks can’t run on electricity, as well as why a 100% renewable grid is impossible. 

The authors briefly point out that one way to counter wind and solar intermittency is an energy source that can be dispatched when needed.  But they neglected to mention that natural gas plays most of this role now.  But natural gas is finite, and has equally important uses of making fertilizer, feedstock and energy source to make hundreds of millions of chemicals, heating homes and buildings, and so on.  All of these roles will have to be taken on by biomass after fossils are gone, yet another reason why biomass doesn’t scale up.

J & D propose a month of hydrogen storage to power transportation.  But hydrogen boils off within a week since it is the smallest element and can escape through atomic scale imperfections. It is not an energy source, it’s an energy sink from start to finish.  First it takes a tremendous amount of energy to split hydrogen from oxygen.  That’s why 96% of hydrogen comes from finite natural gas.  And a tremendous amount more energy to compress or liquefy it to -423 F and keep it chilled.  It is so destructive of metal that expensive alloys are needed for the steel pipelines and storage containers, making a distribution system too expensive.  A $1.3 million dollar hydrogen fuel cell truck would require a very heavy and inefficient fuel cell with an overall efficiency of just 24.7%: 84% NG upstream and liquefaction * 67% H2 on-board reforming * 54% fuel cell efficiency * 84% electric motor and drivetrain efficiency * 97% aero & rolling resistance efficiency, and even less than that without an expensive 25 kWh li-ion battery to capture regenerative braking (DOE 2011, Friedemann 2016). And far less than 24.7% efficient if the hydrogen were made from water with electrolysis.

J & D propose thermal energy storage in the ground.  The only renewable that has storage are concentrated solar plants, but CSP plants provide just 0.06% of U.S. energy because each plant costs about a billion dollars each, and scaled up, would need to use stone, which is much cheaper than molten salt. A 100 MW facility would need 5.1 million tons of rock taking up 2 million cubic meters (Welle 2010). Since stone is a poor heat conductor, the thick insulating walls required might make this unaffordable (IEA 2011b). J & D never mention insulating walls, let alone the energy and cost of building them.  The PNAS paper also says that phase-change material energy storage is far from commercial and still has serious problems to solve such as poor thermal conductivity, corrosion, material degradation, thermal stress durability, and cost-effective mass production methods.

The authors suggest bioenergy, but this is not feasible. Trucks can’t burn ethanol, diesohol, or even gasoline.  Biofuels (and industrial agriculture) destroy topsoil, which in the past was a major or main reason why all past civilizations failed.  It also depletes aquifers that won’t be recharged until after the next ice age.   And biomass simply doesn’t scale up.  Burning it is far more energy efficient than the dozens of steps needed to make biofuels, each step taking energy. Yet even if we burned every plant plus and their roots in America, the energy produced would be less than the fossil fuel energy consumed that year, and we’d all have to pretend we liked living on Mars for many years after our little experiment. Friedemann (2015a) has many other examples of the scaling up issues, ecological, energy, and other issues with biofuels.

Nuclear is not an option due to peak uranium, and the findings of the National Academy of Sciences about lessons learned from Fukushima. It’s also too expensive, with 37 plants likely to shut down (Cooper 2013).  And leaving thousands of sites with nuclear waste lasting hundreds of thousands of years for our descendants to deal with after fossil fuels are gone in an industrially poisoned world is simply the most evil of all the horrible things we’re doing to the planet (Alley 2013).

The book “Our renewable future” (Heinberg & Fridley 2016) was written to show those who believe in Jacobson and Delucchi’s fairy tales how difficult, if not impossible it would be to make this happen. Though I fear many of their major points were probably ignored or forgotten, with readers deciding that 100% renewables were possible, even if difficult, since the book was too gentle and abstract. For example, they mention that there are no ways to make cement and steel with electricity, because these industries depend on huge blast furnaces that run for 4 to 10 years non-stop because any interruption would cause the brick lining to cool down and damage it.  It is not likely a 100% wind and solar electricity system to be up 24 x 7 x 365.  That’s a real  showstopper.  But the average person believes in infinite human ingenuity that can overcome the laws of physics and doesn’t worry…

J & D include wave and tidal devices, but these are far from being commercial and unlikely to ever be due to salt corrosion, storm waves, and dozens of other problems (NRC 2013).

I’m not as concerned about the incorrect J & D calculations for GHG emissions, because we are at or near peak oil and coal, and natural gas.  Many scientists have published peer-reviewed papers that based on realistic reserves of fossil fuels, rather than the unlimited amounts of fossils the IPCC assumes, there is a consensus that the worst case scenario likely to be reached is RPC 4.5 (Brecha 2008, Capellan-Perez 2016, Chiari 2011, Dale 2012, Doose 2004, Hook 2010, Hook 2013, and 10+ more).  Also, coal is finite, and carbon capture and storage technology so far from being commercial, and uses up 30 to 40% of the energy contained in the coal, that it’s unlikely to be used when blackouts start to happen more and more often (http://energyskeptic.com/category/energy/coal/carbonstorage/).

We’re running out of time.  Conventional oil peaked in 2005. That’s where 90% of our oil comes from at a Niagra Falls rate.  Tar sands and other non-conventional oil simply can’t be produced at such a high rate.  So it doesn’t matter how much there is, Niagra Falls will slow to a trickle, far less than what we use today.  And since energy is the basis of growth, not money, it is questionable if our credit/debit system can survive, since once peak oil is acknowledged, creditors will know they can’t be repaid.

Also, oil is the master resource that makes all other resources available. We don’t have enough time to  replace billions of diesel engines with something else.  There is nothing else. And 12 years after peak the public is still buying gas guzzlers.

By Ajit Varki: Mind Over Reality Transition: The Evolution of Human Mortality Denial

My hero and one of the originators of the most important idea since Darwin gave this talk on March 3, 2017 in which he explains the Mind Over Reality theory that he and Danny Brower developed and discussed in their book and which underpins this blog.

Dr. Varki, being a humble and cautious scientist, does not amplify the implications of his theory so I will do it for him here because I have no reputation to protect.

The Mind Over Reality theory explains the:

After reflecting on this list for a few minutes, and assuming that in time Varki’s theory is proven to be correct, you may begin to appreciate why I think this theory is THE most important idea for understanding our origin, our special place in the universe, and our destructive behaviors that threaten our existence. 

A pleasant fact I learned from the talk is that despite having a solemn demeanor Dr. Varki has a killer sense of humor.

Here is the abstract for the talk:

Some aspects of human cognition and behavior appear unusual or exaggerated relative to those of other intelligent, warm-blooded, long-lived social species––including certain mammals (cetaceans, elephants and great apes) and birds (corvids and passerines). One such collection of related features is our facile ability for reality denial in the face of clear facts, a high capacity for self-deception and false beliefs, overarching optimism bias and irrational risk-taking behavior––traits that should be maladaptive when they first appear as hard-wired features in individuals of any species. Meanwhile, available data suggest that self-awareness (knowledge of one’s own personhood) and basic theory of mind (ToM, also termed mind-reading, intentionality etc.) have independently emerged several times, particularly in the same kinds of species mentioned above.  Despite a long-standing opportunity spanning tens of millions of years, only humans appear to have then evolved an extended ToM (multilevel intentionality), a trait required for optimal expression of many other unusual cognitive attributes of our species, such as advanced linguistic communication and cumulative cooperative culture. The conventional view is that extended ToM emerged gradually in human ancestors, via stepwise positive selection of multiple traits that were each beneficial. A counterintuitive alternate possibility is that establishment of extended ToM has been repeatedly obstructed in all other species with the potential to achieve it, due to a “psychological evolutionary barrier“.  This barrier is claimed to arise in isolated individuals of a given species that develop the genetic ability for extended ToM.  Such individuals would then observe deaths of others whose minds they fully understood, become aware of mortality, and translate that knowledge into an understanding of personal mortality.  The conscious realization and exaggeration of an already existing intrinsic fear of death risk would have then reduced the reproductive fitness of such isolated individuals (by favoring personal survival over reproduction).  The barrier would have persisted until hominin ancestors broke through via a rare and unlikely combination of cognitive changes, in which two intrinsically maladaptive traits (Reality Denial and Extended ToM) combined in the same individuals, to allow a “Mind over Reality Transition”. Once the barrier was broken, conventional natural selection could take over, with further evolution of beneficial aspects of the initial changes. This theory also provides a unifying evolutionary explanation for other unusual features of humans, including recent emergence as the dominant species on the planet, and replacement of all other closely related evolutionary cousins, with limited interbreeding and no hybrids. While not directly falsifiable by experiment, the theory fits with numerous facts about humans and human origins, and no known fact appears to strongly militate against it. It is also consistent with most other currently viable theories on the subject including Terror Management Theory.  Importantly, it has major implications for the human condition, as well as for many serious issues, ranging all the way from personal health responsibility to global climate change.

Varki, A. Human uniqueness and the denial of death. Nature. 460:684. 2009.

Varki, A., and Brower, D. Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind. Twelve Books, New York. 2013.

Varki, A.: Thought Experiment: Dating the Origin of Us. The Scientist 27:28-29, 2013.

Varki, A.: Why are there no persisting hybrids of humans with Denisovans, Neanderthals, or anyone else? Proc Natl Acad Sci U.S.A. 113: E2354, 2016.

By Wolf Richter: What Happens When the Machines Start Selling?

This. Will. Not. End. Well.

It’s shocking what’s happened to the “free market” and invisible hand.

In the good old days not so long ago the price of a stock was determined by a company’s profit, growth potential, and balance sheet. With of course some irrational exuberance thrown in from time to time.

Today reality is irrelevant. Everything is now irrationally exuberant on steroids.

Take 5 minutes to read this if you have any investments.

http://wolfstreet.com/2017/06/15/what-happens-when-the-machines-start-selling/

The infamous FAANG stocks – Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google’s parent Alphabet – along with other “tech” stocks have been getting “hammered,” to use a term that for now exaggerates their “plight.” The FAANG stocks are down between 1.7% and 2.5% at the moment and between 5.5% and 11% since their peak on June 8. Given how far these stocks have soared over the past few years, this selloff is just a barely visible dip.

But fundamental analysis has long been helpless in explaining the surge in stocks. The shares of Amazon now sport a Price-Earnings ratio of 180, when classic fundamental analyses might lose interest at a PE ratio of 18 for the profit-challenged growth company that has been around for over two decades. For them, the stock price might have to come down 90% before it makes sense.

Or Netflix, with a PE ratio of 195. Or companies like Tesla. Forget a PE ratio. There are no earnings. The company might never make any money. Its sales are so minuscule in the overall US automotive market that they get lost as a rounding error. It bought Elon Musk’s failing solar-panel company as a way to bail it out. And the battery-cell technology Tesla uses comes from Panasonic. So what should a company like this be worth? Fundamental analysis has been completely irrelevant: Tesla’s current stock price gives it a market capitalization of $61 billion.

So investors trying to sort through this mess by using fundamental analysis have been left in the dust years ago. Fundamentals no longer matter in this market. Valuations have been surgically removed from any sense of fundamental reality.

There are a lot of reasons for this, including the enormous amounts of liquidity in the markets, after the Fed, the ECB, the Bank of Japan, the Bank of England, and the Swiss National Bank have created $11 trillion out of nothing since the onset of the Financial Crisis and used that money to buy $11 trillion of securities – in the SNB’s and BOJ’s case even common stocks. They now sit on $15 trillion in assets.

Under such relentless buying pressure, fundamentals in the markets have become useless. People still truly engaged in it – rather than in churning out “fundamental” rationalizations for irrational stock prices – are being ridiculed. But algorithms have picked up the slack.

“The majority of equity investors today don’t buy or sell stocks based on stock specific fundamentals,” Marko Kolanovic, global head of quantitative and derivatives research at JPMorgan, explained in a note to clients, cited by CNBC.

“Fundamental discretionary traders” now account for only about 10% of trading volume in stocks, he said. Passive and quantitative investing account for about 60%; this share has more than doubled over the past decade.

These “big data strategies are increasingly challenging traditional fundamental investing and will be a catalyst for changes in the years to come,” he said.

Since fundamental analysis of specific stocks and companies no longer influences trading decisions, the sell-off in tech stocks can’t be the doing of those still hopelessly clinging to fundamental analysis. Instead, it was likely associated with some change in strategy by quantitative and algorithmic trading. The algorithms were reacting to something.

But these algorithms – many of them written by people who went to the same schools and learned the same things – and the vast amounts of data they churn through end up doing similar things, following similar strategies, and producing similar results. Hence, the surge of FAANG stocks and other stocks to where fundamentals are just a quaint reminder of a bygone era.

But without fundamentals, what will hold up stock prices, once the quantitative strategies shift without notice and see selling as the opportunity, and other algos react to those market data points and follow them or try to run ahead of them? No one knows.

This environment has amassed phenomenal risks. These shifts, as we have seen with the tech stocks, can occur without prior notice, without obvious trigger. They occur because an algo sets it off and other algos follow since they react to each other, and the whole machinery can suddenly go into reverse and get stuck in it.

Quant hedge funds – where trading is done by machines, not humans – now dominate stock trading.

Gigadenial

It takes gigadenial to believe gigafactories will save us.

Isn’t it interesting that the only scenario that might keep us below an extinction threatening 4-6 degrees C, and the only scenario that is probable, namely economic collapse, is the only scenario that climate scientists have not studied?

Economic collapse is an important scenario to study because most people in the developed world consume far more of everything than is required to subsist and therefore could survive some level of economic collapse.

On the other hand, most people will not survive if economic growth continues as desired (or even if growth slows) because the size of our economy is creating a climate incompatible with civilization.

Economic collapse will cut CO2 emissions (good) but also sun blocking pollution (bad). It’s not clear which force is the most powerful. This means economic collapse could save us, or it could make things worse.

It would be useful to know if economic collapse is on balance good or bad when we are asked to vote for candidates that promise to continue to print money to avoid collapse.

In case you are not aware, the amount of money printed by central banks to prop up assets recently increased to about $300,000,000,000 per month worldwide. That’s about $1.50 per day for every person on the planet conjured out of thin air, and is the only reason things seem to be sort of ok, and why real estate and stocks continue to rise despite poor fundamentals.

Unfortunately the printed money is not increasing the incomes of the poor and middle class because of reasons associated with the depletion of inexpensive fossil energy that are discussed elsewhere on this blog.

Rising asset prices and stagnant incomes means the wealth gap between the rich and poor is widening which is causing social unrest to build as demonstrated by recent unexpected election and referendum outcomes around the world.

It’s an open question rooted in emotions and herd behavior as to how much longer money printing will stave off economic collapse.

By Aaron Thierry: The Brutal Logic of Climate Change

A must watch. One of the best talks I’ve seen on climate change.

It’s not a future problem. We’re in the midst of an emergency. Dramatic action is required today.

Unfortunately, like almost every other climate scientist, he does not have a clue when it comes to energy and the economy and he veers off into woo-woo hopium land when discussing solutions.

We need fewer and poorer people. Also known as economic collapse. Nothing else will help.

On a positive note, fewer people improves every one of the many overshoot problems we face, not just climate change.