Thanks to James at Megacancer for bringing my attention to this 2011 essay by Dr. Michael Mills, an associate professor of psychology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles California. The interests of Dr. Mills include the evolutionary psychology of peak oil.
In this essay Mills demonstrates an excellent understanding of human overshoot, and uses his expertise in evolutionary psychology to offer strategies for shifting human behavior in a more sustainable direction.
As shown in the graph below, this is an example of a general phenomenon. All species suffer population collapse or species extinction if they overshoot and degrade the carrying capacity of their ecology.
This is also the fate that awaits bacteria growing in a Petri dish, as you might remember from your high school biology course. Imagine a Petri dish with enough nutrients to support a growing bacteria culture until the dish is completely full of them. One bacterium is placed inside the dish at 11:00am, and the population of bacteria doubles every minute — such that the Petri dish will be full by noon.
At what time will the Petri dish be half full of bacteria?
Most people reply incorrectly that the Petri dish will be half full at 11:30am, because we are more familiar with linear, rather than with exponential, rates of growth. The correct answer is 11:59am — which seems rather unintuitive. However, because the rate of growth is exponential (doubling every minute) the time at which the Petri dish is half full is 11:59am. With just one more doubling, in the next minute, the Petri dish is completely full, at noon.
Anyone who perceives a linear rate of growth, but who is actually up against an exponential rate of growth, is likely to be very surprised at how the end comes very quickly and seemingly out of nowhere. They will be completely blindsided.
Generally it is healthy to be optimistic, but optimism can be deadly if it produces a Pollyannaish denial of real problems. We should not ignore ecological problems by assuming “someone else” will take care of it, or that “the free market” or “technological breakthroughs” will always come to the rescue in time. Solutions may not come in time, and we may get quite a rude Malthusian smack down later.
One example of resource depletion is the gradual depletion of fossil fuels, especially oil. The amount of oil produced by a particular oil field, or a region, shows a regular pattern: first oil production increases, then it reaches a peak, and, finally, as the oil field begins to dry up, oil production starts to decline. World “peak oil” is when world oil production peaks, and then starts an inexorable decline as oil fields start to dry up. Many experts believe that world oil production has already peaked, or that it will occur within the next few years. This presents us with a problem: as of now, no combination of renewable energy sources can scale up quickly enough, or provide anywhere near the energy equivalent of oil. We can anticipate that the world is about to enter a severe, worldwide energy shortage. Since food production is so dependent on energy production, following an energy famine will be a food famine. Many poor people, especially in developing countries, will literally starve to death as oil energy depletes.
Optimists will be quick to rebut that shale oil has pushed oil production to record highs since Mills wrote this. I would remind those optimists that it took unprecedented zero percent interest rates, many trillions of unrepayable debt to force growth equal to only 25% of the debt, investors willing to pour money into unprofitable fracking companies, and a socially destabilizing increase in the wealth gap to achieve this increase in oil production.
The 1972 book Limits to Growth also made some pretty frightening predictions back in 1972, as did the follow-up book in 2004 Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update. Using computer simulations, they predicted a world peak population around mid-century, followed by population decline.
Given that these predictions are now approaching 40 years old, how accurate were they? Are they still on track today?
The analysis shows that 30 years of historical data compares favorably with key features… [of the Limits to Growth] ‘standard run’ scenario, which results in collapse of the global system midway through the 21st Century.” To prevent this scenario, the Limits to Growth authors suggested that we must achieve ecological sustainability by 2022 to avoid serious ecological overshoot and population collapse.
Mills then gets to the meat of his essay:
Can evolutionary psychology provide insights to aid in our survival?
Can humans be “smarter than yeast?” Can we be the only species that can successfully anticipate and avoid ecological overshoot and collapse? Issues of sustainability are psychological problems. Are we sufficiently psychologically sophisticated to manage our own collective behavior to achieve sustainability on a finite planet?
One sobering answer provided by evolutionary psychology is that we, like all other species, have no evolved psychological adaptations designed specifically to perceive, anticipate and avoid ecological overshoot. In fact, we have just the opposite.
One problem is that inclusive fitness, the “designer” of psychological adaptations, is always relative to others; it is not absolute. That is, nature doesn’t “say,” “Have two 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 along now…” Instead, nature “says” (relative inclusive fitness): “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 four, then you go for five… “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 means that may have generally helped to increase inclusive fitness, such as status, conspicuous consumption, and resource acquisition and control.
If we are to have a fighting chance to be “smarter than yeast,” we have to out-smart our own psychological adaptations; we have to “fool Mother Nature.” Garrett Harden recognized that the problem of ecological overshoot is the tragedy of the commons writ large. He suggested that the way to solve the tragedy of the commons was “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected.” That is, we must consent, collectively, to use our knowledge of our psychological adaptations to tweak them in the service of sustainability.
For example, we can use such knowledge to manipulate our own perceptions of status so that we actually compete to reduce our consumption of finite resources, such that we compete to “keep down with the Joneses.”
Mills thinks we can hack our behavior with psychological tricks if the majority of citizens understand our overshoot predicament and consent to being manipulated.
He then provides some examples of psychological techniques that have been, or could be, successful at changing human behaviors:
- Foster competition (and status) for being more sustainable than your neighbors.
- Manipulate women to prefer men with more sustainable lifestyles.
- Use virtual reality to trick ourselves into treating all humans as if they belonged to our tribe.
- Create psychological illusions that cause us to treat ecological issues as personal issues, and the entire planet as our tribal territory.
- Use Public Service Announcements (PSAs) to change behaviors, like the successful campaign to promote seat belt use.
Mills concludes by saying we need a new sustainability movement that makes being a “consumerist” as toxic as being a “racist” or “sexist”.
A new social movement is needed – a sustainability movement. This is particularly important for anyone who plans to live in the future. 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 (but being called a “consumerist” does not yet sting). Those movements had clearly defined out-groups to vilify as the “enemy” — and that may have helped to mobilize and motivate activists.
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 resources. Evolutionary psychology can help by identifying which of our “psychological buttons” might be manipulated to promote sustainability. But we must collectively agree to manipulate our psychological adaptations to attempt to “transcend” our self-ecocidal nature. If we succeed, there may be a glimmer of hope of mitigating our own ecological overshoot, and the potential Malthusian nightmares of the future.
I like the creative ideas offered here by Mills and wish we would try them. Unfortunately it seems we must first find a way to break through our denial of overshoot reality before we can obtain the consent of citizens to be manipulated.
On the other hand, we allow ourselves to be manipulated every day without consent by the commercial advertisements and agenda driven media messages that crowd our daily lives. There’s a clear precedent here to proceed without consent.
Perhaps all we need is a wise government to get on with hacking our behavior to have fewer children and consume less.
But then we’d need a government that was not in denial, which means we’d have to elect genetic mutants, which I’ve proposed in the past.
Which brings us full circle to the core problem discussed many times on this blog:
Finding a way to pick our genetic reality denial lock is the key to any progress, and possibly the survival of our species. This is a hard lock to pick because denial of denial is the strongest form of denial.
I wish Mills would study Varki’s MORT theory and write another essay.
As an aside, check out the comments left by the readers of Mill’s essay. They offer a nice snapshot of the human belief system. Several intelligent people attempt to poke holes in Mill’s thesis, and Mills then calmly and rationally responds with the facts on why they are wrong. Not one reader changes their views. Not one reader stands up and says “great ideas, let’s try them”.