un-Denial = unmasking denial
I belong to a small tribe of people interested in human overshoot.
We try to integrate evolution, behavior, thermodynamics, ecology, history, and economics into an understanding of what is going on and what might be ahead.
Unlike other larger tribes that focus on one aspect of overshoot such as climate change, species extinction, fisheries collapse, deforestation, tree die-off, nitrogen imbalance, pollution, soil loss, aquifer depletion, resource depletion, peak oil, or unsafe debt to GDP, my tribe focuses on the system of problems, their underlying causes, and possible paths forward.
After studying and (I think) understanding our predicament, I became fascinated with the fact that society does not acknowledge or discuss, let alone plan or act, in an honest and meaningful way, on any of our larger problems, despite some threats being imminent.
After observing many intelligent people and organizations come to wrong conclusions, and after attempting to educate friends and family, I concluded that the absence of useful discussion and action is not caused by a lack of knowledge or intelligence. Most people actively and aggressively deny the existence and causes of the problems. They do not want a deeper understanding.
My fascination with denial grew with my awareness of it. On the one hand, our problems are huge and obvious, like an elephant in your living room. On the other hand, denial is widespread across all countries, cultures, religions, political parties, and education levels. This led me to conclude that denial must have a genetic component.
As an aside, my fascination with denial started at an early age as an atheist when I struggled to understand how anyone could deny what seemed an obvious conclusion about religions. Or how societies are admired rather than criticized for investing all of their surplus wealth in structures like pyramids to communicate with their gods.
Along the way I met some smart people who had explored human behavior and they pointed to many known behaviors that partially explain our destructiveness and the denial thereof such as optimism bias, god belief, rationalizing, creeping normality, steep discounting (preferring the present over the future), maximum power principal (maximizing resource capture), novelty seeking (dopamine response), status seeking, inability to understand exponential math or probabilities, tragedy of the commons, tribal warfare calculus, etc.
But I was not convinced. The denial I saw was so strong and so pervasive I felt there had to be a better explanation.
Then I stumbled on a book published in 2013 titled “Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind” by Ajit Varki and Danny Brower. They propose that a mutation for denying reality is what enabled the evolution of the brain that makes us human. A short version of the theory by me is here, a longer version by the authors is here, and a video version is here.
A light went on and I became genuinely excited. Perhaps like the people who first read Darwin’s book might have felt.
I read the book a few more times and then tried to find people in my tribe interested in reading and discussing the book. After failing to persuade a single person to read it, which I sometimes speculate may be more evidence of denial, in this case denial of denial, I gave up and formed a smaller sub-tribe of one and started scribbling thoughts and collecting information of interest to me.
Eventually I accumulated some material and tired of being alone so I decided to flip the switch on my blog from private to public in the hope of meeting a few like-minded people for companionship and discussion of a revolutionary new theory.
Here are the themes and tones of this site.
For the reasons explained above, I highlight examples of denial and discuss Varki’s theory throughout.
I’m a student and admirer of Tim Garrett’s work to explain our economy with the laws of thermodynamics and to model the relationship between wealth, energy, and climate change. Everything I think and write about is underpinned by Garrett. I don’t see Garrett’s work discussed a lot elsewhere, and I don’t think you can have a useful and honest discussion about climate change or the economy without understanding his work.
I’m a student and admirer of Steve Keen for his work in explaining the importance of debt and how it works in our economy. I don’t think I can add to the body of knowledge here, but I do think my description of money and debt may be a fresh and helpful variation on a much discussed topic.
You might from time to time find a little scientific “spirituality” here in that I am an amateur student of evolution and that combined with my engineer’s understanding of fossil energy, and my belief in Ajit Varki and Danny Brower’s theory on denial, leads me to conclude we are experiencing something very special in the universe. Perhaps even the peak of what is possible.
It’s easy to become angry about overshoot and our denial of it. I know I was angry in the early days of my awareness. Denial often looks like ignorance or sloth or selfishness. But if Ajit Varki and Danny Brower’s theory (which for brevity I will from now on call “Varki’s theory”) is correct, denial is not a character flaw. Denial is what makes us human. Understanding this muted my anger.
In this light I try to avoid blame or criticism. If they creep in from time to time I’m sorry, it’s hard not to get angry when denial causes us to do evil or stupid things like putting our children at risk, and causing a great extinction of other species.
You won’t find rants against capitalism, bankers, politicians, Monsanto, or fossil energy companies, although I sometimes write about why they behave the way they do. The only group in society that I detest is economists because they have so much influence on overshoot and destroying the planet, and because their schools and professional organizations allow them to ignore the scientific method and factors that really matter to the economy like thermodynamics and debt. Many of my colleague engineers are no doubt in denial about some things but our schools and professional organizations prevent us from denying gravity or the danger of high voltage electricity. The “profession” of economics doesn’t care about reality. It is a disgrace and should be abolished from universities.
I believe that a lot of what is going on is governed by the laws of evolution and thermodynamics and much, but not all, is out of our control. I try to focus on those things within our control.
Time is valuable. I read a lot and it drives me crazy when someone uses 10,000 words to describe a 100 word idea. I strive to use the fewest possible words to explain an idea or opinion.
I value a high signal to noise ratio. I try to only post things by myself and others that are important and of high quality. I will from time to time prune the site to correct my errors.
I want this site to evolve into a useful library of information. One of my hobbies has made me expert at organizing computer data and I intend to keep things organized and easy to locate.
Every post is assigned a type and topic.
There are 3 types: Essays, Blogs, and By Other Authors.
An Essay is something written by me about a bigger thought. An essay can be short if it’s possible to discuss the thought with few words.
A Blog is something written by me about a smaller thought.
By Other Authors is something written by someone else, often with a brief introduction by me.
Posts with video or audio content are tagged so that people who prefer to learn by watching or listening can filter for items of interest.
Every post is assigned one or more topics. You can filter to find topics of interest.
My favorite posts are tagged so they can be found quickly. I will prune my favorites as my understanding and world affairs evolve.
There is a gallery with relevant, often dark and edgy, humor and pop media.
If you’d like to debate Varki’s theory please read the book first. There is a good chance your public library has it. I’ve had the displeasure of meeting people with very strong negative opinions about Varki’s theory who did not read his book and who did not understand what he is saying.
This site is about seeking truth. Critical comments are welcome. Comments that are not constructive or that conflict with generally accepted science will be rejected.
If you have something important to say I’d like it displayed with prominence rather than being buried as a comment. Send me your content via the Contact form and I will post it crediting you.
I may from time to time copy and paste a comment into its own post if it deserves more visibility.
Most of our problems are wicked and politically intractable:
- they are complex and difficult to understand;
- there are no easy or short-term solutions;
- solutions that improve the long-term are likely to worsen the short-term;
- solutions usually conflict with evolved human behavior;
- some problems are out of our control.
I believe the situation is dire but we still have some ability to influence some outcomes.
I also believe that nothing is certain and that possible outcomes need to be viewed through the lens of probability.
My consistent theme for how we should respond to our predicament is a voluntary economic contraction via austerity, conservation, and population reduction. I understand the possible risks and pain of this path but I believe they are much less than those of the path we are on.
The fact that I don’t often hear a call for voluntary contraction, even from environmentalists and climate change activists, despite it being the only path that might make the future less bad, is more evidence of denial in my opinion.
The probability of getting the majority to agree to voluntary contraction is very low given human nature, doubly so if Varki is right. But not impossible. Especially in the developed world where the majority have much more than they need to have comfortable lives. There are examples in history of societies under threat choosing austerity and conservation.
My own journey provides me with a little hope. I made the transition from a senior executive in several significant technology companies with a large personal footprint and total denial of our overshoot, to an aware environmentally conscious wanna-be organic farmer with a smaller footprint. So it is possible.
I hope there are a few people out there that share my interests and choose to participate here. I would like some company.
A good place to go next is the un-Denial Manifesto.