Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Thanksgiving Prayer

“In psychology and cognitive science, confirmation bias (or confirmatory bias) is a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions, leading to statistical errors. Confirmation bias is a type of cognitive bias and represents an error of inductive inference toward confirmation of the hypothesis under study. Confirmation bias is a phenomenon wherein decision makers have been shown to actively seek out and assign more weight to evidence that confirms their hypothesis, and ignore or underweigh evidence that could disconfirm their hypothesis.”
— Science Daily

At Thanksgiving in the USA everyone gets a few days vacation from work to celebrate the colonial beachhead from Europe on the North American continent, landing at Plymouth, and the near-starvation and loss of the entire first colony, but for their rescue by generous albeit naive natives.
The tale is seldom continued in its telling that the colonists afterwards conspired to slaughter the natives and steal their lands, or that what had been revealed to them as a land of plenty, seemingly empty and naturally bounteous, was in actuality a meticulously cultivated ecosystem with human inhabitants, nutrient cycles and carrying capacity in delicate balance.
In addition to exterminating the natives, the Pilgrims and their successors hunted to extinction the Heath Hen, Eastern Elk, Sea Mink, Passenger Pigeon, and Carolina Parakeet. The American bison, now only a DNA remnant in a popular cattle breed, suffered a range reduction that makes it effectively extinct. 

We don’t tell ourselves these stories, choosing instead a more heroic myth of rugged individualists breaking free of tyranny, overcoming adversity, and taming a savage land. It plays well with children, especially young boys.

Original Buffalo Range

Harvested Buffalo Skulls

Current Remnant Herds

Albert Bates and KMO on the road.
Not shown: the lovely Olga K.
Back from a long road trip up the BosWash Corridor, to the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO-USA); the Keystone XL Pipeline ring-around-the-White-House; Occupy DC; Occupy Wall Street; and then west by northwest to the Local Future International Conference on Sustainability, Transition and Culture Change in Michigan, we are imbued with a sense of the public sentiment at this historic Thanksgiving. Ours was not a scientific expedition. We gathered very little new information. All told, we merely confirmed our extant hypotheses.

Or did we?
KMO and Albert Bates, ASPO book table
The ASPO meeting was a star-studded affair: William Catton, author of Overshoot; Richard Heinberg, author of The Party's Over, Peak Everything, and End of Growth; Wes Jackson of The Land Institute; Chris Martenson, creator of The Crash Course; financial analysts Charles Maxwell, Andy Buckingham and Jeff Rubin; energy predictors David Murphy, Robert Hirsch and Roger Bedzek; oil-patch experts Chris Skrebowski, Kjell Aleklett, Arthur Berman, and Jean Laherrère; and popular collapsenik writers and bloggers Nicole (Stoneleigh) Foss, Sharon Astyk, Dmitry Orlov, John Michael Greer, Kurt Cobb, Gail Tverberg, Tom Whipple, Aaron Newton and Guy Dauncey. 

Oil Addiction slide by Wes Jackson
ASPO’s Beltway audience was even more interesting — former TVA Chairman S. David Freeman, Limits to Growth author Dennis Meadows, EROIE creator Charles A.S. Hall, Songs of Petroleum author Jan Lundberg, and congressional committee investigator John Darnell. The gab in the corridors and over meals was almost as interesting as what went on in the main hall.

With all this brainpower one might expect new flashes of insight to beam like a mirrored ball in the grasp of colored spotlights. Actually, the 7th Annual Meeting was little improved from the 6th, or 5th, or any of the others of its ilk — ASPO International, Petrocollapse, or, for that matter, Local Future in Michigan. Rapid collapse, and soon, seems to have more adherents now than gradual collapse, some unspecified distance out. What we found ourselves rotating around was our own confirmatory bias.

Granted, there were bits and pieces we had not known before. Who knew before the after-dinner presentations by Anthony Ingraffea, Rob Jackson, Robert Howarth, and Amy Mall that natural gas, the new darling of America’s Energy Independence and lately subject of much hyped-up advertising by oil companies, is currently responsible for 44 percent of US greenhouse impact? Factoring in the 20:1 advantage of methane over carbon dioxide as a heat-stroking molecule, fracking shale gas already contributes about 11 percent — 677 Tg CO2-equivalent, according to EPA — of the climate chaos we are endowing to future generations, and is growing far faster than coal.

Who knew?

Who knew that while petroleum may have spared the sperm whale for a century, the climate change it brought may have doomed not just marine mammals but all ocean life? 

Keystone Protests Ring the White House
Or that increasing technological efficiency brings more energy use, not less? Energy efficiency now allows every man, woman and child in the United States to use 100 times more energy than is required to live happily. Indeed, as Herman Daly is fond of reminding us, once we pass a threshold of sufficiency, each ounce of added wealth diminishes our happiness and well-being.

Or that 4.5 billion of Earth’s present human inhabitants owe their food supply, antibiotics and prescriptions — their longevity and fecundity — nearly entirely to petrochemical processes that are about to become unavailable at an affordable price? 

Secret Service Eye-View of Protesters
Or that governments and international agencies have treasonously conspired for half a century to obscure and conceal vital facts that would allow populations and markets to prepare for a very different future, one based on daily solar income, rather than an overdrawn savings account of ancient sunlight? 

Well, actually we have, here and in our books, articles, lectures and interviews. For 40 years, more or less. Sorry to nag.

So why don’t more people seek shelter from the coming storm? Why don’t election year debates get real? Two reasons: confirmation bias and normalcy bias. 

Jan Lundberg at Zucotti Park library,
shortly before it was destroyed by NYPD
In the case of the former, we sentient bipeds with tripartite brains actively seek out and assign more weight to evidence that confirms our views of the world — views we mostly formed as children as we “aped” our parents and teachers or our inspiring leaders and celebrities. Our fondness towards normalcy lets us box out things that make us feel uncomfortable and allows us to focus on ways to blend into the crowd. If the crowd thinks peak oil, climate change, JFK’s assassination or the inside job at the World Trade Center are just weird conspiracy theories by crazies at the fringe of our society, we ape the crowd. That’s just Sapiens’ Social Software.

“Paranoia? Of course not. It’s alternative scholarship. What’s wrong with teaching alternative theories in our schools? What are liberals so afraid of? … Why this dictatorial approach to learning anyway? What gives teachers the right to say what things are? Who’s to say that flat-earthers are wrong? Or that the Church was wrong to silence Galileo, with his absurd theory (actually written by his proctologist) that the earth moves around the sun. Citing ‘evidence’ is so snobbish and élitist. I think we all know what lawyers can do with evidence.”
— Eric Idle, Who Wrote Shakespeare


In Drilling Down: The Gulf Oil Debacle and Our Energy Dilemma, (New York: Springer, 2012) Joseph Tainter and Tad Patzek describe the lifestyle of a wealthy family in ancient Rome. Work, such as it was, ended by mid-day and afternoons were spent at the baths, evenings in social banquets. The diet was well-balanced, children well-educated, and all of it was accomplished with about 6 slaves per family. The Tawantinsuyu (Inca) were even more efficient, their whole pre-Columbian society spending about 65 days per year to meet basic needs. Slavery, while not unknown in the Andes, played a much smaller — principally military — role. 

Occupy DC
Our “norm” now is to use 400 energy slaves per USAnian family, or 200 in Europe and 40 in China. Moreover, those slaves are actually much more reliable than human slaves ever were. They work 24/7, never get sick, don’t get married and have children or entanglements, and require almost no space for housing. Right now they cost much less to acquire and maintain than human slaves ever did. 

So, if the Tawantinsuyu could get by with almost no domestic slaves, the Romans with only a handful per wealthy family, how is it that we need 36 billion of them in the United States to take our kids to soccer practice and pop popcorn? Tainter and Patzek say it in a single word: complexity.

We have become inured to complexity. Today we can barely fathom getting around in a strange city without a smart phone. We think nothing of flying a thousand miles for a business meeting or a week at the beach. This energy-enslaved world is our insular cocoon, the norm that we have been socialized into, and with confirmatory bias and normalcy bias we defend it from any “abnormal” opinion that it is immoral, wrongheaded, or doomed. Like an advertisement for cigarettes or one-ton automobiles, we do not imagine our slaves could make us unhappy or unhealthy. Quite the opposite. We confer on our outsized, outmoded, profligate lifestyle an absolute, inviolate authoritativeness. “The American way of life,” George H.W. Bush whorishly opined, “is not up for negotiation.” The War on Terror, Donald Rumsfeld told us, is to persuade the world that Americans must be allowed to continue their way of life.

This is the reflex that keeps the majority of us frozen in the headlights as collapse rushes at us from all sides — militarily, environmentally, financially, and socially. We are Romans with the barbarians at the gates — we just keep sending our slaves out to pick more fruit and bring us wine.

Protesters Return to Zuccotti Park
Those of us who read the tea leaves and deduce the inevitable are better prepared, but even collapseniks are trapped in confirmatory bias — subscribing to RSS feeds or podcasts from favored web news sources; reading the latest books from Lundberg, Heinberg, Kunstler, Astyk and Orlov; or attending conferences like ASPO and Local Future. If the crash and plunge that was predicted for 2006 did not appear, maybe it will have arrived by 2010. If not then, then perhaps 2012, or 2015. We are waiting for Godot, are we not? Ah, but the conversation is good.

Let us stop looking for confirmation of our views or trying to conform to “normal,” whatever that is. This Thanksgiving let us give thanks that what we have been bequeathed by generations before us — less the avaricious colonists than the generous natives, less the hybrid buffalo than the ecology of the forest, less our myths than the hard realities — have brought us benefit beyond measure. Let us resolve to squander it no more. Gaia grant us clear eyes and ears to see through the fog of our own self-deceptions.

On this day let us resolve not just to thank the natives but to free our slaves. Addiction to slavery is the same as any other addiction. First it feels good, then it destroys you. Just ask a wealthy Roman.


Larry said...

Great post as usual.

I'm glad there still are a few bison left, perhaps in the future there will be more.

As far as all those energy slaves go, I am awestruck at how many of them it takes to field a "travel" soccer team. I marvel at the commitment these parents make (many of whom I know)so their children can play soccer at a higher level. Many of the kids involved (at least the girls) don't appear to be all that interested in soccer anyway.

Helen Highwater said...

I always find it interesting to see that all the usual suspects are still travelling around to Peak Oil and "sustainability" conferences while telling the rest of us to stay home and stop using so much fossil fuels.




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