Sunday, May 01, 2005

Is Jay Hanson's struggle our struggle?

Jay Hanson is familiar to many who have been following the peak oil issue because his site,, was perhaps the very first to deal with the issue in any systematic and thorough way. Hanson said in a 2003 interview that he named the site Die Off in order to shock people into awareness.

Today, Hanson, a computer programmer by profession, lives in Hawaii and has handed over his site to someone else to keep up. He now believes that nothing can be done to avoid a dieoff--not because it isn't feasible to do something, but because people are too competitive by nature to cooperate when the going gets really rough. He's returned his focus to his work and, oddly enough, to investing to make a few dollars before the energy tsunami hits. He says rich people will have more options on the downslope of the oil depletion curve, at least at the beginning.

He seems sad about his conclusion that warning people is a useless exercise, and yet, he thinks on about the issues of population, energy use, overshoot and dieoff. He seems to be struggling with whether his own competitive spirit is the one he should follow or whether his compassion for others is the right beacon. In that he mirrors the internal struggle we all face when difficulties visit our families or our communities. Of course, we'd probably be better off working in concert to solve our problems. But, we face the classic prisoner's dilemma. Can we trust that others won't sabotage us in order to gain advantage and thereby save themselves while discarding us?

(Thanks to Big Gav at Peak Energy [Australia] for pointing me to this interview.)

(Comments are open to all. See the list of environmental blogs on my sidebar.)


Big Gav said...

No worries - I'm glad people are taking it seriously rather than writing it off as a paranoid outburst.

Keep up the good work - your blog is one of the best around.

WHT said...

Is the "prisoner's dilemna" the general name to a more specific behavior such as the "fallacy of the commons"?

Kurt Cobb said...

I think the prisoner is faced with a situation in which it is clearly advantageous in the aggregate for all the prisoners involved to cooperate, i.e. it results in the least amount of total time behind bars. So, the game is not zero-sum.
For the commons, the game, if you dare call it that since it involves the future of the human race, tends to be zero sum. What you take out of the ocean, I can't. Now, if we cooperate, then we might manage the long-term sustainability better, but we won't necessarily increase the total take. Thus, it's a zero-sum game.

Still, I think this post shows that social pressure and regulation can manage a commons. That's where Hanson disagrees. He thinks humans are incorrigable cheaters. A few are and many others are not. The question is how the cheaters are going to be reigned in or ultimately punished for their transgressions. In a culture like America's where cheaters (corporate executives, political operatives and others) are routintely rewarded for their deeds, the idea of managing the commons wisely is problematic. I am reminded of Thorsten Veblen's notion that wealth--no matter how it is obtained--always evokes honor and respect.

Yes, many humans will be scoundrels if they can get away with it. So, I think the issues of social pressure and cultural context are important. It's not something we in the United States think about a lot. We are so individualistic. But, individualism is really an ideology born of plenty. When resources decline, individualism becomes a killer. In the aggregate, it's not the best strategy for a society.