Sunday, April 16, 2017

Split personalities: We like some science, but not all of it

We modern folk are in a bind. We embrace what the sciences and the technology that flows from them have to offer, but we refuse to believe that we live in the world described by those very sciences.

Here I'm not merely talking about climate change deniers who, of course, fit this description. They merrily dial number after number on their cellphones, but they do so without realizing that in their climate change denial they are rejecting the very same science that underpins the phone they are using: physics.

But so many others live in this dual world as well. We humans imagine ourselves set apart from the natural world. And yet, our very bodies are the subject of scientific investigations. So we turn to our minds which we imagine set us apart from the natural world. But what is the mind? Do we not place the mind in the body? Are its manifestations not speech, writing, music, dance, and graphic arts which require the body for their expression.

The science of physics tells us that we live in a thermodynamic system. The universe is a thermodynamic system and so by definition must our Earth be one. Thermodynamic systems produce entropy, lots of it. Some two-thirds of all the energy we use in the United States is wasted. That's right, wasted. That entropy shows up as climate-changing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which is also acidifying the oceans. It shows up as barren landscapes left behind by coal and other mining. It shows up as waste heat and waste products flowing from our factories, our homes and our vehicles.

In a broader sense, the entropy that we used to see and feel in the United States in the form of so-called "smokestack" industries has now been moved to China where another yet entropic problem, air pollution, chokes the urban population on a daily basis.

We think our presence is making the world more "orderly," but, in fact, we are filling it with new and dangerous expressions of entropy.

Geology tells us that metals, mined fertilizers, and our dominate form of energy, fossil fuels, are finite. The Earth is a sphere and has no pipeline to some other planet. And yet, there are people who claim with a straight face that resources including energy resources are infinite. This is so because "resources come out of people's minds." There's that word "mind" again. Just where does it reside?

We speak of leaving the planet and setting up colonies on Mars. But biology and physics tell us that those attempting to do so will suffer dementia resulting from the cosmic radiation that will bombard their brains. Humans on Earth are protected from this type of radiation by the Earth's magnetosphere. Not so in deep space or on the red planet which lacks a magnetosphere. There might be ways to protect such astronauts, but they would require much additional weight, both for the trip and for any enclosures or ships sent to the surface of Mars.

The point is that biology and ecology tell us that humans are evolved specifically to survive and thrive within the narrow strip of the biosphere. They can for brief periods with special apparatus live outside that. But long-term survival cannot be assured, in part, because the biosphere is far too complicated for us to understand and replicate. Attempts to do so have been miserable failures. The long and the short of it is that we aren't going to colonize space except as an expensive form of suicide.

Some look at measures of human well-being and declare that all is well and getting better. But this presupposes that we understand the biosphere better than we do. To analogize, you can live well on your savings until your savings run out. Likewise, humans can keep increasing their well-being by drawing down the natural capital of the biosphere (fisheries, soil, water, metals, fossil fuels), but eventually this drawdown will start to cut into the productivity of the biosphere as it has for many fisheries, water tables and some farmland ruined by erosion and salt. The drawdown will also affect the quality and price of fossil fuels and other minerals available as we seek the harder-to-get resources.

But perhaps what's even more important than what the sciences tell us is what they cannot tell us. Those on the cutting edge of their scientific disciplines are putting the lie to the idea that we are close to understanding how our universe works. Instead, what our latest researches are revealing is how little we know and how much more we have to find out.

Those who see comfort in this say that we can proceed full ahead on economic growth and the attendant speedup in resource extraction since we do not know for sure that they will kill us or seriously degrade our lives. What these people do is simply extrapolate the recent past into the future. It is a religious belief and not one based on sound thinking. What they do not take into account is the risk of systemic discontinuities, systemic ruin, that could come from climate change, resource extraction and new, untried technologies.

The approach is akin to playing roulette when we already know the wheel is stacked against us. In such a game, the more bets we put down, the more likely we will be ruined. But it feels great as long as we are winning.

It is the fate of the compulsive gambler to keep on gambling until he or she loses everything. That is our current trajectory, and it is a trajectory that requires a split personality regarding what we know from the sciences in order to maintain a false sense of security.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at


Joe said...

What these people do is simply extrapolate the recent past into the future.

This kind of extrapolation has been a result of human evolution due to its success in helping people manage their contact with selective forces. It makes perfect sense that the near future should resemble the recent past. It is only the abnormality of the fossil fuel era that makes such extrapolation dangerous. That era will be gone soon enough and simple extrapolation will once again have survival value.

ChemEng said...

Thanks for this post. I was at a meeting tonight trying to explain these issues. You have done a much better job.

Nevertheless, I am uneasy about describing this view of the world as “religious belief”. It seems to me that most religions have a sense that there is a greater power than us, and that we are expected to abide by constraints and rules created by that power. We are urged to see ourselves as part of a larger system. I see no humility in an assumption that we are in charge and that we know what we are doing, even if we don’t know what we are doing.

Arthur Noll said...

The extrapolation of the past to the future can have the problem of confusing correlation with causation. It can be assumed that looking for imaginary new things means finding them, because it happened in the past. But looking doesn't cause imaginary things to spring into existence. There is no cause and effect relationship between looking and finding imaginary new things. When there is no cause and effect relationship behind an expectation, it is superstition. Superstition is closely related to the mystical belief generally associated with religion. There would have to be mystical forces working to have superstitious expectations be reliable. Or one might postulate that a mystical being created the universe with the desires of humans also being created, to expand into that universe, in mind, and everything needed to do it was there, it just had to be found. Such postulates about reality can be made, people may have faith in them, but they have nothing to do with science.

Bill Hicks said...

The argument in favor of economic growth no longer even carries any moral weight, given that most of the benefits in the age of neoliberalism are going to very tiny percentage of the population who are the global elite. We're no longer consuming greater quantities of resources and destroying the climate for the benefit of everyone or even the middle classes, thus the average person ought not to have any stake in whether not growth even continues.