Sunday, August 17, 2014

I'd be happier if I didn't write this stuff!

Thus happiness depends, as Nature shows,
Less on exterior things than most suppose.

                  --William Cowper

For years my father--who is a really great guy--has been telling me that I'd be a happier person if I didn't write about all the converging threats bearing down on the human race. Turns out he's right!

Here's what a new study said on the matter:

Recent evidence suggests that a state of good mental health is associated with biased processing of information that supports a positively skewed view of the future. Depression, on the other hand, is associated with unbiased processing of such information.

Let me translate: If you fool yourself about what you are really seeing in the world and convince yourself that it will lead to a good future for you and whomever else you care about, you'll maintain good mental health. If, on the other hand, you look reality squarely in the eye, you are more likely to get depressed. Life, as it turns out, isn't a bed of roses.

Now, I would put the "positively skewed" person in the same category as turkeys. You may be familiar with philosopher Bertrand Russell's story of the turkey. A farmer feeds this turkey every morning. Using inductive reasoning, the turkey becomes more and more convinced each day that the morning feedings will extend indefinitely. One day the farmer appears with an ax, demonstrating the weakness of inductive reasoning.

It's easy to see that the turkey is happier up to the point of slaughter NOT knowing what is coming. (I'm assuming the turkey, in this case, would be powerless even with foreknowledge to prevent his own demise.) Not knowing, he is better adjusted to his surroundings, and he's not busily writing columns about the impending turkey slaughter that all turkeys should be aware of. This lack of knowledge certainly prevents stress and stress-related diseases, both mental and physical. One has to admit that the turkey has a good life (for a turkey) up to a certain point.

We should also note that there is no way that examining his past--i.e., previous feedings--would allow the turkey to understand the danger. The slaughter of turkeys is nowhere to be found in the time series of his feedings or his life in general. (The analogy for the human race would be the last 150 years or so in which the notion of perpetual progress has become entrenched in the human psyche.)

We can learn two things from the turkey's story. First, if you are a turkey, it is better to be ignorant of your own demise if you are be unable to do anything about it (even with foreknowledge). Second, information about the nature and timing of your demise may not be available through an examination of your past--though an examination of the past of many turkeys might shed light on the situation.

Let's expand on this. Since I am, in fact, not a turkey, or more particularly the turkey in the story above, it is possible that I might be able to do something to avoid my premature demise if I have information about it. But, of course, anyone who writes about our converging environmental and resource-related threats, isn't really writing about individuals, but about humans as a species.

So, it is possible that one path to relative happiness is to remain ignorant of such challenges so as not to suffer anxiety about them. Then, if society cannot head off these catastrophes, at least you wouldn't suffer anxiety about them prior to their arrival at your doorstep. And, it's possible they may never reach your doorstep during your lifetime. This, however, sounds more like a dereliction of one's civic duty than a path to enlightenment.

That's because if my efforts and the efforts of millions of others around the globe are able to move the needle of society toward sustainability, those uninvolved and untroubled by our problems would be getting a free ride. We sustainability types do all the work and then have to share the benefits.

But, the more people who join in the work of moving society toward sustainability, the more likely it is that this work will succeed. The failure to achieve a sustainable society might be the direct result of too few participants trying to achieve it. The free ride problem just got a lot more deadly.

There is also the problem of the definition of "good mental health" or more speculatively, the meaning of "happiness," and whether these ought to be one's goals in life. Human life, no matter how materially advantaged, is bound to be filled with pain, disappointment and loss. The unpredictability of our lives makes it certain that you cannot plan to have a happy life. You may get what you believe to be a happy existence. But it is likely to be the result of luck more than choice and planning.

And, if the definition of happiness includes all kinds of unhappiness experienced in the pursuit of one's goals--even if those goals are achieved--I would say that such a definition is drained of all intelligibility. It may have some mystical significance that I don't understand. The everyday meaning of happiness, so far as I know, does not include excessive suffering, pain and loss.

But back to my father. He also contends that he is very good at dealing with "reality." And, he is. He's one of those rare people who, when he looks at what he has to do each day, realizes that the task which seems most disagreeable is probably the most important.

I take this as a clue that he has not pursued happiness as his main goal in life. Rather, he saw his highest calling as his duty to others, to his family, to his friends, to his community, to his country, to the people who worked for him while he was running several companies. There is a certain satisfaction in living this way, some might even say a certain joy in the commitment itself. But it is not a path that leads to a persistent state of happiness.

It really should be no surprise to him that "being happy" is not my highest priority, and that his wish for all his children to "be happy" could easily turn into a curse of ignorance. Admittedly, trying to understand the world around us can end up being burdensome, especially if one concentrates on the human prospect in the face of the emerging multiple threats to the stability of our civilization.

But trying to understand our place in the universe and on the Earth can also be exciting and stimulating. And, trying to move society in a more sustainable direction in concert with others can be both rewarding and fun. It turns out that even people who don't put their personal happiness first on their list of priorities can have a good time in this world. And, sometimes they can even be happy!

P.S. Doing something which gives our lives a broader meaning can give us a kind of satisfaction that the "pursuit of happiness" can never provide. I am reminded of Swiss psychologist Carl Jung's story about a meeting with the religious leader of the Taos pueblo. The leader related the following:

"The Americans should stop meddling with our religion, for when it dies and we can no longer help the sun our Father cross the sky, the Americans and the whole world will learn something in ten years' time, for then the sun won't rise any more."*

The leader and his people were not just doing their ceremonies to the sun for themselves. They were doing them for the whole world.

P.P.S. This excellent cartoon nicely summarizes one of the main points of this piece.

*From The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Volume 9,I of The Collected Works of C.G. Jung. p. 22.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and 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


Steve said...

Great post, Kurt.
While I studied archaeology/anthropology throughout university and became aware of the rise and fall of civlisations throughout prehistory, it wasn't until Dec. 2010 when I viewed the documentary Collapse with the late Michael Ruppert that it hit me that we are also on course for such a demise (perhaps it had something to do with becoming an educator, getting married, having children, being caught up in 'the thrum of daily life' and believing 'this time is different').
Since that 'enlightenment' I have been on a personal journey of discovery that has mirrored Kubler-Ross's model of emotional stages dealing with impending death (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance). I have to admit that I'm not convinced we can halt the momentum of the various systems that are contributing to our predicaments, let alone reach some kind of sustainable balance and such a perspective is extremely depressing and overwhelming at times (not to mention how it impacts my interpretation of the world and the stress it has created with my ever-optimistic spouse).
My focus has been on the education of friends/family and trying in some small way to prepare for an uncertain future for my children (both late teens who don't fully understand my 'obsession').
All this being said, I prefer to look at the world 'realistically' rather than thru rose-coloured glasses. There are many narratives circulating as to the foundation of the various crises sweeping the globe the past fifty years or so, but Peak Oil and its unintended consequences on everything else seems to make the most sense.
Love reading your posts, so keep up the great work!!

DaShui said...

I vote for taking the pursuit of happiness out of the d o I .

Unknown said...

I think ignorance is overrated and it is obviously not working.

70 MILLION Americans are on mind-altering drugs:

Johnny said...

70 million Americans on mind altering drugs...and even they aren't whacked enough that you can sell more than a small fraction om the idea that ignorance of resource economics means...peak oil!! Run for the hills!

St. Roy said...

Kurt: My wife says, "You would be happier if you didn't read this stuff".

Anonymous said...

Kurt - I suspect that expecting to be happier if we didn't focus on the predicament and its resolution is only a case of the grass looking greener beyond the fence. Trying to ignore what we know, and the burgeoning signs all around us, sounds like a recipe for serious mental over-pressure.

The core of the worry is in my view the lack of commensurate action on climate, despite massively ample evidence of the existential threat to global society. We are told from all sides that this is the fossil lobby's influence, but I've yet to see the evidence.

To take the US case, its fossil lobby generates just ~8% of GDP but corporations across the rest of the economy, with rising threats to their profits and no inherent loyalty to fossil fuels, don't begin to counter the propaganda. On any other such threat to profits they'd be hammering down the White House door.

Meanwhile the POTUS, elected on a strident climate action ticket, has done sweet FA of any significance in over five years. In fact his record is of serial obstructions, including:
- adopting Cheney's reneging on the legal UNFCCC 1990 emissions baseline and also on Kyoto,
- crashing the Copenhagen summit,
- sabotaging the senate climate bill (see Ryan Liza's forensic New Yorker article "As the world burns")
- having the big NGOs instructed to campaign on 'Clean Energy' not Climate,
- blocking the EPA from meeting its legal duty to regulate CO2,
-setting a derisory 3.5% CO2 cut off 1990 by 2020 (hyped as 17% off 2005) as the US 'Cancun pledge',
- having the UN climate treaty declared as "unnecessary & undoable" by his chief negotiator,
- excluding the highly potent wedge-issue of climate from his re-election campaign,
-and, when the EPA was facing a suit, having it spend over a year drafting regs on coal-power that won't even meet the 'pledge'.

Given the scale of the threat of loss and damage, whatever motivates the corporations and government's inaction has to be of paramount importance. To identify the objective, it is worth noting that it was Cheney who launched the 'brinkmanship of inaction' against China, and that the US has massively superior food production per capita compared to China.

If the policy of inaction is maintained, then we can expect increasing regional crop failures that will at some point coincide to give the onset of serial global crop failures. At or before that point crop failures and food shortages in China, leading to mounting civil unrest and regime change, would put an end to China's bid for global economic dominance - This would serve the US paramount bipartisan policy priority since WW2 of maintaining global dominance, on which the profits of the full range of its corporations depend.

Having the benefit of a global digital public information system (of which Goebels could only dream) Washington's diversion of blame for the inaction onto the ultra thick-skinned fossil lobby is a quite predictable tactic. Had we assumed that the US would take action against its Chinese rival with the same reckless M.A.D. threat level it showed against the USSR's bid for dominance, the policy of a 'brinkmanship of inaction' could easily have been foreseen.

Returning to the article's focus, this analysis gives reason for far better confidence of a successful resolution of AGW - The POTUS is responsible for a policy that is so grossly immoral and illegal in intent that it is wholly inadmissible. Even the beginnings of its exposure globally, and particularly to the US public, means that it has to be binned and replaced with a demonstrable will to negotiate a commensurate global climate treaty.