Sunday, April 02, 2017

Communications breakdown: Can we even talk about our environmental and energy problems?

Conversations that seek genuine understanding by all sides ultimately require a common frame of reference. If we aren't talking about the same things, how can we understand one another?

We usually refer to this as talking past one another. Sometimes this happens because we haven't taken the time to understand what our conversation partner is trying to say. We are distracted and focused on something else. Increasingly, our public discourse--that which we all see on the airwaves, on the internet and in print--is mere polemic in service of some political or economic interest. There is no genuine attempt to explore the issues, only to advance a particular view of them--often for pay as is the case with public relations agencies and also fake think tank academics who merely parrot the positions of their funders.

We like to regard ourselves as living in an age of enlightenment. But enlightenment only occurs when we are intellectually honest. What intellectual honesty requires is the ability to entertain ideas and accept evidence that contradict our current views and to evaluate those ideas and evidence on some basis other than a financial or political interest.

The late William Catton, the sociologist and ecologist who stands as the 20th century prophet of our predicament, laid out this problem in his last book, Bottleneck: Humanity's Impending Impasse. By bottleneck Catton means a dramatic reduction in human population over the coming century due to climate change, fossil fuel depletion, soil erosion and other problems and the attendant chaos these will bring to our current governance and economic arrangements.

I am reminded of Joseph Tainter's admonition in The Collapse of Complex Societies that societies don't collapse because of resource shortages or climate change, but because of their inability to respond effectively to such developments. The cause: an elite governing class that has become insulated from the warning signs of such a collapse.

In ancient Mayan civilization sculptors were still working on monuments to their rulers as late as 909 A.D. after a century of drought. The question is: Who in their right mind would be expending resources on such a task under such dire circumstances?

Today we build ever higher temples to finance in our major cities even as major ecological catastrophes converge on our civilization. Like the Mayan rulers, ours believe our civilization is invincible. It is this myth of invincibility that makes genuine communication about vulnerabilities almost impossible because the myth has spread to practically the entire population of the planet. Even those who are struggling to get by, for whom the system has worked very poorly, even they want more than anything to get a larger share of wealth from our supposedly invincible engines of production. I do not blame them.

When the frame of reference on one side (and by far the most numerous and well-funded side) is the invincibility of modern technical society and when on the other it is that history teaches us that all civilizations destroy themselves when they reject the physical realities they face, then there can be no sensible dialogue. The frames of reference must overlap and that takes time and experience.

I am reminded that the horse became a sacred animal to the American Plains Indians only after Spanish explorers brought them to the New World and the Plains Indians realized their utility for hunting and warfare. My point is that talking to a Plains Indian prior to that time about horses would have drawn blank stares. Clearly horses did exist, but they were simply outside the experience of these native peoples.

We will only have a genuine public discussion about the vulnerabilities of our own civilization, one that will lead to commensurate action, when those vulnerabilities become glaringly obvious to a significant section of the public--when the horses, so to speak, show up in large enough numbers on the plain. In the meantime, we can only cultivate the ground for that day when we will be faced with talking not about solutions, but about damage control.

We should not, however, underestimate the value of damage control. A more benign phrase might be mitigation and management. However we style it, it is the one thing that will enable humans to get to the other side of the civilizational bottleneck which William Catton foresaw and which we will almost certainly face if we humans do not change our current trajectory.

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


Steve Bull said...

Excellent commentary. I would add to the conversation the recognition that the current systems are founded upon the notion (and requirement) that the future will be larger than the present (i.e. growing), but once you recognize and accept that this infinite growth model is unsustainable on a finite planet the entire foundation of the models we use to sustain our various systems crumble. The dilemma, as you have outlined, is that until we reach a tipping point in recognizing the above, we seem destined to continue running towards the cliff directly ahead of us--and, of course, are cheered on by those benefitting most from the current system, while cognitive dissonance and recency/normalcy bias blind us to the negative consequences of our actions.

Joe said...

the civilizational bottleneck...we will almost certainly face if we humans do not change our current trajectory

How optimistic you are to allow a even bit of conditionality! The trajectory needed to change decades ago. The bottleneck is now a sun-will-rise-tomorrow certainty.

As you pointed out, we must enter the bottleneck before most people will capable of believing that it will happen. But even then, I doubt that the cause of our troubles will be recognized as natural limits to growth. Most people will just blame some other group.

Our civilization will disintegrate, that disintegration having been predicted since at least 1972, and only a tiny few will understand why it happened. Reality is the one "frame of reference" that can't be ignored without significant danger. The mystery to me how humans could have evolved into creatures that ignore reality so easily.

Sergio I. Solórzano said...


Unknown said...

Sorry to disagree with you Kurt but we will never come to a realisation even when the rubble is bouncing around us. Humans view the world through lenses usually money When the river floods our home its because (insert agency) has not dredged the river. When the sea washes away the road / railway its because the government did'nt invest enough in defences. Food security always show up as an afordability issues. Ask your average Syrian what caused the civil war I bet he does'nt mention climate change. For the vast majority of people our predicument will kill them but they will not have seen the face of their enemy.
Love your work
You do service to Humanity
Thanks Michael Connolly

Michael Dowd said...

Thanks for this excellent post, Kurt, and for (once again) honoring William R. Catton, Jr. as a modern-day prophet!

Together for the future,

~ Michael

Anonymous said...

William Catton, Jr writes about St. Mathew Island and Jared Diamond writes about Easter Island. Even though humans possess some form of consciousness, are all evolutionary animals genetically programmed toward the same fate? But nature corrects itself. But humans have the capacity to alter nature. Stay tuned, sometimes the Gods
aren't kind.

Thanks for all your writings Kurt!