Thursday, April 28, 2016

Why we can't understand global warming

An interesting excerpt from George's Lakoff "Don't Think of an Elephant!" 2014.

"Every language in the world has in its grammar a way to express direct causation. No language in the world has in its grammar a way to express systemic causation.

What's the difference between direct and systemic causation?

From infanthood on we experience direct, simple causation. We see direct causation all around us: if we push a toy, it topples over; if our mother turns a knob on the oven, flames emerge. Picking up a glass of water and taking a drink is direct causation. Slicing bread is direct causation. Stealing your wallet is direct causation.

Any application or force to something or someone that produces an immediate change to that thing or person is direct causation: When causation is direct, the world cause is unproblematic. We learn direct causation automatically as children because that's what we experience on a daily basis. Direct causation, and the control over our immediate environment that understanding it allows, is crucial in the life of every child. That's why it shows up in the grammar of every language.

The same is not true for systemic causation. Systemic causation cannot be experienced directly. It has to be learned, its cases have to be studied, and repeated communication is necessary before it can be widely understood.

That's right, no language in the world has a way in its grammar to express systemic causation. You drill a lot more oil, burn a lot more gas, put a lot more CO2 in the air, the earth's atmosphere heats up, more moisture evaporates from the oceans yielding bigger storms in certain places and more drought and fires in other places, and yes, more cold and snow in still other places. The world ecology is a system - like the world economy and the human brain.

As a result, we lack a concept that we desperately need. We need to understand and communicate, for instance, about the greatest moral issue of our times - global warming. The ecology is a system operating via system causation. Without an everyday concept of system causation, global warming cannot be properly comprehended. In other words, without the systemic causation frame, the oft-repeated facts about global warming cannot make sense. With only the direct causation frame, the systemic causation facts of global warming are ignored. The old frame stays, and the facts that don't fit cannot be comprehended."

This excerpt by Lakoff provides some fundamental insight of the problems involved in understanding the climate change issue. It is clear that Lakoff understands very well the concept of "system dynamics;" without a dynamic view of complex systems, it is impossible to understand the concept (and the danger) of the problem. 

However, Lakoff's book is not about climate science, but about communication. Its main thesis is that the apparently simple way concepts are presented in the current political debate is only a reflection of a complex tangle of ideas and perceptions that form people's single personalities. Lakoff maintains that Liberals and Conservatives have different worldviews but that, overall, conservatives have been able to "frame" their worldview in simple snippets that turned out to be more effective than the equivalent attempts by liberals. And it is because of this effectiveness that we see the present increasing polarization in the political scene in the US. 

In my opinion, there is a lot of truth in this interpretation which, however, fails to understand the basic reasons for the increasing polarization. These reasons are deeper and complex as well as I discuss in this post


  1. System dynamics are impossible to understand without being able to think mathematically. By thinking mathematically I do not mean being actually good at math but I do mean accepting that mathematical equations and interrelationships really do exist and the world we live in follows mathematical laws.

    A yawn from the readers, what is the dog talking about? I'm talking about world views. Some world views don't allow resource depletion to be examined closely at all. The lord will provide and pass the ammo, would be an example; there are many others. The opposite of thinking mathematically is embracing religious magic in all it's forms.

    An exception curiously is the animism of hunter gatherers who see nature as a complex society of beings and the complex relationships and interplay of their personalities. By paying scrupulous attention to how nature actually works they have a framework for interpreting nature as it actually behaves and arrive at systemic thinking in a very roundabout way, but they can get there.

    Following your link I'll say Trump has an attraction to the magical (non-mathematical) thinker but the true source of his popularity is not anything Trump actually has but what our current leadership does not have. Abdication of leadership control is happening because to have control requires responsible behavior and the culture of responsible behavior has been abandoned by American politicians, the exception being Bernie.

    1. A very good point, sapient canine: an animist hunter-gatherer might be open to the suggestion that such-and-such an act might 'offend the Great Spirit' and modify behaviour accordingly. And one could preserve a forest by declaring it to be taboo, and ensure sane euthanasia and infanticide to control population levels and quality by gaining consensus that this pleases the gods.

      Someone indoctrinated with the industrial world-view, however, when confronted with evidence of resource-depletion and pollution will proudly reject it without consideration, or take refuge in 'they'll think of something, we'll discover more'.

      Who is the more primitive and benighted?

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  3. I suggest taking a look at how B.W. Hill’s Etp model predictions changed when he adjusted the model parameters for new information:

    The first piece of information was the model showing that, in 2012, the oil industry itself was consuming half the energy it produced. The model showed that the remaining half was split between 71 percent usable to do work and 29 percent waste heat. Then Hill got good data indicating that the split should be 62 percent usable and 38 percent waste heat. That difference was enough to move the model into a prediction that the industry would overproduce oil which it would not be able to sell at a profitable price.

    “Now you claim prices will never recover and the world is collapsed by 2019.”

    Yes! It was a calculation, backed by strong empirical evidence, that the average waste heat produced from the combustion of a hydrocarbon by the end user was actually 38% as opposed to the theoretical minimum of 29%. Previous calculations had used the 29% value. We put up this page 8 months after arriving at that conclusion:

    That additional 11% extra waste heat places the beginning of the oil price decline phase before the 2030 average “dead state”, rather than after as we had previously assumed.


    A factor in the US is, I think, the amount of ‘waste heat’ we are producing. A casual look at how we do medical care and drugs and education and welfare and the military and the financialization of the economy are strangling us as surely as the underlying deterioration in the energy world.

    Don Stewart

  4. At some point this century, there will be no oil, no gas, no coal (in the ground plenty, out the round, none). 'The planet' will do fine, we will not.

  5. This is something akin to trying to get to grips with "Hyper Objects" articulated by Timothy Morton.

  6. My previous career as a systems analyst taught me that only a small percentage of the population thinks this way. Our teenager might not be, and we struggle to teach her the concepts. Her mom's side of the family overall are not systems thinkers, mine are. Who knows how it will turn out? Point being: we can't expect everyone to "get it" if we want to move forward.





Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)