Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Learned helplessness: how to miss your chance.

The story of the experiment that gave rise to the concept of learned helplessness is well known. It was made by the American Psychologist Martin Seligman in the 1960s. A dog was subjected to a series of electric shocks, to the point that it wouldn't even try any more to escape, even though he could have done so simply jumping over a small barrier. That seems to describe our situation: we have a way out of the problems of global warming and fossil fuel depletion. It is called "renewable energy. But we can't manage to move in that direction - it is a case of learned helplessness. In the following post, Stuart Staniford tries to explain that this way out really exists.


Climate Change Action is Not Hopeless

by Stuart Staniford - Early Warning, Aug 3, 2012 

It's easy to feel hopeless about climate change.  The weather gets crazier with each passing decade and in the meantime it seems like society is hardly doing anything at remotely the relevant scale.  Americans refuse to conserve very much, and the Chinese and Indians are burning coal at an ever more rapid pace.

One way to picture the seeming hopelessness of the situation is to plot total global energy consumption against solar and wind capacity (the two leading truly sustainable energy sources).  That looks like this:

That looks terrible right?  Those two lines at the bottom are negligibly different from zero on the scale of our total energy consumption - that blue line, which continues to head inexorably upward after the briefest of interruptions for the great recession.

But that isn't the full picture.

What it conceals is that the growth rates are completely different.  Over the last ten years of data (all from BP by the way), the average growth rate in primary energy consumption is 2.7%.  Meanwhile, the wind energy grew at 25% and the solar energy grew at 44%.  And this makes all the difference!  Those are incredibly high growth rates and mean that the awe-inspiring power of exponential growth is on our side.

To illustrate in a somewhat cartoonish fashion*, let's look at what happens if we just extrapolate out those same growth rates to 2040:

We spend the next decade with the graph still looking pretty bad, but then the power of exponential growth starts to really show, particularly in the solar line, and we see that the renewables would get to the scale of the entire planet's energy use sometime in the ballpark of 2030.

So to look at the situation now and say that it's hopeless is like looking at an acorn growing its first handful of leaves and declaring that the little sapling is hopeless and that this will never amount to an oak tree.

An ecotechnic world - one in which we drive around in electric cars, and heat our houses and offices with heat pumps, and fly around on biofuels, and power the whole thing from the sun and the wind, is doable.  But it's in its infancy.  It's the acorn, not the tree already.

And that being the case, the most important thing by far is that we shelter that acorn: keep it watered, shade it if the sun gets too strong, give it steady doses of fertilizer.  It's the growth rates in solar and wind energy that are the critical things to watch.  As long as those are high, the situation is not hopeless, regardless of how much coal use is growing.

Now, of course, I'm not saying that the red and green curves in the graph above are how things will go quantitatively.  No question there will be some slowing in the later stages.  The need to integrate renewables and electricity-using technology into all aspects of life is bound to slow things down toward the end.  Ditto the need to integrate renewables planet-wide to cope with their intermittency.

So maybe it takes us to mid-century to get to a near carbon-neutral society.  The point is that it's not hopeless.  As the weather gets worse - the droughts, the storms, the melting ice - the denialists will look sillier and sillier and the pressure for action will rise.  And as it does, the solutions will increasingly be in place.  So don't be discouraged if electric car sales are tiny right now, or solar power is a very small fraction of total energy use.  This is a long game.

Also worth noting is that it's in a couple of decades, as the alternatives truly start to reach scale, that it will be the time to really focus on closing down all the coal mines and shutting in the oil wells.  That will be the time for hefty carbon taxes and punitive cap-and-trade regulations.

Right now, the focus should be on protecting and growing the ecotechnic acorn.

* Wonky footnote - yes, I know I'm comparing renewable capacity to energy use without accounting for the capacity factor.  But it's also true that electricity is much more useful than primary fossil fuel energy - for example it can be utilized with 3X higher efficiency in a motor, or power a heat pump with a coefficient of performance of 3X or 5X.  So let's just call it a wash for the purposes of a quick illustration of the general idea.


  1. So all we have to do is just sit here and wait for the "ruthless extrapolation" of technology to solve all our problems. Learned helplessness indeed.

    1. Nah..... Brian, why do you say that? Stuart's curves are the result of something we could do. If we don't do anything, there won't be any ruthlessly growing curve!

    2. Sorry, but I have been reading Derrick Jensen again. And I was thinking about the story you started off your post with whilst eating lunch. Story rewrite: Dog is being tortured by psychopaths using electricity. Now replace the word dog with humanity or nature and I see how it is such a fitting analogy. I would love to see you do a counter post on some (Odum, et al) who have said that the transformity necessary for electricity from incidental sunlight just might not give a high enough yield to allow our power-centric society and all of its trappings or is it just that the 40:1 EROI you have talked in other posts proves solar works. Sure we could have boutique uses (electrifying dog cages) for electricity but nothing large scale.

    3. I hope you are right, but Odum did put it into at least one book written in 2001. Even Tom Murphy who I first heard say "ruthless extrapolation" is only talking about solar energy lately, so I probably do not have permission to use it in this context.

      As far as Derrick Jensen goes, here is a taste:(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o9os1GFuWJ0) Though it is rabbit hole only worth going down when you want to feel really hopeless about what we are doing to the planet. I do like his style of rewriting or restating stories from all different possible points of view. I also worked in an inner city school and saw the word learned helplessness thrown around all the time. Every time I hear it now, I try to come up possible rewrites for what is really trying to be said about a person or in this case a dog.

    4. Just to quote, to prove not internet legend but at the same not to say he/they aren't wrong, Odum and Odum from PWD chap 10, "It appears that energy is more efficiently transformed from low quality to high quality when it is done in a series of steps, instead of trying to skip steps. Low-transformity sunlight is more efficiently transformed to high-transformity electricity by converting through intermediate steps of the food chain than by using photovoltaic cells to generate electricity from sunlight in one step. The natural arrangement that uses a series of conversion steps is apparently a better net emergy yield than a single-step process." In other parts of the text, they really seem stuck up on the wires themselves being a huge part of the problem. Maybe today's PV and electrical grid don't use wires ;-)

    5. I heard the story of Odum's paper that produced these results by one of his former students. He told me that it was based on the work of another student of his who had produced some data about PV transformity (or EROEI - two closely related parameters). So, this students did what he could - he searched the Internet, found some values, gave them to his advisor. But it was in the early times of PV and many of these data were just guesses. But Odum used them in his calculations arriving to the conclusion that the EROEI of PV is smaller than one. That was the origin of the legend that PV can't pay for the energy it takes to build itself. One of the many legends that plague the Internet.

      Now, if you search the literature, you'll find plenty of results that demonstrate that Odum was wrong. Granted that a value of 40 is, right now, a bit extreme: it holds for some special condition of high insulation (search for Raugei and Fthenakis as the authors). But why not? PV is a growing technology which keeps improvin. From a weighted average of what I read in the literature I think is a technology with an EROEI sufficient to support a civilization. Then, it is a question of jumping in that direction and it seems that many of us are so shocked by what they have been experienced that they can't think

      BTW, sorry but I don't know who is Derrick Jensen. Could you give me a link?

    6. About Derrick Jensen, I am always amazed to discover how many things exist out there of which I knew nothing about. So, now I discovered also this; ouch....

      Now, of course I could only listen to some of his talks; he is a good speaker and he has many good points. But he leaves you no choice. He starts with the premise that "no civilization can be sustainable". Might be true, in the sense that no civilization we know of has lasted for more than a finite time. But things change and it is not obvious that we cannot build a durable civilization on the basis of renewable technologies. After all, we have technologies that ancient Sumerians didn't have. The main problem is not technology, it is to control it. And THAT is something we haven't even started to think about.

  2. Hello Ugo,

    thank you for this post - the psychologist Martin Seligman by the way has gone on to become president of the american psychology association and has founded the field "positive psychology", which can help nurture that little acorn into fruition. It is nice to read some things not so "doom and gloom" for a change. To be able to change, there has to be at least a viable chance of a positive outcome. Or else - why bother. Maybe Cassandras legacy is not only the dark prophecy, but also the question of where to go from there.

    I also wanted to tell you about a project, that I respect and that I ask you to at least take a look at:


    "BALANCE OF THE PLANET" is a well documented trial to make peak oil, climate change and their intricacies available to the general public in the form of a game for free.

    Chris Crawford, the designer is a veteran of the game industry and if you like it, maybe you could endorse it? The project needs all the attention it can get!

    1. Well, that's very interesting, Maxim. You are writing to an old gamer - I DID play Eastern Front by Chris Crawford - although I can't remember exactly when; only that it was in the US, somewhere in Berkeley. Awfully difficult though, my forces got wiped out so fast!! One thing that I remember is that I was thinking, "dammit - this thing is too smart for me". I must say, though, that I am more of a board-gamer/role player than a computer gamer, so I didn't play any of the later games by Chris Crawford. But, at heart, I am a gamer. So, I love the idea that Chris Crawford is writing a game on planetary balance. I'll look at it for sure.

      But I do agree that games are all important, you may be surprised to know that I was planning to spend this august to developing a board game version of the Hubbert model. Should be reasonably easy to illustrate the "bell shaped curve" by having players take the role of oil companies.

      Unfortunately, I would need to clone myself a few times to be able to do all what I want to do. Gosh.... one quarter of August is already gone and I was ALSO planning to finish two manuscripts; write a paper for "Sustainability" and I just got the report of a referee who wants me to rewrite my last paper basically from scratch... ouch.....

      In any case, Cassandra didn't make prophecies of doom. She made prophecies to let people ESCAPE doom!!!

    2. The UK department of Energy and Climate Change has two variations of trying to balance energy need and climate impact.
      The one for kids is easiest and most fun:

      The "adult" version is at:

    3. I went to check the page of the game

      but it seems to be dead. Has the project been abandoned?

    4. It seems to be dead, indeed. This page


      has not been updated for more than one year.

    5. Hello Ugo,

      thank you for the reply, the project is not dead - probably Chris has taken the current version off the web, because he was not satisfied with it.

      I believe that games can be great teaching tools and I too have been thinking, how to turn many of the dilemmas we face into a game.

      I believe that Chris might be trying too much at the same time. Learning comes in small chunks, to be integrated into a greater whole somewhere and sometime in the recesses of our mind and brain.

      I have been thinking of taking something like this:


      and turning each of the fallacies into a small gaming situation, where you can play through it multiple times and learn from it.

      Studying medicine, I see problems and concepts better learned through games practically every day and I am sure that the same can be applied to economics.

      I will write you about any progress on that front. I like every kind of game, board- role- and computer. Whatever is elegant and beautiful enough to engage my mind and satisfy either the intellect, or creativity or even just plain curiosity.

    6. Yep, let me know how things progress, thanks!

    7. Arg! I just checked and the Balance of the Planet game is working just fine. I know it works on most PCs, too. Perhaps there's a problem with java implementation on your machine? Perhaps it might be good to try it on another machine?

      Also, the Design Diary for Balance of the Planet continues to get new material. I suspect that what happened was this: you went to the first page, which presents the first diary, then has a long list of subsequent diary entries.

    8. Whoops.... Chris... I tried again, this time using Chrome, and it works!!! There was something wrong with Firefox. Go figure..... Thanks for checking, I'll look at the game right away!

  3. Hi Ugo,
    I think people should be careful here... Hope is generally not a bad thing but it can be misplaced.

    Putting "learned helplessness" aside for a moment, I think it is important to try and define what our [realistic] options are for a "way out".

    As commenter Brian has alluded, extrapolating exponential growth of renewables on a chart is a whole lot different than realizing that as reality in a complex "real world".

    Even if learned helplessness can be avoided, it is useless for the dog to repeatedly attempt to jump through an exit that it cannot reach or that only appears to exist - this is especially tragic if there are other "ways out" that could be more easily reached...

    1. Well, Lucas, I think that we do have a way out, although I can't prove it. Of one thing I am 100% sure: if we lose hope, we lose everything

  4. But, as a further note, what Stuart did is a simple version of a calculation I have been doing. The growth of renewables "alone", that is without a supply of fossil fuels, depends on EROEI. In order for renewables to replace fossil fuels before it is too late - let's say in 50 years from now, we need either or both these conditions 1) an EROEI higher than about 40 and 2) a willingness to make sacrifices. The first we don't have yet, but for some technologies we are not so far away. The second, so far, we are totally lacking.

  5. Ugo,
    Just to be clear, I am also a big fan of renewable energy systems - and also of not sitting on our hands while the world happens around us.

    I think [probably] many, many small-scale distributed energy systems are better than fewer, larger centralized systems.

    A large network of home or community scale systems might be easier to implement and also provide greater resilience to disruptive forces.

  6. I think the BotP project is still alive http://www.erasmatazz.com/TheLibrary/GameDesign/DesignDiaryBotP/DesignDiaryBotP.html
    from 8/1/2012. Chris has posted his interaction schematic here http://www.erasmatazz.com/TheLibrary/GameDesign/DesignDiaryBotP/March25th/March25th.html (3/25/12)

  7. The quantity of alternate or renewable energy sources will not exist when the mines stop because they cannot run on the net of renewable systems. Mining requires oil to supply 7 billion people, with the barest necessities, and certainly will not produce electric cars in quantity, etc. Not one mention of the financial system underpinning the globalization needed for the economy/lifestyle we have today. Or the fact that the global financial system is in the ICU and in terminal decline which will have more influence on energy than even oil or NG.

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  9. Hugo - its good to see a positive take on our predicament given the rising defeatism, but I think anyone involved in the climate campaign for a while will get more questions than answers from Stewart's prognosis.

    For instance,
    - how long would it take for renewables to do more than their present role of just adding to global energy supply rather than displacing fossil energy use, without a treaty setting a global cap on the use of fossil energy ?

    - if renewables took say 5% of the fossil energy market what would that do to fossil energy prices without a treaty limiting their use ? And how much further would fossil prices be suppressed if renewables could get to 10% or 15% ? How would those price cuts affect the renewables' competitiveness for new plant projects globally ?

    - if fossil energy faces real competition for market share, then beside cutting prices on extant supplies it also has the option of advancing cheaper fossil options, such as coal-seam gasification (potentially very cheap and dirty) advanced coal-to-liquids, and methane hydrates' extraction. In the absence of a treaty, there would be nothing to prevent this, and we should then still be raising the atmospheric GHG burden at a greater rate per year than the present.

    - if as Stewart suggests we accept Washington's blandishments and forget about a treaty "for a couple of decades" then, after say 2032, we've not only got the 40-yr lifetime of the fossil plants built by then (operating to after 2070 ?), we've also removed for two decades the major financial incentive for power station builders and govts worldwide to choose renewables of expecting a stringent price on carbon early in the life of any new plant.

    As far as I can integrate the effects of Stewart's suggestion of foregoing the requisite climate treaty until say 2032, they appear to be:

    - A BAU rate of increase in GHG emissions until at least 2035 (allowing for fossil plant under construction to be completed) and possibly later, since actually peaking emissions will take time;

    - Continued GHG emissions from fossil plant until the mid 2070s (assuming that society by then lacks the wealth to replace working fossil plant with new non-fossil);

    - Continued additional warming of the planet by those late GHG outputs until at least 2100 due to the 20 to 40yr timelag on warming from oceans' thermal inertia;

    - Due to that timelagged warming, continued acceleration of the interactive mega-feedbacks on warming (of which six are already accelerating and several have the potential to dwarf annual anthro emissions) - with a critical change at the point where the feedback CO2e outputs exceed the natural carbon sinks' capacity (averages 43% of annual anthro output) in that ending anthro GHGs after that point cannot halt the continued rise of airborne GHGs from the interactive feedbacks.

    These are some of the prudential reasons why some of us started campaigning for an equitable and efficient climate treaty over two decades ago. The ethical reasons for doing so - in terms of the equitable treatment of highly vulnerable developing nations' populations - are at least as strong.

    In view of the delays in agreeing the treaty under the ongoing Sino-US 'brinkmanship of inaction', and in view of the accelerating rate at which the climate is destabilizing, it needs to be acknowledged that additional measures beside a treaty for rapid emissions control are now required. In these circumstances proposing that we should forget a treaty at present because we'd get a better one two decades hence seems self-defeating.

    So with all due respect, I'd suggest that since the climate problem is cumulative, and would become self-reinforcing, and will generate further highly lethal 'surprises', perhaps you should reconsider just how fundamental an early agreement of the treaty is to any serious prospect of controlling climate destabilization ?



    1. Yes, I agree, absolutely. The climate change problem is cumulative - actually, it is not a problem, it is a disaster. But treaties, IMHO, are insufficient to cope and the attempt to reduce emissions by treaties simply hasn't worked. That doesn't mean we need to abandon the effort - Stuart doesn't say that. We need ALSO a positive action to replace fossil fuels with sustainable energy sources. That might work better or not, but in my opinion it would generate a virtuous circle. Once there exists an economy based on renewables, there is a political force which has all the interest in shutting down fossil fuel use by treaty. Right now, the fossil lobby is just too powerful.

    2. Glad we agree the problem is cumulative.
      We differ over whether treaties have worked, given Kyoto's excellent output despite everything thrown at it by the sole superpower + clients.

      Stewart bases his proposal that we don't need a treaty for "a couple of decades" on simple assertions and uses logic worthy of Maugeri as its justification.
      As you're a physicist - and certainly have training in discerning flawed logic - I don't see why promoting renewables should be given an exemption from this disciple. Perhaps you could explain ?



  10. You've been smoking Hopium! What your funny graphs fail to show is the fact that alternative energy "solutions" all require oil energy to be manufactured, it's extremely unlikely they will EVER be able to be self-produced without fossil fuels.

    In addition, the carbon footprint they create isn't zero or even negligible, it's quite significant, which is even more emissions into the atmosphere!

    Furthermore, energy production doesn't actually "solve" anything (Jevon's Paradox applies here). It isn't more energy we need long-term, it's less. Whatever efficiencies we may gain, or alternative technologies we may employ, will only lead to more endless growth -- something a finite world doesn't need.

    What we are now experiencing in regards to global warming was decades in the making, our present "experience" on climate is emissions from the 1950's and 1960's. We've yet to fully grasp what our experience will be from the emissions of the 1980's - 1990's (with emissions having always gone up every single year).

    This means that your charts are useless in regards to climate change effects and how alternative energy can "solve" anything now. By 2050, the time when you extrapolated alternative energy catching up with conventional sources, the climate will be so horribly "wrong" that alternative energy "solutions" won't offer lick-spittle hope for solving anything -- except giving humans yet another energy source to exploit (Jevon's Paradox).

    The world continues to act, belief and think that "we have the time" to solve these issues, yet they are ignoring just how long it will take to restore climate stability (thousands of years) already set in motion. Any technofix solution we may devise now is actually already much too late. We're still going to have to figure out how to endure hellish conditions on this planet for a long, long time. And that's also assuming anything can be done (restoring climate stability), something this is unproven.

    While I support alternative energy ideas, they are not going to "fix" anything in regards to our climate for the next several thousand years. They may help - but we won't "experience" an of the climate benefits for a very long time.

    The amount of emissions we have dumped into the atmosphere will be with us for a very long time, all the while the climate conditions get worse and worse until they finally stabilize -- but that won't be anything we're going to like. We're just now understanding the lag time involved.

    I've written about this extensively on my own blog and my conclusions are very much different then yours. I don't advocate Hopium at all, I think it's a dangerous delusional distraction from reality and what we really need to be doing right now. ~Survival Acres~

  11. Ugo, thanks for posting Stuart's essay, but I have to say I tend to agree with anonymous, directly above. Stuart ignores basic challenges to his vision like the energy subsidy that allows for 'cheap' production of solar and wind tech in the first place, and he doesn't make any attempt to explain other basic aspects, such as where the energy (or financial capital) is going to come from to build out this wondrous new energy infrastructure.

    (He also makes no mention of the ecological devastation created by pursuit of rare earths like neodymium which render wind tech feasible)

    In fact, in order for his vision to be correct, we'd need what David Korowicz calls the 'operational fabric' of the industrial world to remain intact throughout, since otherwise, we can't mine, process, manufacture or distribute the goodies. But that fabric if the embodiment of the system that is tearing everything - not just the biosphere, but human societies - to pieces!

    Further, my understanding is that if we do as he says, and look more closely at the data (link?), what we'd find is that when the economy drops, so does investment in solar and wind. So it is only when the economy is growing that dollars flow to these alternatives. He seems to have averaged across the past 10 years to get his 25% and 44% numbers. What happens if we look at just the past 5 years? This would seem to be a closer match to the next few, if the goal is to extrapolate. Or does Stuart imagine that we're in fact just about to turn the corner and recapture the glory days of the debt fueled recovery after the 2001 economic slump? If so, what is his justification, because I sure don't see it. The future looks very much like one of contracting economic prospects. Where is the reasoning that would lead one to conclude that in such an economic environment, solar and wind will continue to grow in double digits?? Absent such reasoning, one can only assume that one of the presumptions is a rapidly growing economy. Then I'd like to see an argument that this plausible.

    All in all, it seems to me Stuart has had to be very selective (I think 'tortuous' is the word I'm looking for) in his vision in order to get to where he's got to. In other words, he seems to have a 'premise problem' which then leads inevitably to a 'conclusions conundrum.'

    I don't think such selectivity is helpful or useful or puts us in a position to make smart choices going forward (in fact I think it can be quite dangerous). I'd make the point that, in large measure, I think it was engaging in willful denial and blind optimism that sort of got us in this mess in the first place!

    I think optimism has its place, most assuredly - and my version of optimism - not of the willfully blind variety - has to do with the kinds of opportunities human beings will be have in a world with radically less energy available to us. In fact, I think Karl North has done an admirable job is listing out the reasons to be optimistic in this piece (in which he cites you! :):


    This is a far cry from the kind of naively optimistic clinging to technology-as-savior that seems to inform the essay above.



  12. Interesting argument and great blog.

    You have left out battery storage roll out to support intermittent generation on the Grid. So there should be another curve showing the increase in battery.

    And as well, wind and solar harvest diffuse energy sources, The collectors are HUGE when compared to carbon or nuclear based generation. For instance at our project we just finished a paper where we built a model of our house out of 6 years of daily data. We wanted to answer the question as to whether we could become totally carbon free. Turns out that for 100,000 houses of our type, they would need a solar collector with 195 square kilometers of panels. And that stands to reason .... sun energy is diffuse energy. For wind we would need about 100 2 MW wind turbines. Plus the batteries .... huge battery banks to support the houses without wind or light. Our house has been optimized for energy use and has its own battery banks.

    So batteries, land space and the brute force number of generators required are monster problems when harvesting intermittent low energy dense sources.

    Note as well the Grid cannot be on the same nonlinear pathway as your curves above. It's an orders of magnitude different problem with the battery roll out being only a part of it.

    And finally there is no nuclear power on your curve. It has to be part of the mix. What the technology is or technology mix is we can only speculate other than to say that it will have to be demonstratively efficient and safe for public acceptance. Talk about energy density ... doesn't get any better than the Atom.



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). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)