Monday, July 10, 2017

The Three Phases of the Reaction to Existential Threats: Action, Deception, and Desperation

I have been always fascinated by how people's consciousness of collective threats blurs and disappears as the threat gets closer. Look, here, at the concept of "peak oil" as it appears on  "Google Trends." You see how it dwindled to almost zero interest after having been popular at the beginning of the 21st century.

We get similar results for Global Warming:

There are many more examples, a classic one is how the 1972 study "The Limits to Growth" was forgotten as the threat it described became closer in time. So, if you think about this, it is maddening: the earth is becoming more warm and people worry less about that?  The same about oil; the more we use, the less there is; how come that people worry less and less about the problem? Maddening, indeed.

After considerable head-scratching, I came up with a proposed explanation that I described in an earlier post as the "camper's dilemma." It is a simple model consisting in two campers trying to adopt the best strategy to avoid being eaten by bears. Here, let me repropose the camper's dilemma in a more general form that I call, here, "The Three Phases of the Reaction to Existential Threats" (actually four phases, but "phase 0" is not important)

Phase 0 - No perceived danger: no action. The problem is not recognized, so nothing is done about it.
Phase 1 - Low perceived danger: collective action. The threat is perceived to exist, but only minor adjustments are believed to be necessary to avoid damage. The emphasis is on everyone doing his/her part.
Phase 2 - High perceived danger: deception. The threat starts being perceived  (but not by everyone) as serious and involving considerable sacrifices. The objective for those who understand the situation, and for the elites in particular, is to make sure that the burden falls on someone else's shoulders. This may involve denial, obfuscation, and blame-shifting.
Phase 3 - Very high perceived danger. desperate emergency action. The threat becomes so evident that it is obvious to everyone that society is on the edge of the Seneca cliff and that not even the elites will survive the collapse. Deception is abandoned while desperate, last-ditch attempts to avoid the cliff are put in place.

Let's try to apply these considerations to the current threats, for instance global warming. It became a known threat in the 1970s and, at the time, it didn't seem to be the terrible problem it has become today. "Phase one" involved proposals such as double-paned glass windows, low consumption light bulbs, smaller cars, and the like. Much of the world's environmental movement still lives in phase one: they think that it will be sufficient to explain to people what the problem is and to convince everyone to make some small sacrifices. Then, the problem will be solved.

But "phase two" has been around for a long time and it has been gaining strength. The Trump administration is a clear example of the attempt to deceive the public about global warming by silencing the media and by a general effort of obfuscation and deception. The elites, at this stage, seem to believe that survival is possible for those who have air conditioning and own mansions on the hills. The others will roast or drown but, so the elites believe, that will reduce emissions and everything will be well for the survivors.

Some people have already moved to "phase three," with the concept of the climate "tipping point" that pushes the planet to a condition where it is not sure than anyone will be able to survive. This concept hasn't yet made inroads with the elites. But, once they discover that the threat is existential not just for the poor, but for everybody, then they may go kinetic and implement extreme, desperate attempt to fix the climate system. Expect geoengineering to become popular!

As an exercise, we may also apply the concept of the "three phases" to oil depletion. Here, we are more clearly in "phase two." The elites are engaged in gathering the remaining oil resources for themselves, while denying the problem and redirecting the anger of the public against specific ethnic, political, and religious groups. Phase three might take the shape of a desperate rush toward nuclear energy.

I know that all this is a little cynical (a lot), but it seems to me to make sense and to provide us with a working model for what's happening and why. Then, supposing it is a good model, what should we do to avoid the worse? That's something that we should discuss. Anyone has ideas?


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)