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?


41 comments:

  1. It's probably time we built our own parallel society – a resilient one that won't depend on elites... and which could progressively become the new world as the old one dies. Osmotically...

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    1. We're already doing that in a small pueblo in Uruguay, and it's happening all over the world. These are good folks who get the issues, and are willing to sacrifice and work amazingly hard to have the world they want to live in. Wherever you are..... join us. It's very fun and satisfying.

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    2. Oh Really? Where in Uruguay? I bought a farm there myself with the same concept in mind.

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  2. Personal lifeboats. Not communal, which are expensive and in other ways problematic. Just you and the family. Not expensive concrete bunkers atop a mountain, but minimalist underground shelters, stockpiled cheap grains, etc. Avoid crowds, assume the worst, and assume tomorrow is the end. There, you want paranoid? :)

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  3. As you would know better than I the Seneca cliff is not formed wholly of human intentions (though that helps make the slope slippery). The underlying cause of it rests in the material world and the consequences of our previous actions which remain irreversible. That said the first step is recognizing that the decline will come regardless of our actions and there is no avoiding the worst. At that point it becomes clear that individual and even collective actions will not reverse what is happening. Your best case scenario is not to avoid decline or arrest it but only to manage the pace at which it occurs or to order the effects. The political and economic elites have a strategy in place to do this - it's called "A few of us are rich and the rest of you are poor". It's the same strategy that existed for most of human existence until fossil fuels afforded us the chance to all be rich (or so we thought).

    When we truly reach phase III, the desperate last ditch attempts will not be to solve anything but to ensure only the survival of some few at the expense of others. To maintain power and authority unchanged. I think there is ample evidence in history that this is always the preferred course of action for a political and economic elite.

    What becomes clear is that this moment has always been awaiting us. We created it through a one-time exploitation of resources. Altering the path requires doing something incredibly difficult (and biologically ingrained in some cases) - deliberately choosing to possess less, eat less, move less, and reproduce less. For all of us living today there is no model of that choice outside of religion devotion. A hard question is whether outside a few individuals such choices can be practically embraced on a scale to effect change.

    The only "good" idea is to develop the ethos and lifestyle that will allow people to make that choice in the face of necessity without abandoning the vast improvements in the human condition our unchecked advance has allowed us. That such a choice can in fact be a "better" life is an argument that probably won't have traction until the moment is upon us.

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    1. arménio pereiraJuly 10, 2017 at 3:29 PM

      Elegantly written and right to the point. Thank you. As a Portuguese, my vision is that phase 3 should be described as "aftermath": try to survive, try to fix something, if possible. I'm unsure if this applies to the rest of the world.

      To Ugo Bardi et al,
      Dear Sir, I'm very grateful to you for your efforts in trying to humour us and keep your readers informed about the unpleasant things that are about to come, but, as your graphics and head-scratching clearly shows, it's only preaching to the choir. If there's something that one can learn from history is that wise men only become wise at the eyes of the world after the events they described came to pass. I also beg for your forgiveness, but let me dare to disagree: it is not the Trump administration, or any other government for that matter, it is only the populace trying to either cling to their BAUtomat status (thank you Antonio Turiel for the BAUtomata concept) or desperately regain that status. Thank you.

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    2. I agree. So easy to blame Trump, or Exxon, or any of the big bad guys. But, someone, or a lot of "someones" have been buying and burning for a long time.

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    3. I am sorry to say that the "big bad guys" already know for sure and in depth what is going on: Antonio Turiel has collected tens of references of reports issued from different Public Administrations (governments, armies, multilateral organizations, etc.). So instead of keeping adding to their pockets, they could try to act differently this time. Moreover with so many evidences that if we enter the Seneca cliff this time, it could be the last one for humankind.

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  4. We would do well to form into small bands/tribes like our ancestors did. Sustainable ways of life existed for many thousands of years before agriculture and complex societies. Our brains are still in that age, even though our society has rocketed ahead in complexity. If we can provide our needs locally, we are much more likely to be able to ride out the impending storms. I see no other way.

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    1. See my comment above (@ Arthur Keller). We are a tribe of 60+ (and growing) who are doing exactly what you describe. It's a wonderful experience to return to basic living with others who want the same. Growing food, saving seeds, building "natural" buildings, raising children in a completely safe environment, music, dancing, gatherings,....... it's a very good life.

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  5. and then again there is
    THE SKY is FALLING
    THE SKY IS FALLING .. or WOLF..WOLF ...

    meh

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    1. And the boy who cried wolf turned out to have been right, at the end! Meh...

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  6. A key to my emotional adjustment has been channeling Hari Seldon to a small degree -- the Fall cannot be stopped, the system cannot be saved. Collapsing now and avoiding the rush, as Greer has opined, means preemptively moving ones own lifestyle to a lighter footprint that is less reliant on global markets and the levels of intermediation inherent in our consumerist society, as well as building the local social networks we will need in the years ahead. Life will survive the coming storm. Humanity will survive. Modern industrial civilization will not.

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  7. I think the point is that we will not avoid the worst. The question becomes how do we deal with the worst. I fear it will bring out the worst in us. I expect we will waste the last of our resources building more roads, having more babies, and starting more wars.

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  8. Decía Séneca "Sufre mas de lo necesario quien sufre antes de lo necesario"
    Supongo que el sentimiento de fatalidad, de que el desastre es inevitable, nos lleva a cerrar los ojos.
    Pero el papel que juegan las élites en el control de la información parece mucho mas determinante.

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  9. Sorry for this not being a reply to your question, but your post reminds me of a different three-phase system I read about years ago (which for the life of me I can't remember where I read it).

    It was a study done of people living far from, somewhat close to, and right next to dams. Those living far away were not too concerned about their local dam collapsing (they were so far away that the water wouldn't reach them). Those living nearby were very concerned as the water would flood their towns, ruin their crops, etc. Those living right next to the dams, who would be utterly annihilated were their local dam to collapse? Were they even more concerned, the most concerned of all? "The dam, collapse? Never! It's indestructible!" Complete denial was their coping mechanism.

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    1. I think it agrees with my point: people ARE rational when facing danger!

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  10. Awesome post.

    I have moved off grid, remote, tiny rural community here in Australia. Insurance, if you will, against the 'zombie' hordes of obese, pre-diabetic, prescription drug addled etc that modern society seems to have become.

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  11. We can't all move off grid or form small bands living off communal cooperation. There's a large correction in our population coming, however it comes. After that, who knows? But I'll bet it'll just be more of the same but with fewer resources.

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    1. Most likely it'll be more of the same forever and ever until we screw up one too many times.

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    2. >We can't all move off grid or form small bands living off communal cooperation

      No we can't all do it but that's what the survivors will have to do. In case it happens more quickly than anticipated, I decided to go early and learn the skills necessary... bit hard to spend a decade learning to grow food when you need it for the next meal. My precaution could be "mis-timed" but I will have lived an interesting life, chosen deliberatly, closer to nature. So for me, there is little downside.

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  12. great post on an insight that is rarely mentioned or considered. thank you.

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  13. My 2 cents on the idea of 3 "stages:

    First, the "aha" moment when you first see it and understand it. Overwhelming, profound, stunning;

    Second, the disaster fatigue that sets in after a while after all the blogs, books, conferences, doomer preps, etc.;

    Third, the cliff arrives.

    Big myth: Preparing. You can't really prepare for this, you might be able to buy some time but no-one knows how this unfolds or how to survive an unknown future. If you have land and a farm, someone will kill you for your food. If you have a doomer bunker, you will be a target. If you are compassionate you will be overwhelmed. If you are selfish you will be taken out by violence.

    Humans have two problems: We evolved to imagine only a very short period into the future, ie, where is our next meal; and

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    1. Disaster fatigue. Political, social, biological, economic, military, climate, and climate change are overwhelming. The greatest factor that just drains is the deep strong denile and outright lies.

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  14. I am reminded of a college tutor from 1980, who introduced us to LtG.
    Nobody other than the tutor and myself were remotely concerned.
    After all, people now even had HOME computers - next stop Star Trek!

    We didn't even get to Space 1999.
    Ho hum..

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  15. One interesting aspect, at least in Italy, is how short a time politicians stay in a single job.

    Here local politicians, in Florence, stay in politics, but change their jobs about once a year.

    This means they study their job for four months, actually do it for four months and the prepare their get away for the last four.

    Nobody will see the effects of his decision, or have to pay for them.

    Imagine what this means with long term problems: Trump is quite right to make the rest of the world pay for climate change during the four or at most eight years of office. If the effects hit the US in twelve years' time, it won't be his problem.

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  16. Of course, we don't know what is going to happen, so we don't know how to prepare.

    In many countries, there are volunteer "civil protection" groups, which prepare a community against floods, fires and other disasters and handle a lot of issues that are simply too much for the institutions to deal with.

    This is a good beginning for several reasons:

    1) it goes beyond individual escape

    2) the immediate reason is clear to everybody, but one can also think in the long term, and get across a message about issues like pollution and climate change

    3) it sharpens people's awareness: streets you used to sleepwalk through now come to life as you understand how they work, where dangers lie, how people live in them

    4) you can work with everybody - schools, families...

    5) it is tremendous fun and adventure for children and adolescents.

    It can be a good beginning.

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    1. And Oltrarno is not going to be flooded so soon!

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  17. Ugo,
    I have to ask you this question. How do you personally see civilization playing out this century?

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    1. I think we'll soon be moving to "phase 3" - Trump is already a symptom of the shift. Then, we'll see interesting times (in the sense of the ancient Chinese malediction)

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    2. I tend to have faith that civilization will survive, you?

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    3. My guess is that geopolitics aleardy encompasses fighting wars on the edge of the cliff. Science told politics that climate change was very very slow and unlikley to cause critical irreversile damage anytime soon in the USA,for example. (Go back 10 or 20 years and look at some of the official stuff.)The story of the race for resources is more complicated and has needed more upfront attention, but hey, even Japan still gets its NG and N America still produces surplus calories and gets enough oil.

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    4. "Not one step back"? Ugo, can you clarify that? It's rather vague.
      Phil, I see things more as a rock hill than a cliff. The question is how bad do we want things to get before stabilizing?

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    5. It is order 277 that Stalin gave in 1942. When the situation is desperate, survival requires desperate measures. It worked, Russia survived the ordeal. our civilization might survive a situation that's already desperate, but it will require desperate measurs. It is Phase 3 coming

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    6. Ah... sorry, I meant order 227

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  18. I'm no expert on statistical analysis but I suggest that Ugo might have qualified his Google Trends' findings with a cautionary note about the reliability of Google Trends' results.

    For example, The Journal of Epidemiology and Global Health recently published the results of a study titled: "Is Google Trends a reliable tool for digital epidemiology? Insights from different clinical settings." (URL http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2210600617301090)

    The findings: "The results of our study confirm that Google Trends has modest reliability for defining the epidemiology of relatively common diseases with minor media coverage, or relatively rare diseases with higher audience. Overall, Google Trends seems to be more influenced by the media clamor than by true epidemiological burden."

    It could be that the topic of the Google Trends analysis influences the reliability of the results. More research is required.

    Until then, I suggest that readers should be cautious of accepting at face value the results of Googles' research tool.


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    1. That's an interesting paper; thanks for the note. It says, basically, that people search for the term indicating a disease, say, the Ebola virus, as a result of being influenced by the media. And the result is an "interest curve" that may have little to do with the actual spread of the disease.

      The point I am making here, however, is rather different. It is about quantifying people's interest in a certain concept - like peak oil - and that's something Google trend can tell. Besides, the result correspond well to the impression you have from surveying the media yourself: peak oil is a dead duck, right now

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  19. We the Koch Brothers, Trump and his billionaire backer Mercer, know that global warming will get us all. They and the jet-set, I'm only an occasional member, want to live out our lives in comfort, after all we are going to die anyway, and what was posterity ever going to do for us? After all, something or other has to take out the teaming billions of plague humans. No need to panic until elite are in discomfort and inconvenience sets in. I am waiting for the third Al Gore movie, "An Inconvenienced Elite", in which Al Gore finally gives up jet-setting.
    Meanwhile in Australia , Renewable Energy is inconveniences the Coal Lobby of the current government, as members claim that the poor will die of cold during winter, while electricity from peak gas prices are high due to overseas gas exports, and Corporate shareholders pocket the tax-free profits.
    http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/people-will-die-due-to-renewables-turnbull-government-mp-craig-kelly-20170712-gxa78z.html

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  20. "No matter how cynical you become, it's never enough to keep up." - Lily Tomlin

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  21. You and your significant other are on the Titanic part way through the human voyage. Never mind whether you chose to join the ship or it just happened. The ship intercom (AKA the internet) begins to malfunction disclosing occasional glimpses of the Captain and his senior crew staggering around the bridge in a totally drunken state. You've looked at the map and know that you are entering iceberg strewn waters. Under the circumstances what is a logical course of action?

    1- Attempt to organize a mutiny among all 10,00 passengers, only one of which sees the danger as you do. Even if successful you wouldn't know how to steer the ship to avoid icebergs.

    2- Or, party with all he other passengers until you pass out.

    Obviously action #1 is completely insane.

    On land there is a third option--- work to build a survivable tribal community as Ryan and a few others are attempting. In a crisis they will not be successful because of the impossibility of defending hoarded food and energy during societal breakdown when power grows out of the mouth of a gun. But the immediate rewards of living in a face to face tribal community like those we evolved to co-exist in is sufficient reason to give it a go.

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Who

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" to be published by Springer in mid 2017