Busy doing nothing – seven reasons for humanity’s inertia in the face of critical threats and how we might remove them

Mark Rutledge and Brian Davey

The addiction to dopamine highs described by Nate Hagens in the previous article is just one reason why humans have failed to curb their excessive resource consumption. Six others are outlined here, some of which are systemic; others the result of the way humanity evolved. Our best chance of counteracting them will come when the crisis pushes us out of our comfortable ruts.

Mark Rutledge writes: Throughout my 25 years as an environmental activist,
I have been struck by the lack of importance other people give to my concerns. For example, the most common response amongst family, friends and classes when I enter into another passionate discourse on the latest climate change science is what I term the ‘MEGO effect’ (My Eyes Glaze Over). It’s no better now than it was when I started out, even though the environmental threat has increased and its causes are understood and are rapidly becoming quantified. As Professor David Suzuki put it, the world is on a “blind date with disaster”. Yet, rather than this enabling me to move in from the margins and play some useful role in putting matters right, I am beginning to resemble William Blake’s “dog starv’d at his Master’s gate” which “predicts the ruin of the state.”

Well, I’m not happy about this since, without indulging in what Camilla Cavendish of the London Times calls “climate porn”, we are, as the New Economics Foundation put it in their 2008 publication The new green deal – 100 months to save the planet, in the final countdown to irreversible climate change. Rather than invite the same glazed looks by writing about the science of climate change and policies to prevent it, however, I’m going to explore some of the reasons for the individual and collective inertia that seems to be the response to the approaching catastrophe.

Reason for Inertia 1: Following the Herd

There is a deeply ingrained human tendency to convince oneself that everything is okay because no-one else is worried. Two psychologists, John Darley and Bibby Latané, have demonstrated that the more people who witness an event, the less responsible any one of them feels for doing anything about what they see. They invited students to undertake an exam in an assembly hall. Only one student was in the hall at a time and the rest of the “examinees” were actors. The student and actors were then presented with an exam paper. In the middle of the exam, Darley and Latané started filling the hall with smoke through the ducts and observed the responses. The actors were instructed to continue with their exam but, in each case, the unsuspecting student observed the smoke, looked at the inaction of his or her fellow examinees and continued to write. When the control experiment involved a single student, once the smoke was observed, the individual rapidly made a decision to evacuate the hall. This exercise and others along similar lines demonstrate how, as Camilla Cavendish puts it, “the inaction of other people can make us underestimate threats to our own safety.”

Reason for Inertia 2: The Post-Trust Society

We live in what Prof. Ragnar Lofstedt calls a “post-trust society“. The public and thus the electorate no longer trust politicians, regulators or big business. In Ireland, some of the reasons are obvious — infected blood scandals, judicial cover-ups, clerical child abuse and corrupt politicians. The result was demonstrated in the first Lisbon Treaty referendum vote when the mainstream political parties representing 90% of the electorate failed to convince the voters that the treaty should be passed. A motley collection of extremist, single-issue campaigners gained a comprehensive victory over the pro-treaty forces. One of the central planks of their victory was that the voters didn’t trust the pro-Europe parties’ assurances over corporation tax, abortion and the possibility of conscription to a European army. While these and other issues were cogently disputed and argued, a Millward-Brown survey afterwards showed that a lack of trust was an important factor in the No vote.

Trust levels are falling throughout the OECD as well. For example, in Finland the proportion of people expressing trust in their leaders fell from 65% in the 1980s to 33% in the mid-nineties, and in Germany it dropped from 51% to 29%.

Convincing people to trust, say, Al Gore, John Gormley or Duncan Stewart on climate change is just as hard as the proponents of the Lisbon Treaty (and indeed the Nice Treaty prior to that) experienced. In Autumn 2009, ‘Climategate’ and doubts over the melt-rate of Himalayan glaciers showed the difficulty of communicating ‘conventional’ views in the ‘post-trust’ society. In the public’s view, the whole notion of anthropogenic climate change was thrown into doubt and the work of thousands of scientists over the past 20 years was immediately devalued. Bespectacled, bearded scientists have been added to the ‘post-trust’ lists, making it very hard to have science at the forefront of the climate debate. In effect, we are getting a replay of the smoking debate in the late 1970s and early 1980s when respected scientists like Frederick Seitz were paid by tobacco companies to use the tactic of “uncertainty” to dispute the effects of tobacco on human health.

The emergence of the web has exacerbated the problem. The surfeit of contra-arguments and contra-opinions available on the web makes it hard to trust anything.

Reason for Inertia 3: Distorted perceptions of risk

Over the past 20 years, an increasingly aggressive media has used sensationalised headlines to sell papers. In the process, risks have been amplified and benefits played down. Health in the News, Risk Reporting and Media Influence, a major report by Roger Harrabin, Anna Coote and Jessica Allen, demonstrated the effects of the sensational face of news reporting in 2003. The report analysed the news stories on the BBC and in three newspapers and compared the level of coverage of stories on risk with the real likelihood of someone being harmed by the risk in question. It found that scares were usually overplayed in the media. Smoking was killing 120,000 people a year in Britain at the time but it rarely featured in the news. Anyone dying of measles was 34,000 times more likely to have their cause of death mentioned on the news than if they died of smoking.

The BBC News programmes surveyed for the research ran one story on smoking for every 8,500 people that died from a smoking-related disease. At the other end of the scale the BBC ran one story per 0.33 people who died of vCJD and one story per 0.25 people who died of measles. The newspapers showed a similar pattern, but their coverage was more proportionate because the news output was balanced by features where public health issues were more likely to figure.

Deaths per BBC news story

Cause of Death













The sensationalisation and amplification of threats like vCJD, SARS and measles versus bigger health risks is shown in the table. Climate change has already entered the risk-attenuated category, helping dampen down our responses individually, collectively and politically. News research organisations have reported that February 2007 was the peak of public interest in climate change; polls since then have shown a decline in public concern on the subject and, by association, in the willingness to act. In Ireland, we have seen simple policy changes around CFL bulbs and a motor-tax regime built around emissions become enmeshed in posturing around extreme scenarios and cheap political point-scoring.

Reason for Inertia 4: The lack of a notion of the future

The collective inertia cannot be attributed exclusively to the ‘post-trust society’ and the way the media portrays risk. There are a number of other factors at play, and these are deeply rooted in the human phenotype. In his Commonwealth Lecture in March 2008, David Suzuki explored the role of evolution in our response to climate change. He starkly outlined some of the worst environmental problems facing us:

  • By 2048 marine fish will be commercially extinct
  • The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) is now 20 years old but has little to show for its efforts
  • 50,000 species are becoming extinct annually
  • 50% of the world’s forests are now gone
  • Global human populations, now at 6.6 billion, is expected to rise by 50% by 2050

Little or no collective responsibility is being taken for these and other worrying projections. Suzuki looked at evolution in an effort to understand why. He pointed out that modern man, homo sapiens, first emerged as a species 150,000 years ago — upright, hairless in what was, in effect, an open-air zoo. The natural attributes that one would expect to have to have to survive in such a situation — strength, speed and sensory development — were not sufficiently well developed to give man a competitive advantage.

That advantage came from intelligence, an intelligence manifest in man’s memory, curiosity, inventiveness and ability to think in abstract terms. Even though the reality is the present and our memories are of the past, these attributes combined to “create a notion of the future“. And, because the brain invented a future, humans recognised that they could affect that future by what they did in the present. Foresight became an important ability that enabled humans survive and flourish.

The ability to look ahead and manoeuvre to exploit opportunities and avoid threats is just as critical for survival in modern times. For at least the 40 years since the publication of The Limits to Growth in 1972, our foresight has warned us that are on an unsustainable path. It is now almost two decades since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro when scientists warned humanity that “no more than a few decades remain before the chance to avert the threats we now confront will be lost and the prospects for humanity immeasurably diminished.” The worldwide response to these messages from those with the resources to bring about change has been almost nil.

The failure of those with the power to allocate resources was graphically portrayed in 2005 by the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. Despite warnings about New Orlean’s inadequate drainage system and levee height, tax money had not been provided to rectify them. The result was that almost the whole city was flooded and $90 billion in property damage was done over a wide area. More than 1,500 people died in Louisiana alone.

I believe this type of thing happens because while our foresight tells us what needs to be done, we fail to do it because we have evolved into a highly polarised global society where some of the very poor are forced to engage in unsustainable practices such as forest clearance in order to survive while the very rich, those with the resources to make the change, are engaged in a bacchanalian race to excess in which, up to now, no competitor has been seriously penalised for their overconsumption. Indeed, the penalty for underconsuming has been to be left behind. Trapped in this competitive system, our individual and collective ability to guard against threats such as climate change is negligible. We operate in the narrow bandwidth of daily life at the expense of developing a notion of a sustainable future and then actually bringing that future about because that would involve the overconsumers curbing their current consumption.

Reason for Inertia 5: Discount Rates

To understand our attitude to the future, we must look at ‘human discount rates’, their evolutionary origins, and their relevance to the mitigation and adaptation to climate change. The discount rate favours the present over the future: the higher it is, the greater the bias. The term discount rate is commonly associated with the talk of equity analysts and can be defined as “the interest rate used in determining the present value of future cash flows.” A discount rate approaching 100% means things in the future have no value at all in the present moment. A discount rate of zero means that 1 in 2050 is worth 1 today.

It was always considered that a human discount rate curve (rate/time) was exponential; this meant that we discounted the same period to period. Actual economic experiments have shown that the shape of the discount curve to be hyperbolic; in other words, the early periods have much steeper discount rates than later periods. David Laibson, in his paper ‘Golden eggs and hyperbolic discounting’, indicates that peoples discount rates are 12% during days 0-5 but drop to 4% in days 20-25. We really prefer the present.

Comparisons between the discount rates of animals and humans show differences. Many animals have short lifespans and they have been shaped by evolution to devour food and reproduce quickly before they die. They therefore have a high discount rate. This is not a conscious choice, of course; they are simply behaving in a way that was historically successful since animals that postponed opportunities to eat might come back to find their food had been stolen. As Nate Hagens has put it, “the long arm of selection would have favoured organisms that valued immediacy over those who preferred to wait.”

A recent study used food rewards to study two monkey species of similar genetic make-up and living in a similar habitat but with different diets. One species was a gummivore; it scratched on trees and waited for the sap to ooze out. The other species was an opportunistic insectivore, grabbing whatever insect it could catch. Not unexpectedly, the monkeys whose feeding behaviour required patience had lower discount rates than the other species.

Generally, human discount rates are not as steep as animals. David Laibson reports that in economic games, subjects who choose larger, long-term rewards have their prefrontal cortex activated. This is the part of the brain involved in conscious decision making. Those who chose the smaller, short-term rewards showed neural activity in the limbic system, the emotional mammalian brain. Humans, in effect, have two discount rates: the ‘thinking’ discount rate with a low decline over time and the ’emotional’ discount rate with a steep decline over a short time. This reinforces the notion that emotions trump reason!

Reason for Inertia 6: Our brains are maladapted to
modern life

In the 1997 book Evolutionary Psychology – A primer, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby set out five core principles. They can be paraphrased as follows :

Principle 1. The brain’s circuits are designed to generate behaviour that is appropriate to our environmental circumstances.

Principle 2. Our neural circuits were designed by natural selection to solve problems that our ancestors faced during our species’ evolutionary history.

Principle 3. Most of what goes on in our minds is hidden from us. As a result, our conscious experience can mislead us into thinking that our circuitry is simpler that it really is. Most problems that we think are easy to solve require very complicated neural circuitry.

Principle 4. Different neural circuits developed specifically to solve different adaptive problems.

Principle 5. Our modern skulls therefore house a Stone Age mind.

In other words, the key to understanding the modern mind is to realise that its circuits were not designed to solve the day-to-day problems of a modern European; they were designed to solve the day-to-day problems of hunter-gatherers. These Stone Age priorities produced a brain far better at solving some problems than others. For example, it is easier for us to learn to fear snakes than electric sockets, even though electric sockets pose a larger threat than snakes do in most modern communities. In many cases, our brains are better at solving the kinds of problems our ancestors faced on the African savannahs than they are at solving the more familiar tasks we face in modern life.

Reason for Inertia 7: Our addiction to a dopamine buzz

The neuroscientist and psychiatrist Paul D. MacLean developed his Triune (three brains in one) hypothesis in 1959. He suggests the human brain consists of a ‘primitive’ reptilian brain around the brain stem for controlling basic instinctual survival behaviour and thinking. Then there is the mammalian ‘Limbic’ system that handles emotion, memory and feelings associated with unconscious behavioural response patterns. Finally, there is the ‘neocortex’ which developed to enable rational thought and other higher order functions and is unique to humans. But, interestingly, human emotional response patterns depend on the neural pathways that link the right hemisphere of the neo-cortex to the mammalian brain which in turn links to the reptilian brain.
It is these connections, where impulse can override rationality, where humans engage in activity at a societal and personal level that they know to be adverse to our health and well-being but still satiates the repitilian brain in the short-term, which continue to dominate our reponse. This scenario can be seen in our relationship with tobacco, alcohol and increasingly food — the rise of obesity, diabetes and heart disease where the short-term primitive needs are met at the expense of our future condition.

Central to this behaviour is dopamine. Dopamine, a core neurotransmitter, plays an integral role in our short-term desires. It is the dopamine rush that consumers feel when securing a particular handbag or winning at the bookies. Many of the modern options that engage our neurotransmitters are maladaptive. Pornography and lottery tickets give us feelings identical to those our ancestors were good at pursuing. But now, in the 21st century, they often trick our brains into responding in the way they did which led to evolutionary success.

In his 2008 book Enough: Breaking Free from the World of More, John Naish argues that “We are lumbered with ‘wanting’ brains.” We want, want, want, and are also intrigued by novelty. Our dopamine pleasure centres in our brains are flooded when we acquire and buy. A salesperson talks of ‘shoe-limics’ . The dopaminergic systems is clearly one of the drivers of our short-term behaviour. In essence, more dopamine craving means less concern about climate change.

So Brian, tell me, in view of all these constraints on human behaviour, why do you remain optimistic that humanity will be able to change sufficiently to save itself from disaster?

Brian Davey replies:

I wouldn’t describe myself as overly optimistic but I do feel that a lot of people are capable of changing. After all, we all go through major life changes from time to time, and that gives us a collective chance to steer these personal transitions in a more ecological direction. So I think we need to explore what happens when, either intentionally or involuntarily, people move outside of their previous routines and restructure their lives.

It is not really surprising that most people’s behaviour is difficult to change most of the time. If you want to predict what most people will be doing tomorrow, then the best thing to do is to look at what they were doing yesterday and are doing today. Of course if it is a weekend then what they were doing last weekend would be a better predictor.

Routines make the management of everyday life a lot easier. As the English playwright and author Arnold Bennett put it: “The great advantage of being in a rut is that when one is in a rut, one knows exactly where one is” and “Any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by drawbacks and discomforts. “

That means that people are usually open to major changes only when they are outside their routines and in transition. More normally they are blinkered and prefer to stay with the familiar. So they may hear the environmental messages of the sort Mark used to deliver but only superficially. Then they ignore them or file them in their minds as “for later action…maybe” and forget them. And if they hear the messages too often, their eyes do glaze over.

Meanwhile their routines, based on an unsustainable use of social and natural commons resources, have a “locked-in” character and are often heavily “context determined”. The context includes the interrelated arrangements that arise in the relationships people have, in the places that they live and the equipment and machines that they use, sustained by their incomes and the nature of their jobs — and also by their age, health, experience, education and aspirations (or lack of aspirations).

These different elements fit together in what can be described as a “lifestyle package”. You cannot change most elements of the package very far without having to change the other elements. For example when people become parents they need to find space for their child in their habitat and that, in turn, will affect their day-to-day financial needs. Of course it will affect their time commitments too and their relationships with their partner. A child brings with it the need for a new “package” arrangement.

If you want to change you must take your relationships with you

If you want to start living differently, in a more environmentally sustainable fashion, you will usually have to take other people along with you; they too will have to change their routines and familiar patterns. Say that you decide to eat less meat for environmental reasons; if you live and eat together with others it isn’t easy to do that without them having to change too. Say you want to get involved with an environmental project in your leisure time; again, you can’t change how you spend your leisure time without it usually affecting the people with whom you currently spend your leisure.

That is really important because if you cannot bring along the others in your life when you decide to have a more sustainable lifestyle, then your lives with others may start to become desynchronised; partners and children start doing different things. And when people’s emotional lives start to become desynchronised it does not augur well for the future of their relationships. [1]

A decision to live a more sustainable life also has knock-on consequences for where you live, your income and/or your savings and your debts. It will probably affect your work — and perhaps how you get to and from work. It may affect joint budgets with your loved ones, which includes time budgets as well as money ones.

A decision to live a more sustainable lifestyle has lots of “knock-on consequences”. It takes you into unknown territory and destabilises your usual relationships with your loved ones. It may require new situations and skills. It may take you out of your comfort zone — or you may fear that it will and decide not to look more closely at it as a result.


Despite everything, there are also situations where, in the ordinary course of life, routines change or where people seek out a change in the routine because they are frustrated, bored and hemmed in by the life they are living. Every so often people go through lifestyle changes despite the risks. They seek out different things to do, in different places, with different people. As the routine is changed they have a need to review aspects of their lives, to look at options and consider different ways of acting — these are situations that may require new ideas and new skills. They may require help to make the transition too, for there is no guarantee that things will go as they hope or as well. This suggests a different way of looking at mental health crises — as botched transitions when people flounder and are disorientated and distressed by their new lives. This was anticipated by Anthony Storr [2] when he wrote

Suppose that I become dissatisfied with my habitual self, or feel that there are areas of experience or self understanding which I cannot reach. One way of exploring these is to remove myself from present surroundings and see what emerges. This is not without its dangers. Any form of new organisation or integration within the mind has to be preceded by some degree of disorganisation. No one can tell, until he has experienced it, whether or not this necessary disruption of former pattern will be succeeded by something better.

There are socially typical transitions and not so typical lifestyle changes. There are voluntary changes that people launch into themselves and changes that they are forced to make, whether they like it or not.

Examples of socially typical transitions are when young adults leave the parental home, get a job and set up relationships of their own. At the other end of life they retire. Pretty much everyone goes through transitions of these kinds; these transitions are socially normal. That is not to say however that everyone makes these transitions easily or successfully. Their previous lives may not have provided the experience, skills, financial and social resources to make the transition successfully. New relationships, activities and places might require resources and skills that people do not have. Stress and distress, disorientation, and breakdown are the hallmarks of a botched transition.

Midlife crises

A slightly less normal, if not unusual, life transition is the midlife crisis where somebody reviews their value system, considers what really matters to them, and decides that the pattern of their life needs fundamental change. They may decide to downshift, accepting a lower income for less paid work and using the extra time for things that matter more to them. Downshifting is not that uncommon and usually means adopting a more sustainable lifestyle. It doesn’t fit the argument that people are reluctant to embrace environmental sustainability. In his 2004 book Growth Fetish, Clive Hamilton [3] quotes figures from a US survey in which 19% of the adult population declared that they had voluntarily decided to make a change in their lives that resulted in making less money in the previous 5 years. That excluded people taking scheduled retirement. A similar survey in Australia found 23% of 30 to 60 year olds downshifting.

Life games

The discussion about midlife crises and the phenomenon of “downshifting” is a useful point from which to explore the important issue of life purposes. The critic of psychiatry Thomas Tsasz developed this idea when he wrote that to be mentally healthy one must have “a game” to play in life. A life game is what one might call a vocational choice, using vocational choice in its widest sense and not just in a narrow career sense. To join an extremist cause or a religious sect, or to become a committed environmentalist are examples of adopted life games. Most people, most of the time, adopt more prosaic life games and the advertising industry tries to structure our life games around shopping, status consumption and holidays — funded out of our work.

It should be noted that there is a distinction between a life game and a lifestyle package. They are not quite the same but there is a subtle interplay between the two of them. Thus, for example, efforts to organise your house and garden in an energy-efficient and self-sufficient manner are not a significant thing in the life game of someone involved in extremist left-wing politics or who lives to promote the truths, as they see it, of a religious sect, although people like this will need to arrange somewhere to live, the same as anyone else. On the other hand, to an environmentalist who is trying to save energy, the organisation of their house, with insulation to save energy and a productive vegetable garden, will be very much a part of their lifestyle package on which they concentrate to be consistent with their chosen life game.

Extrinsic and intrinsic motivations

In the next few years it is likely that consumption- and status-based life games will become increasingly unviable in manageable lifestyle packages. This is important in the light of the important distinction between people motivated by intrinsic and extrinsic purposes. Psychologists have discovered a great deal of evidence that people motivated by extrinsic goals — like making more money so that they can acquire more of the consumer goods and activities that they want — have more problems maintaining their self-esteem and life satisfaction than those motivated by intrinsic goals. This tells us that there is something very wrong with the assumptions of mainstream economics. In most mainstream economics we get a sense that making money has become the end and chief purpose in and of itself: it is the goal and purpose of life. The life game is to become rich. Full stop. People with this life game will likely be in trouble in a future of expensive energy and wobbly banks.[4]

This is even more important in those circumstances where life transitions are forced on people involuntarily — for example, through redundancy, which at its worst may bring with it the loss of home and the loss of relationships too. Involuntary life transitions may also affect whole communities, as in when a major local employer goes bust. There are serious dangers here, if people cling to unrealistic expectations of returning to a “normality” that is gone forever, and then become bitter and recidivist. In situations where a community in crisis is pervaded by cultural assumptions that favour extrinsic motivations — a high-status, high-consuming lifestyle — there are going to be lots of problems. After the shock of closures, individual community members can only hope to retain aspects of this kind of life if they resort to deviant activity like selling drugs, or acting for loan sharks or resorting to prostitution or pimping, while others dull their disappointment and frustration in other forms of self-destruction.

Seen in this way, help for individuals and communities to adopt more sustainable lifestyles that are socially valued can be seen as crucial to good individual and community mental health. This has been recognised for some time among health promotion and community mental-health professionals. Projects like community gardens, projects that promote cycling and energy efficiency in neighbourhoods, are of more than ecological relevance. They suggest that it is possible to organise holistically and try to achieve a number of goals at one time; indeed, that this needs to happen if people are to be able to cope at all. [5]

There have, of course, been many times in history when millions of people come together to adopt common life games in that unite against a common enemy in a war, or adopt a common religion or political ideology. What postmodernist theorists called a “Grand Narrative” may provide the inspiration for a common life game and the social cohesion that makes possible the achievement of far more than can be achieved by individuals or small groups alone. The inspirational power of “Grand Narratives” can be intoxicating but they may be dangerous too, inspiring a loyalty that leads to conformity, to an inability to see the world any differently from the one portrayed within the conceptual framework of the new ideology and, ultimately, to new forms of tyranny as conformity to the cause is enforced by new leaders.

In current conditions we need something of the intoxicating power of a new grand narrative with ideas like the defence of natural and social commons resources as unifying themes, but without the conformity and centralisation of a top-down bureaucracy and leadership. There is good reason to hope that we can indeed, this time, have a movement that recognises the value that comes with preserving diversity. This is because the ecological revolution, if we can call it that, proceeds from the need to resist the homogenising tendency of the world market — to recognise instead that every field, stream, forest, biotope settlement and building needs a unique management regime to restore ecological health. Nevertheless, the inspirational power and motivational potential of a new movement are already evident, as is clear from the writings and presentations of Paul Hawkens; in his book Blessed Unrest, he refers to the civil society movement as “the largest social movement in history” with perhaps as many as one or two million organisations active on the destruction of the environment, against free-market fundamentalism, for social justice and against the loss of indigenous cultures.

Using the window of opportunity to promote more sustainable lifestyles

In recent years a number of researchers have investigated whether periods of life transition can be used be seen as windows of opportunity for promoting more sustainable lifestyles and consumption patterns — albeit in situations less dramatic than those just discussed. The evidence suggests that it is possible alright, but the policy design is not straightforward.

From the point of environmental sustainability, lifestyle and consumption patterns after a significant lifestyle shift may be better, but frequently they are worse. Car use when people move home is an example. Several studies show that ” the probability for changes in mobility habits seems to rise with the degree of context variation. Persons who move from a rural area to a city tend to reduce their car use significantly more often than do persons who move from one city to another. These studies also stress, however, that variations in context do not automatically lead to the reduction of car use. While some life events like the transition to retirement, a reduction of income or a relocation to a district with good public transport (PT) may have these effects, there are others which tend to result in higher car use (e.g. birth of a child, relocation to rural areas, increase of income)”. [6]

The importance of peer support and advice

There is never just one thing going on when a lifestyle changes — it is the whole package that is changing. Moreover the person in transition will be taking advice, ideas and information from a variety of sources — from friends, family and peers, and from commercial and other sources. Nevertheless, lifestyle shifts do often provide windows of opportunity for changes in a more sustainable direction. If and when green influences can be brought to bear in these situations, they are then more effective the more they tune into the unique circumstances of the individual — rather than being generic in character. As Schäfer and Bamberg explain:

The strongest effects seem to result from personal communication that takes the personal circumstances of the addressed person into account. There is also evidence that the behavioural impact is higher if the sender has a similar social background as the addressee.

This points to the need for a movement based in communities — where people giving advice know each other personally — and not on some official programme delivered by anonymous bureaucrats. It points to the development of skills by advisers who can really tune in to unique circumstances. It is for reasons like this that we can understand the success of projects like Eco-Teams and the community activities of projects like Transition Towns. In these activities the learning is in the presence of, and between, peers — people who are considering how to organise a household rather like one’s own. Indeed, like going to a community garden regularly, this is a way of making new friends — something that one is unlikely to be able to do by accessing all one’s needs from the supermarket.

Generic programmes

While this points to the value of peer relationships and support that are more tuned into individual needs there are still occasions when generic policies can be delivered effectively. Thus Schäfer and Bamberg found that the Munich public transport administrations enjoyed considerable success when they specially targeted people newly relocating into Munich.

Typical elements of these mover-marketing campaigns are the provision of a temporally valid free PT test ticket and PT services-related information as soon as possible after the move. Evaluations of these campaigns indicate a significant impact from these simple measures on new citizens’ travel behaviour: New citizens receiving the intervention report a substantive increase of PT use and respective decrease of car use…….Car possession per household is, for example, reduced from 1.5 to 0.9 after relocation and PT is used more often. These effects were significantly higher among the group that was addressed by the campaign in comparison to the control group (increase of 7.6% of the modal split). The results show that the effects were mainly achieved by increasing knowledge about the use of PT. From these results Bamberg (2006) drew the conclusion that linking such campaigns to life events is an effective strategy for increasing behavioural mobility changes.


In a recent book the Financial Times columnist and economist John Kay argues that policy, business and life goals are often best achieved not by pursuing them head on, directly, but by an indirect approach. His book is aptly titled Obliquity. The complaint of environmentalists, that people are reluctant to change, is often because they are approaching the change process too directly and too generically. Indeed there is always a danger that when one tries to get people to change, and at the wrong times, one is perceived as interfering and moralistic. The implied message that people “should change their ways” is experienced as subtle criticism that can often be rejected — “who are you to tell me how I should live my life?”

An oblique approach is required to deal with the problems that Mark highlights. People change the way they arrange their lives from time to time anyway and/or are forced to do so whether they like it or not. The trick of moving towards more environmentally sustainable lives may be to find ways to intervene in these periods of transition in a way that is experienced as helpful by people who lead by personal example. As far as possible this needs to be tuned into the unique circumstances facing individuals and as far as possible it needs to be in the form of advice and support coming from peer groups. In the difficult times ahead there will certainly be enough people who need this kind of support.


See also my paper “The De-Growth Economy and Lifestyles”, produced for the Economic De-Growth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity conference, Paris, 18/19th April 2008 http://events.it-sudparis.eu/degrowthconference/en/themes/

  1. Luigi Boscolo and Paulo Bertrando. The Times of the Times. A New Perspective in Systemic Therapy and Consultation. WW Norton 1993.)
  2. Anthony Storr, Solitude, HarperCollins 1994 page 35
  3. Clive Hamilton, Growth Fetish, Pluto Press, 2004, p 206).
  4. http://www.bgmi.us/web/bdavey/Life.htm
  5. Davey B., “Solving Economic, Social and Environmental Problems Together: An Empowerment Strategy for Losers” in Barnes, M and Warren L (eds) Alliances and Partnerships in Empowerment. Bristol, Policy Press 1999).
  6. Schäfer, M./Bamberg, S. (2008): “Breaking Habits: Linking Sustainable Consumption Campaigns to Sensitive Life Events”. Proceedings: Sustainable Consumption and Production: Framework for Action, 10-11 March 2008,

Cultivating hope and managing despair

John Sharry

Societies are struggling to come to terms with the nature and extent of the changes facing them both now and in the future. Modern psychological models of motivation and change, and of how people deal with threat and loss, suggest strategies that can be used to help individuals change and to galvanise communities into collective action.

In the last few years there has been a growing public awareness of the twin challenges of climate change and peak oil/resource depletion. The popular awareness has been championed by figures such as Al Gore and many other environmentalists and scientists. In their presentation of the message, many scientists and educators try to delicately balance the prediction of catastrophe with a focus on the positive action that people can take, whether this is recycling, using efficient light bulbs or more actively lobbying government. Most presenters try to be upbeat, presenting a positive vision of the future with a clear call to action. A common message communicated is the idea that we have ‘ten years left to act’ in order to curtail climate change and save the planet.

Despite this positive focus in public, many scientists are much more gloomy in private. Chris Goodall [1] calls this ‘the second glass effect’. After his hopeful presentations about the different technologies that could save the planet, during the post-lecture wine reception he may begin to share his pessimism as to whether collectively we have left it too late to adopt these technologies or whether the will or political capital exists to introduce them. Indeed, many scientists think the news is far worse than what is publicly broadcast; they believe that we have already bypassed many of the tipping points to avoid dangerous climate change, that catastrophe cannot now be averted and that future generations will suffer on a scale we cannot fully comprehend.

For fear of sending their audience into despair or alienating them and being written off as a ‘doom and gloom’ merchant, many scientists and environmentalists filter the message through a more optimistic lens than reality suggests. If scientists are guilty of this, politicians and government officials are even more so. Focused solely on re-election in a year or two, the last thing a politician wants to do is to talk about the reality of challenges for fear of making people despairing and fearful or, worse, vote not to re-elect them.

Of course the public audience is complicit in this arrangement. Despite the emerging evidence to the contrary, the vast majority of people are happy to live in denial about the severity of problems or imagine that ‘easy’ solutions will be found. The general public belief is that we can more or less continue our current lifestyles as they are. Okay, we might turn down the heating a degree, but the most common belief is that we can continue our current lifestyle and at the same time save the planet. The scale of the impending catastrophe simply hasn’t sunk in, nor has the scale of action needed for humanity just to survive. Even with the current economic crisis, most people simply hope that we can ‘restart the party’ and return to the unsustainable economic growth cycle that caused the problems in the first place. To consider radical changes is too scary at the moment and invites just too much despair.

Addiction, denial and fear

The only pain that we can avoid in life is the pain caused by trying to avoid pain
RD Laing

One way to understand the enduring widespread denial of the consequences of our lifestyles and actions is to consider it in terms of an addiction. We are addicted to the comfortable life that cheap oil has afforded us and are so terrified of being without it that we will deny for as long as possible all evidence of harm. Fear underpins most addictions and causes addicts to refuse to think long term and to keep living day to day, chasing the next fix. This is why advertising campaigns that try to scare the public with the effects of smoking, drinking or drugs rarely work with addicts. The fear that they won’t get their drug today is far greater than a vague fear of long-term consequences. As a result, confrontational and fear-based therapeutic approaches to treating addictions have largely been discredited.

More successful therapeutic approaches focus on removing the fear that underpins the addiction and helping the recovering addict envision a positive, drug-free life that is far more attractive and appealing than what the drug has to offer. In a similar way, many of the innovative movements within the environmental field have focused not just on warning about the dangerous consequences of our current trajectory, but also tried to ‘sell’ the benefits of a low-carbon future: closely connected, sustainable communities that are far happier than the disconnected modern world in which we currently live.

While this positive approach has been successful to a degree and led to many people understanding and taking on board these aspirations, sadly it has led to very little actual behavioural change in terms of sustainable lifestyles (even among those who are zealots of the environmental movement) and we are as dependent as we ever were. The reason for this lack of change is the absence of the second important factor necessary to create the conditions for addicts to change: consequences. People with serious addictions are unlikely to change unless they experience directly the negative consequences of their addiction. Given the strength of our enjoyment of and dependency on our Western lifestyle, the threat of consequences somewhere down the line is simply not enough to make us change. It is far easier, in fact, to listen to the many dissenting voices and vested interests that deny that any actual harm is being incurred.

That resource depletion and climate change remain, for many people, only a vague threat, means that these people will simply not change until they have to. Even though early change or adaptation is far preferable to emergency change and forced adaptation, it’s likely that our collective denial will only be punctured when our addicted society is beset by an unending set of crises and catastrophes. Once this happens, it will of course be a very perilous time. People who have been hitherto in comfortable denial will become fearful and desperate and may engage in desperate actions, leading to social unrest, war and societal breakdown. Preparing to manage these social difficulties in the future is likely to be as significant as managing the economy.

Managing despair

The greatest challenge now facing our leaders is to manage the nation’s mood as much as it is to manage its economy.

The famous psychologist Kubler Ross [2] proposed a five-stage model of how an individual responds to bereavement or pending loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. Once denial is passed, a person may experience great anger at their loss, which is often accompanied by seeking to apportion blame and even seek retribution. This can be followed by bargaining or engaging in wishful thinking or unhelpful strategies to mitigate the loss and then by depression and grief as the impact of the loss finally comes to bear. Kubler Ross argues that once this grief work is done, the person can reach some level of acceptance and integration. Interestingly, many writers in the environmental field describe their own personal journey of awareness in similar terms. They describe a period of denial, before having a ‘peak oil moment’ when they realise that the world on which they depend is unsustainable. This is often followed by a period of despair and, finally, by some acceptance and a commitment to constructive action and hope.

Such a grief model may also suggest the stages we will collectively go through as the denial about the unsustainability of our current lifestyles is punctured and we are beset by crises and consequences. If the first half of the age of oil has been characterised by exuberance, ever-increasing expansion, and an almost manic consumption of the world’s resources, the second half will be characterised by contraction, scarcity and depression. Once the denial falls away and it becomes clear that the decline of our Western industrialisation is chronic and long term, collective anger is likely to be widespread. People will seek to blame someone for the situation they are in, and many will look for easy answers or scapegoats. It is at these times that people can choose radical and extreme political views. Just as the economic turmoil and the great depression of the 1930s led to the rise of dictatorships and totalitarian states in Europe, so these times will be fraught by similar dangers. In addition to anger, there is also likely to be widespread depression and despair. This is just as dangerous and has the potential to make people feel helpless in the face of negative forces within society, disabling them from taking action and missing the positive opportunities in their midst.

Just as it’s important to prepare for the economic challenges ahead, so it is also important to prepare for the associated psychological, community and societal problems that will emerge. Once the crises occur, community and society leaders will have a particular responsibility to manage the public anger and despair that will emerge in order to avoid the destructive paths of social disorder. The twin challenge will be to help people channel their anger into constructive rather than negative courses of action and to present a vision that inspires hope in the face of widespread difficult circumstances. Such plans will be as crucial as economic and technological ones in helping people survive the transition.

Cultivating hope

It is in the deepest despair that is born the greatest hope
Miguel de Unamuno

While the Kubler-Ross model provides a useful understanding of the stages of dealing with loss, critics often say that it misses a final step of hopeful and constructive action. Many people who experience loss move beyond acceptance, try to make meaning out of their experience, and channel their energy into constructive action. Many people who have lost a loved one to an illness will put their efforts into supporting others with the same illness, or dedicate themselves to educating others so they can avoid the loss they experienced. In addition, many people report that despite the pain and suffering, the experience of a trauma in the long term can actually have some benefits and help them reorient their life for the better. Many people in the environmental movement describe a similar process after they have been through the initial despair following their ‘peak oil realisation moment’. They move beyond acceptance of the facts and commit themselves to constructive action, whether in terms of educating others or building sustainable communities. Many report their life as being better, more integrated and even more hopeful once they became aware of the coming crises.

A second criticism of the five-stage grief model is that it is too simple and linear and that, in fact, people dealing with the prospect of a serious loss oscillate between positive and negative emotions. At times people can be in denial and at other times feel acceptance; they can alternate between anger and despair at their predicament and other times feel hope about what will come to pass. The family therapist Carmel Flaskis [3] talks about the co-existence of hope and hopelessness in working with people dealing with trauma and loss. People can move from great sadness, pain, despair and injustice to, at other times, great hope, courage, forgiveness and resilience. The key is to achieve some sort of balance between the two and to learn to cultivate hope in the face of despair. Helping people cope with trauma is about helping them express, understand and manage their despair, as well as helping them cultivate hope and new meaning beyond the original experience. Good therapeutic work is characterised by compassion (accepting the person whatever feelings they have and wherever they are on the grief process) reflection (highlighting to the person that they have choices in how they respond to the trauma they are affecting them) and empowerment (helping the person channel their energy into constructive courses of action).

Such approaches can be applied to whole communities dealing with actual or potential trauma. The Buddhist Joanna Macy [4] leads ‘despair and empowerment’ workshops designed to help groups express and process the feelings of grief at the destruction of the people and the planet, with a view to helping them overcome helplessness and hopelessness and reach a more empowered, constructive position. Such work may prove to be more important in the future when the consequences of climate change and resource depletion begin to bite and community despair is more widespread.

Building resilience

Anything that does not kill me makes me stronger
Frederick Nietzsche

In my work as a mental-health professional I have been struck at how differently various people cope with adversity or challenging life events. Some people become traumatised and damaged by what has happened to them and can become embittered or angry even for years after the original events. Other people are able to move on from the trauma and not let it damage them in the same way; in some cases they’re able to learn from it and even turn it into a positive force in their life. Modern psychologists are very interested in the concept of resilience; they want to understand what qualities and protective factors allow an individual to cope with trauma and adversity. Many different things seem to make a difference, but the ability to be flexible in challenging circumstances is crucial. Whether a person can think constructively (making the best of the situation as it is) or take an active rather than a passive coping stance (such as taking action to make life better or combat the negative effects), and whether they have access to good-quality support at the time of the trauma and afterwards, can all contribute to better coping and survival.

In his great work Man’s Search for Meaning, the psychologist Victor Frankl [5] describes his experience as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp and shares his observations of how differently people coped there. Some were overwhelmed and descended into despair; others were better able to survive, depending on how they responded to circumstances imposed upon them. For Frankl, the crucial factor was finding meaning in the experience and making positive choices no matter how much the person’s freedom was curtailed. After the war, he went on to develop his therapeutic method on finding meaning in all forms of existence, no matter how traumatic or difficult. It is this meaning that provides the person with a positive reason to continue living. In the future, how we cope with the new conditions of contracting resources and curtailed freedom will depend not only on our collective resilience and adaptability but also on our ability to make sense of and find meaning in our new circumstances.

A community of hope

Hope is something you create together
Kaethe Weingarten

Recent psychological research has highlighted the importance of hope as an essential precondition to human happiness, particularly in the face of difficult change and adversity. Charles Snyder [6], one of the leading researchers in the field, has defined hope as born out of having a clear goal/vision and the sense of the means to make progress towards it. While hope is often considered an individual human trait or feeling, Kaethe Weingarten [7] has conceived it as a shared creation between people. When people are overwhelmed by adversity and feel hopelessness or despair, it is their contact with other caring people that lifts them or creates the conditions for renewed hope. For this reason she argues that people in despair should resist isolation and seek connection, and people who possess some hope should resist indifference and reach out and support others. This is the basis of a resourceful, and resilient, community.

One of the most innovative movements that is meeting the challenge of the coming crises is the Transition Towns movement [8] By bringing people together around shared concerns, building collective vision and common meaning, and focusing people on constructive action, the movement does much to create hope in individuals and communities in the face of despair. Furthermore, the movement not only builds resilience in local economies by reducing dependence on fossil fuels etc., but it also builds resilience in communities that will be havens for the many people who will feel despair and loss as the future crises deepen. Critics of the movement who argue that many of the local actions are not sufficient for dealing with what are global problems miss the point completely. While the current actions may not be the ones to solve the problems (indeed no-one knows exactly the correct actions needed), over time the movement creates a resourceful community that will be best placed to adapt to future challenges and thus preserve hope for future generations.


‘Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out’
Vaclav Havel

‘Hope is the process of arriving at a goal — no matter how much it has shifted — and making sense of the journey there.
Kaethe Weingarten

We are facing very uncertain and difficult times. In addition to the twin challenges of peak oil and climate change and the resultant economic and societal problems, we face very deep challenges to our collective psyche and spirit as people. When we consider the scale of the problems we face, it is easy to retreat into denial or wishful thinking or feel despair, helpless or hopeless about change.

How we cope will depend largely on how resourceful we are and whether we can build communities that nurture hope rather than despair, keep people together rather than apart and cultivate creative adaptation in the face of adversity rather than destructive action. This is the best chance for our children.

When despair threatens to overwhelm us, rather than being lured towards anger or hatred, we can remember the words of Kaethe Weingarten, who said ‘you can do hope without feeling hope’. Creating hope is largely a choice about taking constructive action and you don’t have to wait until you feel hopeful to take this action. I think this is what Shaun Chamberlain [9] means when he speaks of the ‘pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will’. While we may doubt that our actions may work, we still act in the best faith we can. Furthermore, when we take collective, concrete and constructive action, in the process we generate hope and a sense of movement and possibility. We also counterbalance the cynicism, despair and inaction that could hobble the next generation. In this way, we can give them the freedom and encouragement to embrace their future. Now that is something to be hopeful about.


  1. Chris Goddall (2008), Ten Technologies to Save the Planet, London: Green Profile
  2. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross (2005), On Grief and Grieving, London: Simon and Schuster
  3. Carmel Flaskas (2007), “The Balance of Hope and Hopelessness”, in C. Flaskas, I. McCarthy, J.Sheehan (Eds) Hope and Despair in Narrative and Family Therapy East Sussex: Routledge
  4. As cited in Richard Heinberg (2007), Peak Everything, London: Clairview
  5. Victor Frankl (1959) Man’s Search for Meaning, Boston: Simon and Schuster
  6. Snyder, C. R. (2000) Handbook of hope: Theory, measures, and applications. New York: Academic Press.
  7. Kaethe Weingarten (2007), “Hope in a Time of Global Despair”, in C. Flaskas, I. McCarthy, J.Sheehan (Eds) Hope and Despair in Narrative and Family Therapy East Sussex: Routledge
  8. Rob Hopkins (2008), The Transition Handbook: From oil dependency to local resilience,
    Devon: Green Books
  9. Shaun Chamberlin (2009), The Transition Timeline, Devon: Green Books

Featured image: Stones in water and reflection of the sun in the water. Author: photoshu. Source: http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1290692

The psychological roots of resource overconsumption

Nate Hagens

Humans have an innate need for status and for novelty in their lives. Unfortunately, the modern world has adopted very energy- and resource-intensive ways of meeting those needs. Other ways are going to have to be found as part of the move to a more sustainable world.

Most people associate the word “sustainability” with changes to the supply side of our modern way of life such as using energy from solar flows rather than fossil fuels, recycling, green tech and greater efficiency. In this essay, however, I will focus on the demand-side drivers that explain why we continue to seek and consume more stuff.

When addressing ‘demand-side drivers’, we must begin at the source: the human brain. The various layers and mechanisms of our brain have been built on top of each other via millions and millions of iterations, keeping intact what ‘worked’ and adding via changes and mutations what helped the pre-human, pre-mammal organism to incrementally advance. Brain structures that functioned poorly in ancient environments are no longer around. Everyone reading this page is descended from the best of the best at both surviving and procreating which, in an environment of privation and danger where most ‘iterations’ of our evolution happened, meant acquiring necessary resources, achieving status and possessing brains finely tuned to natural dangers and opportunities.

This essay outlines two fundamental ways in which the evolutionarily derived reward pathways of our brains are influencing our modern overconsumption. First, financial wealth accumulation and the accompanying conspicuous consumption are generally regarded as the signals of modern success for our species. This gives the rest of us environmental cues to compete for more and more stuff as a proxy of our status and achievement. A second and more subtle driver is that we are easily hijacked by and habituated to novel stimuli. As we shall see, the prevalence of novelty today eventually demands higher and higher levels of neural stimulation, which often need increased consumption to satisfy. Thus it is this combination of pursuit of social status and the plethora of novel activities that underlies our large appetite for resource throughput.


Evolution has honed and culled ‘what worked’ by combining the substrate of life with eons’ worth of iterations. Modern biological research has focused on the concept of ‘relative fitness’, a term for describing those adaptations that are successful in propelling genes, or suites of genes, into the next generation and that will have out-competed those that were deleterious or did not keep up with environmental change. Though absolute fitness mattered to the individual organisms while they were alive, looking back it was ‘relative fitness’ that shaped the bodies and brains of the creatures on the planet today.

Status, both in humans and other species, has historically been a signaling mechanism that minimised the costs of competition, whether for reproductive opportunities or for material resources. If you place ten chickens in an enclosure there will ensue a series of fights until a pecking order is established. Each bird quickly learns who it can and cannot beat and a status hierarchy is created, thus making future fights (and wastes of energy) less common. Physical competition is costly behaviour that requires energy and entails risk of injury. Status is one way to determine who one can profitably challenge and who one cannot. In our ancestral environment, those men (and women) that successfully moved up the social hierarchy improved their mating and resource prospects. Those at the bottom of the status rung did not only possess fewer mating opportunities but many did not mate at all. Status among our ancestors was probably linked to those attributes providing consistent benefits to the tribe: hunting prowess, strength, leadership ability, storytelling skills etc. In modern humans, status is defined by what our modern cultures dictate. As we are living through an era of massive energy gain from fossil fuels, pure physical prowess has been replaced by digital wealth, fast cars, political connections, etc.

It follows that the larger a culture’s resource subsidy (natural wealth), the more opportunity there is for ‘status badges’ uncorrelated with basic needs such as strength, intelligence, adaptability, stamina, etc. Though ‘what’ defines status may be culturally derived, status hierarchies themselves are part of our evolved nature. Ancestral hominids at the bottom of the mating pecking order, ceteris paribus, are not our ancestors. Similarly, many of our ancestors had orders of magnitude more descendants than others. For example, scientists recently discovered an odd geographical preponderance for a particular Y chromosome mutation which turns out to be originally descended from Genghis Khan. Given the 16 million odd male descendants alive today with this Y marker, Mr. Khan is theorised to have had 800,000 times the reproductive success than the average male alive on the planet in 1200 AD. This does not imply that we are all pillagers and conquerors — only that various phenotypic expressions have had ample opportunity to become hardwired in our evolutionary past. [1]

Mating success is a key driver in the natural world. This is all studied and documented by evolutionary research into the theory of “sexual selection”, which Charles Darwin once summarised as the effects of the “struggle between the individuals of one sex, generally the males, for the possession of the other sex.” [2] Biologists have shown that a primary way to reliably demonstrate one’s ‘quality’ during courtship is to display a high-cost signal — e.g. a heavy and colourful peacock’s tail, an energy-expending bird-song concert, or a $100,000 sports car. [3] These costly “handicap” signals are evolutionarily stable indicators of their producer’s quality, because cheap signals are too easy for low-quality imitators to fake. [4]

In this sense ‘waste’ was an evolutionary selection! Think of three major drawbacks to a male peacock of growing such a hugely ornate tail:

  1. the energy, vitamins and minerals needed to go into the creation of the tail could have been used for other survival/reproductive needs,
  2. the tail makes the bird more likely to be spotted by a predator,
  3. If spotted, the cumbersome tail makes escape from a predator less likely.

Overall, though, these negative “fitness hits” must have been outweighed by the drab female peahen’s preference for males with larger, more ornate tails. With this filter, we can understand the rationale and prevalence of Veblen goods (named after the 19th-century economist who coined the term ‘conspicuous consumption’) — a group of commodities that people increasingly prefer to buy as their price gets higher because the greater price confers greater status. This biological precept of signalling theory is alive and well in the human culture.


Modern man evolved from earlier hominids under conditions of privation and scarcity at least until about 10,000 years ago. The period since then has been too short a time to make a significant change to millions of years of prior neural sculpture. Nature made the brain’s survival systems incredibly efficient. The brain is based on about 40% of all our available genes and consumes over 20% of our calorific intake. Incremental changes in how our brains recognise, process and react to the world around us either contributed to our survival and thus were carried forward, or died out.

Some changes affected salience, the ability to notice what is important, different or unusual. Salience recognition is part of what’s called the mesolimbic dopamine reward pathway. This pathway is a system of neurons integral to survival efficiency, helping us to instantly decide what in the environment should command our attention. Historically, immediate feedback on what is ‘new’ was critical to both avoiding danger and procuring food. Because most of what happens around us each day is predictable, processing every detail of a familiar habitat wastes brain energy. Such activity would also slow down our mental computer so that what are now minor distractions could prove deadly. Thus our ancestors living on the African savanna paid little attention to the stable mountains on the horizon but were quick to detect any movement in the bush, on the plains, or at the riverbank. Those more able to detect and process ‘novel cues’ were more likely to obtain rewards needed to survive and pass on their suites of genes. Indeed, modern experimental removal of the (dopamine) receptor genes in animals causes them to reduce exploratory behaviour, a key variable related to inclusive fitness in animal biology. [5]

We are instinctually geared for individual survival — being both reward-driven, and curious. It was these two core traits that the father of economics himself, Adam Smith, predicted in The Wealth of Nations would be the drivers of world economic growth. According to Smith, uniting the twin economic engines of self-interest (which he termed self-love) and curiosity was ambition — “the competitive human drive for social betterment”. About 70 years later, after reading Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, Charles Darwin recognised the parallel between the pursuit of wealth in human societies and the competition for resources that occurred among animal species. Our market system of allocating resources and ‘status’ can therefore be seen as the natural social culmination for an intelligent species finding an abundance of resources.

But, as we shall soon see, the revered Scottish philosopher could not have envisioned heli-skiing, Starbucks, slot machines, Facebook, email and many other stimulating and pleasurable objects and activities that people engage in today and to which they so easily become accustomed.

The mesolimbic dopaminergic reward system

“Americans find prosperity almost everywhere, but not happiness. For them desire for well-being has become a restless burning passion which increases with satisfaction. To start with emigration was a necessity for them: now it is a sort of gamble, and they enjoy the sensations as much as the profit.” Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America 1831

Traditional drug abuse happens because natural selection has shaped behaviour-regulation mechanisms that function via chemical transmitters in our brains. [6] Addicts can become habituated to the feelings they get from cocaine, heroin or alcohol, and they need to increase their consumption over time to get the same neurotransmitter highs. This same neural reward architecture is present in all of us when considering our ecological footprints: we become habituated via a positive feedback loop to the ‘chemical sensations’ we receive from shopping, keeping up with the Joneses (conspicuous consumption), pursuing more stock profits, and myriad other stimulating activities that a surplus of cheap energy has provided.

An explosion of neuroscience and brain-imaging research tells us that drugs of abuse activate the brain’s dopamine reward system that regulates our ability to feel pleasure and be motivated for “more”. When we have a great experience — a glance from a pretty girl, a lovemaking romp in the woods, a plate of fresh sushi, hitting 777 on a one-eyed bandit, catching a lunker pike, watching a sunset, hearing a great guitar riff etc. — our brain experiences a surge in the level of the neurotransmitter dopamine. We feel warm, ‘in the zone’ and happy. After a while, the extra dopamine gets flushed out of our system and we return to our baseline level. We go about our lives, looking forward to the next pleasurable experience. But the previous experience has been logged into our brain’s limbic system, which, in addition to being a centre for pleasure and emotion, holds our memory and motivation circuitry. [7] We now begin to look forward to encores of such heady stimuli and are easily persuaded towards activities that promise such a chemical reprise. These desires have their beginnings outside our conscious awareness. Recent brain-imaging research shows that drug and sexual cues as brief as 33 milliseconds can activate the dopamine circuitry, even if a person is not conscious of the cues. Perhaps there are artistically shaped sexual images hidden in advertisements for whiskey after all…

Historically, this entire system evolved from the biological imperative of survival. Food meant survival, sex meant survival (of genes or suites of genes), and additional stockpiles of both provided success relative to others, both within and between species. There was a discrete payoff to waiting hours for some movement in the brush that signaled ‘food’, or the sound of a particular bird that circled a tree with a beehive full of honey, etc. Our pattern recognition system on the Pleistocene would have been a grab-bag of various environmental stimuli that ‘excited’ our brains towards action that correlated with resources (typically food). In sum, the brain’s reward pathways record both the actual experience of pleasure as well as ensuring that the behaviours that led to it are remembered and repeated. Irrespective of whether they are ‘good’ for the organism in the current context — they ‘feel’ good, which is the mechanism our brain has left us as a heritage of natural selection.

The (very important) mechanism of habituation

Habituation — getting used to something — and subsequent substance abuse and addiction develops because of the way we learn. Learning depends crucially on the discrepancy between the prediction and occurrence of a reward. A reward that is fully predicted does not contribute to learning. [8] The important implication of this is that learning advances only to the extent to which something is unpredicted and slows progressively as a stimuli becomes more predictable. [9] As such, unexpected reward is a core driver in how we learn, how we experience life, and how we consume resources.

Dopamine activation has been linked with addictive, impulsive activity in numerous species. Dopamine is released within the brain not only to rewarding stimuli but also to those events that predict rewards. It has long been known that two groups of neurons, in the ventral tegmental and the substantia nigra pars compacta areas, and the dopamine they release, are critical for reinforcing certain kinds of behaviour. Neuroscientist Wolfram Schultz measured the activity of these dopamine neurons while thirsty monkeys waited for a tone which was followed by a squirt of fruit juice into their mouths. After a series of fixed, steady amounts of juice, the volume of juice was suddenly doubled. The rate of neuron firing went from about 3 per second to 80 per second. But after several trials, after the monkeys had become habituated to this new level of reward, their dopamine firing rate returned to the baseline rate of 3 firings per second after the squirt of juice. The monkeys had become habituated to the coming reward! The opposite happened when the reward was reduced without warning. The firing rate dropped dramatically, but eventually returned to the baseline rate of 3 firings per second. [10]

The first time we experience a drug or alcohol high, the amount of chemical we ingest often exceeds the levels of naturally occurring neurotransmitters in our bodies by an order of magnitude. [11] No matter how brief, that experience is stored in our neural homes for motivation and memory — the amygdala and hippocampus. Getting drunk with your friends, getting high on a ski-lift, removing the undergarments of a member of the opposite sex for the first time — all initially flood the brain with dopamine alongside a picture memory of the event chemically linked to the body’s pleasurable response to it. As such we look forward to doing it again, not so much because we want to repeat the activity, but because we want to recreate that ‘feeling’.

But in a modern stimuli-laden culture, this process is easily hijacked. After each upward spike, dopamine levels again recede, eventually to below the baseline. The following spike doesn’t go quite as high as the one before it. Over time, the rush becomes smaller, and the crash that follows becomes steeper. The brain has been fooled into thinking that achieving that high is equivalent to survival and therefore the ‘consume’ light remains on all the time. Eventually, the brain is forced to turn on a self-defence mechanism, reducing the production of dopamine altogether — thus weakening the pleasure circuits’ intended function. At this point, an ‘addicted’ person is compelled to use the substance not to get high, but just to feel normal — since one’s own body is producing little or no endogenous dopamine response. Such a person has reached a state of “anhedonia”, or inability to feel pleasure via normal experiences. Being addicted also raises the risk of having depression; being depressed increases the risk of self-medicating, which then leads to addiction, etc. via positive feedback loops.

In sum, when exposed to novel stimuli, high levels of curiosity (dopamine) are generated, but it is the unexpected reward that causes their activation. If I order a fantastic array of sushi and the waiter brings me a toothpick and my check, I am going to have a plunge in dopamine levels which will create an immediate craving for food. It is this interplay between expected reward and reality that underlies much of our behavioural reactions. Ultimately, as it relates to resource consumption, repeated use of any dopamine-generating ‘activity’ eventually results in tolerance. Withdrawal results in lower levels of dopamine and continuous use is required to keep dopamine at normal levels, and even higher doses to get the ‘high’ levels of initial use. Consumers in rich nations are arguably reaching higher and higher levels of consumption tolerance. If there was such a thing as ‘cultural anhedonia’, we might be approaching it.

America and addiction

It would be pretty hard to be addicted directly to oil; it’s toxic, slimy and tastes really bad. But given the above background, we can see how it is possible to become addicted to the energy services that oil provides. Humans are naturally geared for individual survival — curious, reward-driven and self-absorbed —but modern technology has now become a vector for these cravings. Material wealth and the abundant choices available in contemporary US society are unique in human (or animal) experience; never before in the history of our species have so many enjoyed (used?) so much. Within a culture promoting ‘more’, it is no wonder we have so many addicts. High-density energy and human ingenuity have removed the natural constraints on our behaviour of distance, time, oceans and mountains. For now, these phenomena are largely confined to developed nations — people living in a hut in Botswana or a yurt in Mongolia cannot as easily be exposed to the ‘hijacking stimuli’ of an average westerner, especially one living in a big city in the West, like London or Los Angeles.

Many activities in an energy-rich society unintentionally target the difference between expected and unexpected reward. Take sportfishing for example. If my brother and I are on a lake fishing and we get a bite, it sends a surge of excitement through our bodies — what kind of fish is it? How big is it? etc. We land an 8-inch perch! Great! A minute later we catch another 8 inch perch — wow, there must be a school! After 45 minutes of catching nothing but 8-inch perch, our brain comes to expect this outcome, and we need something bigger, or a different species, to generate the same level of excitement, so we will likely move to a different part of the lake in search of ‘bigger’ and/or ‘different’ fish. (Though my brother claims he would never tire of catching fish 8-inch perch I think he’s exaggerating). Recreational fishing is benign (if not to the fish), but one can visualise other more resource-intensive pastimes activating similar circuitry. New shoes, new cars, new vacations, new home improvements, new girlfriends are all present on the modern unexpected reward smorgasbord.

The habituation process explains how some initially benign activities can morph into things more destructive. Weekly church bingo escalates to $50 blackjack tables; the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition results, several years down the road, in the monthly delivery (in unmarked brown packaging) of Jugs magazine or webcams locked in on a bedroom in Eastern Europe; youthful rides on a rollercoaster evolve into annual heli-skiing trips, etc. The World Wide Web is especially capable of hijacking our neural reward pathways. The 24/7 ubiquity and nearly unlimited options for distraction on the internet almost seem to be perfectly designed to hone in on our brains’ g-spot. Shopping, pornography, gambling, social networking, information searches, etc. easily out-compete the non-virtual, more mundane (and necessary) activities of yesteryear. Repetitive internet use can be highly addictive, though psychiatrists in different countries are debating whether it is a true addiction. For better or worse, the first things I do in the morning is a) check what time it is, b) start the coffee machine then c) check my e-mail, to see what ‘novelty’ might be in my inbox. Bills to pay, and e-mails from people who are not important or interesting, wait until later in the day, or are forgotten altogether.

There are few healthy men on the planet today who do not respond in social settings to the attention of a high-status, attractive 20- to 30-something woman. This is salient stimuli, irrespective of the man’s marital status. But here is one example of where nature and nurture mesh. Despite the fact that 99+% of our history was polygynous, modern culture precludes men from running around pell-mell chasing women; we have rules, laws, and institutions such as marriage. However, habituation to various matrimonial aspects combined with exposure to dozens or even hundreds of alternatives annually in the jet age may at least partially explain the 60%+ divorce rate in modern society.

The entire brain and behaviour story is far more complex than just one neurotransmitter but the pursuit of this particular ‘substance’ is clearly correlated with anxiety, obesity, and the general increasing of conspicuous consumption in our society. That dopamine is directly involved is pretty clear. Parkinson’s Disease is a condition where dopamine is lacking in an area of the brain necessary for motor coordination. The drug, Mirapex, increases dopamine levels in that area of the brain, but since pills are not lasers, it also increases dopamine in other areas of the body, including (surprise) the reward pathways. There are numerous lawsuits currently pending by Parkinson’s patients who after taking the drug, developed sex, gambling, shopping and overeating compulsions. [12]

Our brain can also be tricked by the food choices prevalent in an abundant-energy society. We evolved in situations where salt and sugar were rare and lacking and signaled nutrition. So now, when we taste Doritos or Ben and Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream, our reward pathways say ‘yes yes — this is good for you!!’ Our ‘rational’ brain attempts to remind us of the science showing obesity comes from eating too much of the wrong type of foods, but often loses out to the desire of the moment. Fully 30% of Americans are now categorised as obese. And, since we are exporting our culture (via the global market system) to developing countries, it is no surprise that China is following in our footsteps. From 1991 to 2004 the percentage of adults who are overweight or obese in China increased from 12.9% to 27.3%. [13] Furthermore, we can become habituated to repeated presentation of the same food type; we quickly get tired of it and crave something different. [14] We like variety — in food and in other things. Finally, when we overstimulate the brain pleasure centres with highly palatable food, these systems adapt by decreasing their own activity. Many of us now require constant stimulation from palatable (fatty) food to avoid entering a persistent state of negative reward. It is this dynamic that has led scientists to recently declare that fatty foods such as cheesecake and bacon are addictive in the same manner as cocaine. [15] And as we shall see, both what we eat and experience not only alters our own health, but also makes it more difficult to act in environmentally benign ways.

Impulsivity, discount rates and preparing for the future

Overconsumption fueled by increasing neural high water marks is a problem enough in itself, but such widespread neural habituation also diminishes our ability to think and act about the coming societal transition away from fossil fuels. Economists measure how much we prefer the present over the future via something called a ‘discount rate’. (See Mark Rutledge’s essay in this book). A discount rate of 100% means we prefer the present completely and put no value on the future. A discount rate of 0% means we treat the future 1000 years from now equally the same as 5 minutes from now.

Certain types of people have steeper discount rates than others; in general, gamblers, drinkers, drug users, men (vs. women), low IQ scorers, risk-takers, those exhibiting cognitive load, etc. all tend to show more preference for small short-term rewards rather than waiting for larger, long-term ones. [16] On average, heroin addicts’ discount rates are over double those of control groups. Furthermore, in tests measuring discount rates and preferences among opium addicts, opioid-dependent participants discounted delayed monetary rewards significantly more than did non-drug using controls. Also, the opioid-dependent participants discounted delayed opium significantly more than delayed money, more evidence that brain chemicals are central to an organism’s behaviour and that money and other abstractions are secondary. [17] Research has also shown that subjects deprived of addictive substances have an even greater preference for immediate consumption over delayed gratification. [18]

Even if we are not snorting cocaine or binge drinking on a Tuesday night, in a world with so much choice and so many stimulating options vying for our attention, more and more of our time is taken up feeding neural compulsions. In any case, facing large long-term risks like peak oil and climate change requires dedicated long-term thinking — so having neural wiring that, due to cultural stimuli, focuses more and more on the present instead, is a big problem.

The fallacy of reversibility A.K.A “The ratchet effect”

Though our natural tendency is to want more of culturally condoned pursuits, many such desires do have negative feedbacks. For instance, I can only eat about three cheeseburgers before my stomach sends a signal to my brain that I am full — and at 4 or 5 my stomach and esophagus would fill to the level I couldn’t physically eat another. However, this is not so with virtual wealth, or many of the “wanting” stimuli promoted in our economic ‘more equals better’ culture. Professor Juliet Schor of Boston University has demonstrated that irrespective of their baseline salary, Americans always say they’d like to make a little more the following year. [19] Similar research by UCLA economist Richard Easterlin (whose “Easterlin Paradox” points out that average happiness has remained constant over time despite sharp rises in GDP per capita.) followed a cohort of people over a 16-year period. The participants were asked at the onset to list 10 items that they desired (e.g. sports car, snowmobile, house, private jet, etc.) During the 16 study, all age groups tested did acquire some/many of the things they originally desired. But in each case, their desires increased more than their acquisitions. [20] This phenomenon is termed the “Hedonic Treadmill”. I believe this behaviour is at the heart of the Limits to Growth problem, and gives me less confidence that we are just going to collectively ‘tighten our belts’ when the events accompanying resource depletion get a little tougher. That is, unless we somehow change what it is that we want more of.

The Ratchet Effect is a term for a situation in which, once a certain level is reached, there is no going back, at least not all the way. In evolution the effect means once a suite of genes become ubiquitous in a population, there is no easy way to ‘unevolve’ it. A modern example of this is obesity — as we get fatter the body creates more lipocytes (cells composing adipose tissue). But this system doesn’t work in reverse; even though we can lose some of the weight gain, the body can’t eliminate these new cells — they are there to stay.

After peak oil/peak credit, the ratchet effect is likely to mean that any rules requiring a more equitable distribution of wealth will not be well received by those who amassed wealth and status when oil was abundant. In biology, we see that animals will expend more energy defending freshly gained territory than they would to gain it if it was unclaimed. In humans, the pain from losing money is greater than the pleasure of gaining it. Economists describe and quantify this phenomenon as the endowment effect and loss aversion. And, as an interesting but disturbing aside, recent research suggests that the dopamine that males receive during acts of aggression rivals that of food or sex. [20] [21] All these different dynamics of ‘what we have’ and ‘what we are used to’ will come into play in a world with less resources available per head.

Old brain, new choices

Humans have always lived in the moment but our gradual habituation to substances and activities that hijack our reward system may be forcing us, in aggregate, to live so much for the present that we are ignoring the necessity for urgent societal change. Unwinding this cultural behaviour may prove difficult. The sensations we seek in the modern world are not only available and cheap, but most are legal, and the vast majority are actually condoned and promoted by our culture. If the rush we get from an accomplishment is tied to something that society rewards we call it ambition, if it is attached to something a little scary, then we label the individual a ‘risk taker’ and if it is tied to something illegal — only then have we become an ‘addict’ or substance abuser. So it seems culture has voted on which ways of engaging our evolutionarily derived neurotransmitter cocktails are ‘good’ to pursue.

Drug addiction is defined as “the compulsive seeking and taking of a drug despite adverse consequences”. If we substitute the word ‘resource’ for ‘drug’, have we meaningfully violated or changed this definition? That depends on the definition of ‘drug’. “A substance that a person chemically comes to rely upon” is the standard definition but ultimately it is any activity or substance that generates brain chemicals that we come to require/need. Thus, it is not crude oil’s intrinsic qualities we crave but the biochemical sensations to which we have become accustomed arising from the use of its embodied energy.

Take stock trading for example. Neuroscience scans show that stock trading lights up the same brain areas as picking nuts and berries do in other primates.

I think people trade for

  1. money/profit (to compete/move up the mating ladder),
  2. the feeling of being ‘right’ (whether they ever spend the money or not) and
  3. the excitement/dopamine they get from the unexpected nature of the market puzzle.

While these three are not mutually exclusive, it is not clear to me which objective dominates, especially among people who have already attained infinite wealth. (Technically, infinite wealth is their annual expenses divided by the interest rate on Treasury bills. This gives the sum of money that would provide them with an income to buy all they want forever). When I worked for Lehman Brothers, my billionaire clients seemed less ‘happy’ on average than the $30k-a-year clerks processing their trades. They had more exciting lives perhaps, but they were not happier; that is, their reward baseline reset to zero each morning irrespective of the financial wealth they had amassed in previous days or years,. They wanted ‘more’ because they were habituated to getting more — it was how they kept score. Clearly, unless you inherit, you don’t get to be a billionaire if you are easily satisfied.

MRI scans show that objects associated with wealth and social dominance activate reward-related brain areas. In one study, people’s anterior cingulate (a brain region linked to reward) had more blood and oxygen response to visual cues of sports cars than to limousines or small cars. [22]

If compulsive shopping was a rational process, and our choices were influenced only by need, then brand-name t-shirts would sell no better than less expensive shirts of equal quality. The truth is that many shopping decisions are biased by corporate advertising campaigns or distorted by a desire to satisfy some competitive urge or emotional need. For most of us, the peak ‘neurotransmitter cocktail’ is the moment we decide to buy that new ‘item’. After a brief euphoria and a short respite, the clock starts ticking on the next craving/purchase.

Adaptation executors

There is a shared mythology in America that we can each enjoy fame and opulence at the top of the social pyramid. 78% of Americans still believe that anybody in America can become rich and live the good life [23]. Although in our economic system, not everyone can be a Warren Buffet or Richard Branson — there are not enough resources — it is the carrot of potential reward that keeps people working 50 hours a week until they retire at 65. All cannot be first. All cannot be wealthy, which makes our current version of capitalism, given the finite resources of the planet, not dissimilar from a Ponzi scheme.

Envy for status is a strong motivator. Increasing evidence in the fields of psychology and economics shows that above a minimum threshold of income/wealth, it’s one’s relative wealth that matters, not absolute. In an analysis of more than 80,000 observations, the relative rank of an individual’s income predicted the individual’s general life satisfaction whereas absolute income and reference income had little to no effect. [24] The “aspiration gap” is economic-speak for the relative fitness/status drive towards who/what is at the top of the cultural status hierarchy. For decades (centuries?), China has had a moderate aspiration gap, but since the turbo-capitalist global cues have spread across Asia, hundreds of millions of Chinese have raised their pecuniary wealth targets.

Economist Robert Frank asked people in the US if they would prefer living in a 4,000-square-foot house where all the neighboring houses were 6,000 square feet or a 3,000-square-foot house where the surrounding houses were 2,000 square feet. The majority of people chose the latter — smaller in absolute terms but bigger in relative size. A friend of mine says that when he last visited Madagascar, the 5th poorest nation on earth, the villagers huddled around the one TV in the village watching the nation’s most popular TV show Melrose Place, giving them a window of desire into Hollywood glitz and glamour, and a beacon to dream about and strive for. Recently, a prince in the royal family of U.A.E. paid $14 million for a licence plate with the single numeral “1”. “I bought it because I want to be the best in the world”, Saeed Abdul Ghafour Khouri explained. What environmental cues do the kids watching TV in the U.A.E. or the U.S. receive?

As a species, we are both cooperative and competitive depending on the circumstances, but it’s very important to understand that our neurophysiological scaffolding was assembled during long mundane periods of privation in the ancestral environment. This is still not integrated into the Standard Social Science Model that forms the basis of most liberal arts educations (and economic theory). A new academic study on relative income as a primary driver of life satisfaction had over 50 references, none of which linked to the biological literature on status, sexual selection or relative fitness. Furthermore, increasing cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary psychology research illustrates that we are not the self-interested ‘utility maximisers’ that economists claim, but are highly ‘other regarding’ — we care about other people’s welfare as well as our own. Though high-perceived relative fitness is a powerful behavioural carrot, inequality has pernicious effects on societies; it erodes trust, increases anxiety and illness, and leads to excessive consumption. [25] Health steadily worsens as one descends the social ladder, even within the upper and middle classes [26].

When a child is born, he has all the genetic material he will ever have. All his ancestors until that moment had their neural wiring shaped for fitness maximisation — but when he is born, his genes will interact with environment cues showing those ways to compete for status, respect, mating prospects, and resources etc. which are socially acceptable. From this point forward, the genes are ‘fixed’ and the infant goes through life as an ‘adaptation executor’ NOT a fitness maximiser. What will a child born in the 21st century ‘learn’ to compete for? Historically, we have always pursued social status, though status has been measured in dramatically different ways throughout history. Currently, most people pursue money as a short-cut fitness marker, though some compete in other ways — politics, knowledge, etc. Thus, a large looming problem is that the Chinese and other rapidly developing nations don’t just aspire to the wealth of average Americans — they want to go the whole hog to be millionaires.


We are a clever, ambitious species that evolved to live almost entirely off of solar flows. Eventually we worked out how to access stored sunlight in the form of fossil fuels which required very little energy/natural resource input to extract. The population and growth trajectory that ensued eventually oversatisfied the “more is better” mantra of evolution and we’ve now developed a habit of requiring more fossil fuels and more clever ways to use them every year. There also exists a pervasive belief that human ingenuity will create unlimited substitutes for finite natural resources like oil and water. Put simply, it is likely that our abundant natural resources are not only required, but will be taken for granted until they are gone.

This essay has explored some of the underlying drivers of resource depletion and planetary consumption: more humans competing for more stuff that has more novelty. The self-ambition and curiosity that Adam Smith hailed as the twin engines of economic growth have been quite effective over the past 200 years. But Adam Smith did caution in Moral Sentiments that human envy and a tendency toward compulsions, if left unchecked, would undermine the empathic social relationships that would be essential to the successful long-term operation of free markets. Amidst so much novel choice and pressure to create wealth, we are discovering some uncomfortable facts, backed up by modern neurobiology, that confirm his concerns. In an era of material affluence, when wants have not yet been fully constrained by limited resources, the evidence from our ongoing American experiment conclusively shows that humans have trouble setting limits on our instinctual cravings. What’s more, our rational brains have quite a hard time acknowledging this uncomfortable but glaring fact.

This essay undoubtedly raises more questions than it answers. If we can be neurally hijacked, what does it suggest about television, advertising, media, etc? The majority of the neuro-economic sources I used in writing this were a byproduct of studies funded by neuromarketing research! How does ‘rational utility’ function in a society where we are being expertly marketed to pull our evolutionary triggers to funnel the money upwards? How does Pareto optimality — the assumption that all parties to an exchange will be made better off — hold up when considering neuro-economic findings? Recent studies show that American young people (between ages of 8-18) use 7.5 hours of electronic media (internet, Ipod, Wii, etc) per day and, thanks to multi-tasking, had a total of 11 hours ‘gadget’ exposure per day! [27] The children with the highest hours of use had markedly poorer grades and more behavioural problems. How will these stimuli-habituated children adapt to a world of fewer resources?

Not all people pursue money, but our cultural system does. An unbridled pursuit of profits has created huge disparities in digitally amassed monetary wealth both within and between nations, thus holding a perpetually unattainable carrot in front of most of the world’s population. So it is not just the amount we consume that is unsustainable, but also the message we send to others, internationally, nationally and in our neighbourhoods.

Meeting in the middle? The arrowed circle on this Inglehart Curve represents the highest level of well-being/survival consistent with a low level of resource use. It is therefore a target at which a society should aim. (Source: N. Hagens and R. Inglehart 1997)

At the same time, traditional land, labour and capital inputs have been subsidised by the ubiquity of cheap energy inputs, and more recently by a large increase in both government and private debt, a spatial and temporal reallocator of resources. These cheap energy/cheap credit drivers will soon be a thing of the past, and this will curtail future global growth aspirations. When this happens, and we face the possibility of currency reform and what it might mean to start afresh with the same resources but a new basket of claims and assumptions, we will need to remember the neural backdrops of competition for relative status, and how people become habituated to high neural stimuli. Perhaps, given the suppl- side limits and neural aspirations, some new goals can be attempted at lower absolute levels of consumption by at least partially lowering the amplitude of social rank.

We cannot easily change our penchant to want more. We can only change cultural cues on how we define the ‘more’ and thereby reduce resource use. In the cross-cultural study referenced in the diagram above, we can see that well-being increases only slightly as GNP increases above some minimum threshold. The arrowed circle would be a logical place for international policymakers concerned about planetary resource and sink capacity to aim to reach via taxes, disincentives to conspicuous consumption and subsidies. However, I fear that nations and governments will do little to slow their consumption and will get increasingly locked into defending the status quo instead.

In a society with significant overall surpluses, people who actively lower their own economic and ecological footprint might get by very well because their relative status — which is typically above average — allows them to make such reductions without reaching limits that compromise their well-being. As these people allocate time and resources away from financial marker capital and towards social, human, built and natural capital, they have an opportunity to redefine what sort of ‘wealth’ we compete for and thus potentially lead by example. However, personal experience with people in the lifestyle section of the chart leads me to believe that they will probably continue to pursue more resources and status even if it doesn’t improve their well-being.

Put aside peak oil and climate change for the moment. Though it is difficult, we have it in us as individuals and as a culture to make small changes to the way our brains get ‘hijacked’ and, as a result, achieve more benign consequences. For example, we can choose to go for a jog/hike instead of sending ten emails and websurfing, we can choose to have a salad instead of a cheeseburger, we can choose to play a game or read a story with our children instead of making business phone calls. But most of these types of choices require both prior planning and discipline if our brains are not to fall into the neural grooves that modern culture has created. It takes conscious plans to change these behaviours, and for some this will be harder than for others But in choosing to do so, besides slowing and eventually reversing the societal stimulation feedback loop, we are likely to make ourselves healthier and happier. In neuro-speak, many of the answers facing a resource-constrained global society involve the rational neo-cortex suppressing and overriding the primitive and stronger limbic impulses.

So, ultimately, we must start to address new questions. In addition to asking source/sink questions like ‘how much do we have’ we should begin asking questions like ‘how much is enough?’ Reducing our addictive behaviours collectively will make it easier to face the situations likely to arise during an energy descent. Changing the environmental cues on what we compete for, via taxes or new social values, will slow down resource throughput and give future policymakers time to forge a new economic system consistent with our evolutionary heritage and natural resource balance sheet. We will always seek status and have hierarchies in human society but unless we first understand and then integrate our various demand-side constraints into our policies, culture and institutions, sustainability will be another receding horizon. Though there is probably no blanket policy to solve our resource crisis that would both work and gain social approval, an understanding of the main points of this essay might be a springboard to improve one’s own happiness and well-being. Which would be a start…


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