Credibility from Apparent Hypocrisy

Flip the script! Image by Gerhard G. from Pixabay

Purveyors of unpopular messages are often scrutinized for any inconsistent, seemingly hypocritical behavior that might give lie to their preachings and be used to discredit the unwelcome perspective. A famous example is Al Gore’s heavy air travel schedule to spread the word and take action against climate change, resulting in an enormous CO2 footprint. If we all behaved that way, the very problem at hand would be substantially exacerbated.

Such accusations either knowingly or pathetically miss the obvious point that the net effect of Al Gore’s efforts may be positive owing to the simple idea of a lever: a little expenditure here can counteract vast expenditures elsewhere for an overall gain on the problem. For many, the glaring superficial contradiction is enough ammunition to discredit the entire enterprise.

But identifying possible hypocrisy in those who warn of future perils, as I have done, has a dark edge: if even those cognizant individuals cannot get away from behaviors they know to be damaging, doesn’t that only amplify the severity of the warning?

This is the part where I confess various behaviors that would seem to be inconsistent with my writings. It is true that my energy and resource footprints are far below the U.S. average—in electricity, methane, gasoline, food, and consumerism. I re-evaluated my footprint in comparison to average Americans in Chapter 20 of my textbook, confirming a factor-of-several reduction in most categories.

So I can perhaps justify some sense of credibility in putting my money where my mouth is. Or more accurately, I refrain from putting money places in accordance to what comes out of my mouth (and fingers). It can be hard to separate ecological responsibility from just being a cheapskate.

But I am far from perfect, and frequently experience pangs of guilt as I knowingly choose a less virtuous path. For instance, Section 20.3.4 of the book details the energy impact of dietary choices. Quantitatively, I should be vegan, and even grow most of my own food. But because I have not given up dairy and eggs, I am at best “only” a vegetarian. And quantitatively, chicken is not really different from dairy, so I find myself increasingly allowing it to creep back into my diet, on the basis that it’s energetically indistinguishable from cheese. But I could choose to react the other way and give up both chicken and cheese. Also, I reserve “meat treats” (usually some form of poultry) for special occasions, which often involve shared experiences with others. So my “public” eating habits make me look like an even bigger hypocrite for someone claiming to be mostly vegetarian (flexitarian, really).

I often point out the unsustainability of any form of growth. Institutions like Social Security are predicated on growth: not only economic gain via interest accumulation, but population growth leading to an ever-increasing workforce supporting a comparatively small retirement pool, so that a retiree can extract more money than they themselves put in. As developed nations experience stagnation or decline in population, the scheme fails and promises are broken. So if I were truly principled, and believed what I say, wouldn’t I forego any Social Security payments? Well, in fact, I intend to retire early and start drawing at age 62, assuming the institution survives long enough (which I deem to be likely: we will fight tooth and nail to preserve it as long as possible).

In performing the analysis of my energy/resource footprint (Chapter 20), the most personally disappointing sector is air travel. Yet I found myself visiting my mother and sister in May 2021 after vaccinations permitted post-pandemic travel again. As giant as the energy cost is, nullifying much of my progress elsewhere for the whole year, other pressures/factors prevailed.

Apparent Hypocrisy May Not Expose a Lie

This is not an exhaustive list of personal failings, but helps illustrate the range of domains in which I knowingly transgress principles that are indeed important to me.

But with this comes some insight. I know how important all this stuff is. I feel it. I lament the collapse we may bring on ourselves. I anguish over the choices we make as a society that I believe will lead to failure and suffering on an unprecedented scale. I can get emotional (“shirty,” my wife calls it) when discussing these issues because the pain is real. Therefore, I know with complete certainty that my efforts to communicate the risks we run are not for show, about getting attention, lining my pockets, or any other base impulse.

On these grounds, I suspect that those who accuse crusaders of hypocrisy are often wrong in their interpretation. It may be projection—an embarrassing insight into the drivers of their own petty souls. Or it may be disingenuous: an effective smear campaign deliberately engineered to discredit the effort and put people off the trail (a la “merchants of doubt”). Or it could simply be poor judgement and lack of an accurate understanding of the issues or motivations. In most cases, it serves as a convenient foil to a message they are predisposed to reject for reasons unrelated to the apparent hypocrisy itself.

One possible dynamic is that the suggestion of a difficult future—having reduced access to material comfort—is simultaneously deemed to be undesirable and triggers guilt over personal indulgences. When the communicator of such hardships is seen not to fully embrace the lifestyle they warn is coming, the reaction may be: “Aha! How can you possibly expect all of us to give up X when you are not willing to do so yourself?”

If this is indeed a common reaction, it exposes a deep flaw in comprehension of the human role in the natural world. It operates on the conceit that it’s all a matter of choice, of attitudes, of desire. The individual warning of dire challenges does not want those hardships to come to pass—which is the whole point of the warning. Perhaps the core message has not been internalized: humans operate within physical limits and should be careful not to extrapolate the boom-time fossil fuel years under low population and ecosystem pressures into a “full” world of resource limitations. A rejection of that foundational concept or disconnect at that level will lead to all manner of problems in interpretation.

Gravity, not Hypocrisy

But my main purpose in writing about this topic is that I believe seemingly hypocritical behavior can also point to the grave nature of the problem, only adding to its credibility.

Using myself as an experiment, I can witness the discordant juxtaposition: excruciating awareness of failure modes lurking ahead; and behaviors that are not wholly consistent with that awareness. I have the privilege of knowing that I’m not secretly a fraud. Making this blog freely available (no revenue or advertising) and my textbook available for free (and printed at-cost) should help to dispel accusations of being motivated by personal financial gain.

So what gives?

To me, awareness of my own inconsistent behaviors only serves to highlight my anxiety. I know that giving up things that I could easily afford is sometimes hard. If someone as motivated (freaked out) as I am can’t bring myself to do all I can, then what chance do we have a society to make really tough decisions and accept sacrifices? How will a democracy elect to make those choices?

Granted, one of the hardships is standing too far from the pack. I do not operate in a vacuum, but am embedded in a society that has its own set of (temporary) foundations. If meat was rare and special throughout society; if we did not have Social Security; and if air travel was not cheap and convenient, then I would presumably have less trouble eliminating or curtailing even more my utilization of these things—just by virtue of vastly reduced access.

But next time someone deploys the hypocrisy weapon, think about flipping the script: perhaps it exposes just how hard it is to change and only reinforces the weight of the alleged hypocrite’s message. Then, somewhat counterintuitively, apparent hypocrisy can become a form of credibility that only strengthens the position, when not actually exposing fraudulent motivations.

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33 thoughts on “Credibility from Apparent Hypocrisy

  1. Thanks for your honesty and candor. I suspect most overshoot aware people suffer from similar conflicted thoughts. I know I do.

    The difficulty and improbability of lifestyle choices reducing threats to modern civilization highlights why those of us that understand what's going on should focus on democratically supported population reduction policies.

    Yes I know the probability of getting a majority to vote for population reduction is vanishingly small. But every new voice increases the probability of the only thing that might help our predicament. Recall that many topics we now regularly discuss in polite company were taboo a few decades ago.

    A rapidly falling populaiton reduces every one of the many threats we face (except maybe growth based ponzi schemes like retirement plans, but we both know those will fail anyway due to other limits to growth).

  2. The current Covid responses around the world have demonstrated that it is possible, in a representative democracy, to effect population-level behaviour change. Exceptional circumstances yes, but it's essential that we build on this understanding if we are to make the large-scale, sustainable changes we know we need.

    Otherwise all of us easily slip into the failings that underpin seemingly hypocritical behaviour. I haven't yet swapped to the electric car (and I make 'rational' excuses based on my view that this is just tinkering at the edges which is dangerous because it neatly side-steps the big, sweeping necessities such as population reduction) but of course will in 2030 when its mandated. The mandates need to come thick and fast now if we are to change in time.

  3. Anguish over one's potential or actual hypocrisy may be evidence of sincerety, but sincerety is overrated. Many a false statement has been made by the perfectly sincere person who always sleeps easy. The truth of an assertion should not depend on the sincerety or authority of the person making it, but only on the evidence that supports it.

    I know that trusting an apparently knowlegeable authority is a valuable heuristic. We don't have a lot of time to examine every potential action for the evidence that supports it, but when it comes to world-changing events or assertions of a catastrophic future, we need to rely on the accumulation of evidence, not on whether this or that person is doing his unhypocritical utmost to prevent the catastrophe.

    Please keep on marshaling the evidence. It will be far more persuasive than any other thing you can do.

    • Your point is well-taken. I also have an allergic reaction to appeals to authority, which is not uncommon in academia (less common in physics, I would say, where nature is the authority, via experiment, not what someone says). I have arrived at my own position through piles of quantitative analysis (as presented in Do the Math) and logical reasoning. It's not infallible, but I have done what I can to put it out there for consideration.

      Meanwhile, I fear that evidence and facts are not terribly persuasive for large segments of our population. So even though that floats your boat (and mine), its larger effectiveness is questionable. Still, it seems the right thing to do.

  4. I for one think it is really quite important for environmental activists to actually try to walk their talk. You don't have to be perfect but if you are telling people they need to change their behavior to be more sustainable you should being doing that too.

    The hypocrisy that is deadly comes from 1%ers who will fly on their private jets to have a meetings in plush resorts in order to tell working class coal miners they need to loose their livelihoods – for the good of the planet. And the green grifters who want huge government subsidies and tax deductions for their green washed products for the well off.

    • I'm not implying that you are one of them, Jim, but it's interesting that proponents of business as usual can get irate about climate change worriers and environmental activists for "not walking their talk" and yet blithely ignore the unimaginable cruelty that business as usual (their daily activities) will eventually impose on billions of people in the future.

      That's why scientists and others must keep amassing their testimony. That cruelty must be exposed for what it is. It shouldn't just be those who are environmentally aware that feel guilty.

      And if we follow the "walk your talk" imperative to its logical conclusion, we would find that, rather than merely reducing their ecological footprint, environmental activists should also be actively subverting the cultural mechanisms that are destroying nature.

      So there's another thing for them to feel guilty about; they just can't muster the courage to break the law and sabotage the foundations of modern civilization. Where are our Monkey Wrench heros when we need them?

      • I would not call myself an environmental activist, but i do recognize we are deep into ecological overshoot and i have been reducing my ecological footprint. (i don't fly, live in a small, old well insulated house in an older neighborhood, i have never bought a new car, have low energy hobbies, and in general live well below my income. But my foot print is still too large.)

  5. Interesting post! My proposition is going to sound completely insane, but please don't be too harsh on me, because I am trying to think this through.

    I propose that unless and until global population has stabilized, or the extraction of non-renewable resources is stabilized (i.e., not merely one country using less only to make the resource cheaper for other consumers) then perhaps most moral thing to do is to spend **lots** of resources on luxury, thus ensuring that resource limits are reached as soon as possible.

    As it is, the greater our efficiency, and the longer we delay hitting limits, the higher the population and the greater share of our shrinking resource budget will be dedicated to basic survival when those limits are reached.

    Imagine that you are boarding a ship. Your baggage represents how much "space" you take up on the ship (your total energy and resource usage). People will continue boarding until the ship is full. This ship is the Titanic, and at maximum capacity there aren't enough lifeboats for everybody. But if each passenger takes up huge amounts of space, then the ship will be filled at a lower capacity that can be handled by the lifeboats.

    If everybody on the planet did their best to live as extravagantly as possible (basically what we're already doing), what is the result? — We hit limits *sooner* and with a lower population. Ideally, low enough that those people will be able to greatly reduce their energy consumption and still survive. Most ideally, many of them would be able to return to farming.

    By contrast, if we delay reaching limits and thereby stuff our planet to the rafters with as many people as it can possibly hold (all eating soybean paste and riding bicycles) then does this not, in the end, mean many more people who will starve to death as the aquifers dry, the phosphate mines exhaust themselves, and the energy runs short?

    The world does not have an acute shortage of natural resources *now*, but it will in the relatively near *future*. For an individual (or a nation) to consume less resources will only benefit people in the future if it results in greater future resources per capita. Assuming continued population growth, and continued extraction and use of non-renewable resources, might it be paradoxically true that the best thing we can do to benefit the children of the future is to ensure that limits are reached *sooner* rather than later?

    • Yes, the longer our high-energy modern civilization goes on, the more people there will be to suffer in the end (the demographic transition will not come soon enough to gently lower total population).

      And, assuming resource consumption would be the same in the end, consuming resources faster would be better for minimizing total suffering since there would be fewer people alive to suffer.

      But the best thing to happen would be for modern civilization to end very soon, get the suffering over with before too many more people are born, and also have the benefit of leaving a habitable climate and a not-totally-destroyed ecosystem for the survivors (humans and other species alike).

      While sudden collapse makes sense, it will not be voluntary. Unless we wake up one morning to find that everyone in the world has become a saint, we will put off the suffering for as long as possible. After all, we don't know any of those people who are yet to be born, and most of us would rather let them take the consequences of our actions, rather than suffer them ourselves.

      • "…we will put off the suffering for as long as possible. [M]ost of us would rather let [future generations] take the consequences of our actions, rather than suffer them ourselves."

        Quite true. But that also might be the paradox: if we "live it up" so as to hit limits as fast as possible, there will be a less-damaged earth and *more* renewable resources per capita when the hard limits are reached. But if we choose to cut back and increase efficiency, that will delay limits, increase population, further degrade soils, and ultimately result in many more people dying of starvation on the way down.

        • Most people I know ARE living it up. Holidays (when lockdowns allow), buying stuff excess to actual needs just because it's available, planning overseas trips, etc.
          When I tell people I'm trying to 'live on the smell of an oily rag', because I'll be ready when that's all that is available, I get laughed at.
          My toaster died during the lockdown we're in now Melbourne, Australia), but when it's over I'm sure as heck going to buy a new one.

  6. [very long comment edited down to its essence]

    This is an extremely difficult topic you are attempting to handle in a short space.

    I think the only way one can be credulous to others is to walk the talk, and to also refuse to profit in the slightest to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. The problem, as you point out, is that we, too, also live within the same dysfunctional system we are attempting to change, and that means we cannot help but to be "hypocrites" some of the time, even if others use of resources dwarf our own.

    [detailed account of footprint removed]

    I haven't flown but once, in 2004, for pleasure domestically, but I flew for pleasure in 1996, 1998, and 2001 to Europe. I also flew a dozen or so times in the 1990's for work. Who am I to tell others now not to experience what I did. I am a hypocrite.

    I am a hypocrite (I am being facetious yet serious at the same time). Even though my footprint is but a fraction of most Americans, I doubt it is truly sustainable.

    We are in trouble. How in the hell do we get from where we are to where we need to go? It would be a challenge even if a group of people like me and you were completely in charge. Yet try we must. I suspect we will be of little utility until the SHTF! It will be too late then, but I liken it to the boy and the starfish poem. We can't save everyone, but maybe we can make a difference to some.

  7. >Such accusations either knowingly or pathetically miss the obvious point that the net effect of Al Gore’s efforts may be positive owing to the simple idea of a lever

    While this might be true, it has 2 obvious flaws .1. It's is an ends justifies the means argument which in itself is a super dangerous path to tread. One could argue the same thing about COP and here we are at COP26 and the emissions are goign where exactly ? I'd pay more attention if they all stayed home and said we can't keep doing this, emissions are WAY to high.

    and 2. I am a fan of Dennis Meadows (Limits to Growth), he was posed a similar question in a lecture, he responded (and I paraphrase) "If what people say and what people do are at odds with each other, ignore what the say and watch what they do." An example ? Many people say they want lowered emissions but they vote for Politicians who ensure emissions are kept high, so I don't believe voters at all.

    It's also why I follow the likes of Peter Kalmus and Professor Kevin Anderson as my goto "climate specialists", as they walk the walk. On a personal note, I estimated my emissions at about 2.5t per annum, they need to be about 2t per annum. I ride a bicycle or catch PT, don't fly, use renewable electricity, don't use any HVAC and grow lots of my own food (Well my partner does, I mostly get in her way haha), and most importantly, Vote Green

    but all of us are hypocrites to one extent or other, Gore was still right but even if you don't want to give up driving just yet, you can at minimum Vote Green, so polices are put in place to actually make it easier NOT to drive in the future, at least do that.

    • It's important to remember that per capita emissions include emissions generated collectively. I've read that the emissions of a homeless person in the US are still about 8 tons CO2 due to their having a share of defense, roads, airports and other public infrastructure contruction and maintenance emissions. The homeless have their share of the emissions from the overpass they are living under.

      Most people have no idea how big the gap is to get to a sustainable level of emissions. CO2 is very long lived in the atmosphere and we should be looking ahead to centuries of accumulating emissions, not decades, to estimate atmospheric equilibrium. A sustainable level (with today's world population) is probably more like the per capita emissions of Burkina Faso, at 0.2 tons per year.

      Here's a description of what a truly sustainable lifestyle is like:

      "Eighty percent of the Burkinabe live in rural areas, mostly in circular huts made of mud, roofed with straw in a pyramid shape. According to the Ministry of Economy and Finances, 31.1 percent of the Burkinabe population lives in food insecurity. The Fulanis — nomadic cattle keepers — mostly live in straw houses."

      "Eighty percent of the population farms and raises livestock."

      "To is the most common food eaten in Burkina Faso, especially in rural environments where food is less diversified. It is a paste made from the millet or corn flour. To is eaten with okra sauce, baobab leaves or sorrel sauce, etc."

      When comparing life in a modern industrial country with the kind of life that has truly sustainable carbon emissions, it becomes clear that it is impossible for we moderns to "walk the talk".

      The only thing that will come close to getting us where we need to be is to rapidly convert to an agrarian subsistence life. If that conversion could even be done at all in a country like the US, it would look like an utter collapse of industrial modernity to its citizens. I doubt that many will vote for it, not even Greens.

  8. My somewhat shortened response to Rob (at un-denial's cross post of Dr. Murphy's post).

    I thought Dr. Murphy’s post was illuminating.
    We are all guilty of various degrees of hypocrisy.
    As Dr. Murphy points out, we all do what we can (I’ve been a vegetarian for 40 years and haven’t flown in a plane in 5+ years and now live attempting to grow my own food). But we’re human and stuck in a culture that glorifies growth and conspicuous consumption – it’s difficult to buck the tide all the time.
    I do think that we should have democratically authorized population reduction – if possible.
    Sadly, I don’t think that is going to happen – mostly because 8 billion people are in denial of overshoot. That puts me in the position of hoping for a swift and complete economic collapse as maybe the only thing that will prevent our destruction of the biosphere and human extinction. I also realize that such a collapse will probably end the lives of all the people I care for but that is better than extinction and a loss of the knowledge this BLIP of fossil energy has allowed Science to achieve.

    • AJ, you left out the most important part of your original comment:

      We are all guilty of various degrees of hypocrisy. Even though I would have limited myself to 2 children (and assumed my wife would want to also), circumstances caused 4 children. All of this occurred 30 years ago before I became (10 years ago) collapse aware. When I believed in Ray Kurzweil’s singularity and a brave techno future awaited.

      • Yeah,
        I beat myself up all the time because of my stupidity when I was young;). IF I had it to do all over again I would have fewer children, if any (not that I don't love the ones I have). But sadly life and time is only one direction. Hopium in a techno future/salvation is just denial of overshoot to me now (but it sure can be addictive like SciFi).

  9. I just finished reading your book! If it had landed on my desk to review it, I would have wrote something along the lines of "The author takes great pains to prove his point but then goes on to disbelieve his own conclusions".

    Given what you know about the difficulty of the task, human nature, present geopolitical situation and the time remaining, what are the chances for a coordinated, mostly voluntary transition away from fossil fuels? I don't have a crystal ball either, but what does you scientific intuition tell you? If you could run this experiment 1000 times, would there be a single instance where we act before falling into the energy trap? In any case, the question is largely academic by now. It might have been relevant around 50 years ago, when Limits to Growth was published, but we have chosen to stay the course and walk right into the energy trap.

    How do animals react when the trap is sprung? Have a calm round of discussions about possible solutions, vote on a Plan and then carry it out in an organized fashion? No, they panic, stampede and tear at each other. The global reaction to the Covid pandemic has done little to improve my cynical views on humanity.

    To be powerless is a horrible feeling. Maybe I could count my calories and take shorter showers? It makes sense, in a way. The person whose behavior you can best influence is yourself, and the stoic's way of moderation makes sense in good and in bad times. Personally, I have never even owned a car, I live in a city that runs on 100% renewable energy, I can stretch a kilo of chicken to a delicious dinner for ten people, and so on. Yet I do these things out of purely selfish reasons. When the trap is sprung, I don't want to be doing a job that is only reachable by car, I don't want to have electricity just three hours a day, or depend on microwave dinners for my food.

    In my experience, you can only help people that WANT to be helped. So if you want some advice, enjoy your chicken and your hot showers (in moderation, of course) while you still have them, and stop feeling guilty about being, when you get right down to it, an ape. Or getting worked up about what the other 8 billion apes are doing to the planet. There may come a time when your knowledge and input will be sought after by friends, neighbors, maybe even political constituencies: I'm sure you'll rise to the occasion. If no such chance presents itself, you can still do your part to preserve precious knowledge for future generations: good books have longer time spans than their authors.

    • "I live in a city that runs on 100% renewable energy"

      I feel highly dubious. Links to support a claim that *any* city does this? No cars, trucks, trains? Not on the grid? No deliveries from factories outside the city? No deliveries of food from elsewhere?

      Etc etc etc.

      I'm guessing that if this claim is sincere, it rests on definitions that are vacuous.

      • Alexandru probably meant "100% renewable electricity". There are a few cities in this category, but in the US, electricity is only about 38% of overall energy consumption (on a primary energy thermal basis).

  10. [very long comment edited to keep key points]

    I'm vegan (20 years); have PV panels; my own well; grow lots and lots of fruits and nuts for my own consumption (generally organically and using permaculture principles), and – yes – I think peak oil is real. I'm sure, still, my energy consumption is off the charts on a long term historical basis.

    I would have plenty of hypocrisies, except I don't hold myself out as a model – so if anyone tried to pin that label on me, I think I would laugh.

    I guess I am saying you should let yourself off the hook for taking a plane flight to visit your sister and eating an occasional chicken. Your energy consumption savings aren't enough to make a difference. On the other hand, your effort in writing that book DO make a difference.

    What could be done and done quickly and done at vastly lower expense (both in terms of money and in terms of of totalitarianism)? I'd be interested in your thoughts ; but it seems to me the following could make a huge positive impact, at relatively modest cost, with little growth of totalitarianism, in as little as ten years starting from now:

    (1) pay people NOT to have children – primarily in 3rd world countries.*
    (2) plant many billions of trees
    (3) stop (massively tax) use of single use plastics
    *By the way, I think this needs to be tied further to real, practical education in things like physics and hard trades, so we are not just permanently enlarging the welfare state and the power of our Masters. Get money for not having any children + get a lot more money by getting practically educated. Maybe employ these people to plant the trees!

    There is one last thing I want to suggest, though: I think you are confronting the problem too directly and too inorganically. Theory of Constraints thinking begins with the end in mind, but generally not a complete/perfect plan. Take out one low-lying constraint after another and reassess.

    The side effect of this, IS very noticeable "progress". Progress doesn't have to be only measured in terms of energy and external resource usage per capita. There is an incredible amount of waste. Humans – as humans – are incredibly inefficient versus their potential. THAT sort of practical progress toward lower waste, on all levels, could, I imagine, give humanity another thousand+ years to sort out priorities and find a better way.

  11. I feel bad to at least appear to be pushing back against exhortations to virtue, but I can't even think about this stuff without attempting to characterize virtue, hypocrisy, etc.

    Given the radically recursive nature of complex systems, and most especially anything to do with human psychology and group interactions, these definitions matter.

    Is there a member of Congress somewhere, or a Big Fossil Fuel board member, who will experience a deep change of heart if you or I skip a plane flight that connects us with loved ones? If you skip all flying? If 10 people don't fly? Or a million? If the answer is No, maybe there's a bit of virtue in a skipped plane flight, but not much? How does one measure? Maybe a vote in the right direction is worth 4 skipped plane flights, and some activism is worth 100. If you go off to live naked in the woods, nourished only by the dew dripping off epiphytes, and the world continues on the same path, have you achieved maximum virtue?

    You addressed this a bit with the Al Gore example, but I sense there's more. (Not that I'm sure how it should turn out.) Discussion cannot ignore the radical recursion, and cannot brush aside the fact that success, failure, or in between is measured en masse, not one by one. If you claim that if only *enough* of us are virtuous *enough*, we'll achieve our ends, careful of circular reasoning. If enough of us were that darn virtuous, seems to me we'd be electing leaders and making economic choices unlike the ones in the last half century or so.

    • This line of thinking touches a number of points in Chapter 18 of my textbook. Without individual action, nothing can happen. Policy is never going to take us someplace that individuals are not already willing to go (in a democracy). I can see calling it circular reasoning, in that lack of individual action is already all the evidence we need that we're hosed. My optimistic side prevents me from being the full cynic and "living it up" on the premise that only big changes at the political level can make a real difference. If I can't be more virtuous, what hope could we possibly have as a society?

      • I started typing a long answer, and canned it. Instead, could you just say straight out whether you believe a "real difference" can be made without "big changes at the political level"? For me, the real difference must be visible in the Keeling curve. And big changes at the political level don't necessarily mean some pie-in-the-sky revolution, but do necessarily mean powerful forces need to be deflected or defeated. Forces that are NOT impressed by any little efforts I've made, or the more public efforts of for example you and JM Greer.

  12. In any democracy, those that get elected are the ones promising a bright future via their policies. Any politician that was to propose negative growth, or lower standards of living will just get voted out of office.

    If the numbers that I've recently read of 30Mt of biologic matter becomes future FF, then that is our FF budget. 4kgs per person per year, which is the only truely sustainable amount that can be used.

    About 25 years ago the last truely indigenous nomadic group of hunter/gatherers came into modern civilization here in Australia. Despite indigenous groups owning vast tracks of land via land rights movements, none have chosen to go back to the nomadic hunter gatherer lifestyle. The comforts of the modern world are just a too powerful enticement for everyone.

    Just last week I had a badly infected tooth, that the dentist was able to easily fix with modern tools, drugs and highly skilled precision.
    Even if some of us were to give up the modern world for a sustainable lifestyle of hunting and gathering, there are plenty of others that will outlive and out procreate those that chose the sustainable path, so the sacrifice would be for nothing in the long term.

    The modern civilized world has to play out until we either go the sci-fi space future or the collapse due to resource constraints. The odds of collapse are immeasurably higher than a sci-fi space expansion future, but the latter is where people want to and aim to go.

  13. We are evolved to detect and ignore hypocrites, so while making changes to your own life may not measurably avoid the climate crisis, it's an important part of showing group identity, and thus inspiring others to act as well. The Conversation had a nice article today on studying how this effect might have evolved: "Identity fusion: why some people will go to extremes for the beliefs of a group"

    Unfortunately we live in a system which makes it impossible not to be a hypocrite and still find that group. Even Greta Thunberg uses services like Facebook and Twitter to reach others, and the data centres that serve them are far from carbon free. In the environmental groups I move in (especially minimum waste groups and XR) we therefore cultivate a non-judgemental attitude, and view any progress toward reducing impact as a good thing to be celebrated. This keeps the conversation positive and inspiring which keeps people happier so they feel that group identity, which in turn makes what could be inconvenient decisions (like giving up meat or biking to the store) into a principle to be proud of. Human psychology is an incredibly important part of the puzzle when it comes to dealing with climate change and other large scale problems. In some ways it's the only unsolved problem, because the physics is very clear!

    Maybe us hard scientists need to sit with the social psychologists and see what we can learn 🙂

    • Thanks for a very substantive set of points and guidance! I think it will help me and others as we grapple with the challenges.

  14. When you disagree with a man like Prof. Murphy on the subject of energy, chances are overwhelming that it's because you're just confused. I only wish I could see where my error is.

    Assuming continued global population growth and no global policy coordination (a very safe bet so far), the best way to ensure maximum resources per capita in the future is to do exactly what we're doing now: squander energy as fast as possible to hit limits as *early* as possible. That much less will be the damage.

    If we use less and conserve, the only thing we do is ensure that many, many more people are on the planet when limits are reached. That's less land and less water per capita and many more people who will starve when non-renewable mineral resources run short. No?

    [A note on the mechanics of population growth from Bill Ryerson: "[I]t is very clear the demographic transition theory is flawed. What we have concluded looking back at every country that has gone from developing status to developed status since World War II, and there are eight of them, what actually happened was not that the economy went up and then the birthrate fell, but the reverse. The birth rate fell and *then* the economy started up."]

  15. Look at the big picture hypocrisy from 20,000 – 30,000 'professionals who represent most of the worlds nations, NGO's galore & supposedly concerned corporations for 25 years running.

    "The upcoming 26th COP (Conference of the Parties) to be held November 2021 in Glasgow is on the docket for scientists and bureaucrats, as well as big moneyed interests, to knock heads in a formal setting to discuss the state of the planet. If all goes according to plan, like past COPs, powerful economic interests will sabotage what would otherwise be a rather dim forecast of a planet in various stages of collapse, some terminal.

    We’ve seen this act (COP) repeat over and over, ever since COP1 in Berlin in 1995, as each successive COP-ending-ceremony finds the Parties congratulating each other, slaps on the back, for one more successful climate conference of 20,000-30,000 able-bodied professionals wiped-out from overconsumption of Beluga caviar and Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, but subsequently carbon emissions increase the following year, and every following year thereafter. What’s to congratulate?

    More to the point, the annualized CO2 emissions rate is +60% since COP1, not decreasing, not going down, not once. After 25 years of the same identical pattern, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the take-home-work from all 25 COPs mysteriously turns into the antithesis of the mission statement of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change."

    Hypocrisy writ large. I bet the carbon & eco footprint from these annual COP out conferences is bigger than some small impoverished nations.

    What's the big hope here? The 26ths the charm?

    We've done nothing to slow down & we never will. Why do some people still need to talk about these predicaments as if choice has (or ever had) any part? I think a big part of the answer lies with the category of people – age, socioeconomic, education, nationality, etc, doing the talking. It's almost all white men, boomer-genX, N American, UK, etc.
    IMO it's more denial & virtue signalling within this group.

    • Right? The "mainstream" environmental movement recently switched from personal choices to making systemic changes. I wonder if this decision was a good one. There's no political will to make systemic changes. Well, maybe there is some political will, but it vanishes the moment some status quo dollar bills are waved under their noses.

      In my experience, walking the walk has more of an impact on people's perspectives than talk. I sell electric bicycles for a living. At the start, we mostly had displays at some trade shows and home shows. Recently, we've been doing guided tours on eBikes, and the public reaction from seeing them on display in a convention center to seeing a group of them going down the street is night and day better when they see them on the street.

      With eBikes and electric cars, we can talk all day, but until the experience of a ride is had, they won't sell. I've tried countering arguments against EVs with words without much success, but when I counter them with a test ride, one can almost see their mindset change.

      The sustainable lifestyles, for nearly all people that haven't tried one, are only narratives of what people have heard from the news or from comedians or TV shows making fun of them. We've gone from TV shows dissing EVs in that someone couldn't roll up to sell a house in a car with a plug in the bumper to an EV being the status symbol to beat all. That happened because EVs stepped out of the fringe and got some "regular folk" driving electric.

      So, don't tell others how to live more sustainably, show them. Show them that $5 electric bill that your solar panels enable. Show them your 7-year old computer that works better than new with a simple solid state hard drive upgrade. Show them that electric lawn mower that doesn't wreck your arm trying to start it. Park your EV out front loud and proud and show it plugged in.

  16. [very long comment edited down to merely pretty long comment]

    There is an interesting fiction book worth reading called "A Canticle for Leibowitz" set far in the future after the "Great Simplification". They went through a hard simplification after a worldwide nuclear war (It was written during the Cold War when people worried about that) where almost all knowledge was destroyed and the little bits that were left were preserved in monasteries for a couple thousand years. A few discoveries were made and things started advancing and like a big stone rolling down a hill once it gets enough momentum nothing can stop it, everything goes to hell and another nuclear war destroys the world.

    It would be nice if we didn't have to go through a hard simplification when fossil fuels run out, but it seems like there is too much momentum built up to be able to stop it.

    In your book you say that world Lithium production is about 30,000 Tonnes per year. I looked it up and there is about 10 kg of Lithium in an EV battery. 1 Tonne of Li makes 100 EV batteries, 30,000 Tonnes makes 3 Million EV batteries. (I was baffled and looked it up and 2020 Li production was 82,000 Tonnes so that means 8 M EV batteries) Am I making a mistake or missing something? 8M Ev batteries per year? How in the hell are we supposed to electrify a vehicle fleet, not to mention have storage to buffer intermittent renewable power plants.
    On top of the absurdity of thinking that we are going to electrify any kind of a vehicle fleet with 8M EV batteries per year we also have to consider the lifetime of the batteries, 1000 full charge cycles before they need replacing. If they are used only in an EV that is fine, they last forever but if you use them in a smart grid or for buffering intermittent renewables (like Tesla Powerwall) they will only last maybe 5 years before they need replacing. So I guess at some point that means that all of the current annual production of Li is going to be used to replace worn out Li batteries?

    It seems to me that people have been indoctrinated for hundreds of generations into believing absurd fairy tales and myths as the gospel truth (I guess that"gospel truth" is an Oxymoron? or is it something else). They have faith that something is going to come along and save us from ourselves. Politicians harness this silliness to get themselves elected and enrich themselves and their buddies. Nothing gets done, how can you have the president, king, or prime minister of a country promise to have zero GHG emissions by any point in time much less 28 years from now with only 82,000 tonnes of Li production worldwide per year? I guess they got their physics knowledge from the Marvel Universe. (in the entertainment world the Marvel Universe is where all the Superhero movies and comic books take place)

    My opinion is that unless some really good method of energy storage is developed we are going to have significant problems meeting any kind of commitment to reduce GHG emissions to zero by 2050 without a hard simplification.

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