Monday, January 09, 2006

Catch-23 - why only the crunch will make us change

The Low Carbon Kid presents a new concept to help explain the current crisis we face. It's called Catch-23.

Crisis? What crisis?

James Lovelock, who gave us Gaia Theory - the idea that the Earth's eco-system is self-regulating, went on record last week as saying the human race is in a mood similar to the one before the second world war.

In other words, we know a terrible thing is going to happen, we know what we need to do, but we are just not doing it. We are in denial.

Any survivors who make it to the other side of this catastrophe will wonder why on earth we behaved like this... continuing to consume energy as if there's no tomorrow. Whoops - did I mean to ensure there's no tomorrow?

Why do we behave like this? The answer's complex and hard to grasp, because it involves paradoxes. To make it easier to talk about it, I'm going to lump it all under one name and then give examples.

Let's call it Catch-23.

What is Catch-23?

Joseph Heller defined Catch-22 in his great novel, as follows:

You have to be mad to get out of flying missions. But anyone who wants to fly missions must be mad. Anyone who says they're mad to get out of flying missions is therefore sane and has to fly missions. So, everybody has to fly missions.

It's a great catch. We use it in everyday speech when we're caught in a logical loop.

So what's Catch-23?

Simply put, another logical loop: you can't have your cake and eat it.

Everybody wants cake. Cake is business as usual. But business as usual is no longer an option. What you eat now you won't eat later. But we'd rather have the cake now than worry about the future. So soon we won't have cake.

Put it another way, we have fossil fuels, but we shouldn't use them. If we do, we soon won't have any cake at all.

The difference between Catch-22 and Catch-23 is that Catch-23 is somehow hard-wired into our human nature. It’s part of our short-term survival instinct.

Examples of Catch-23

Catch-23 means that despite the fact that we are making electrical goods more resource-efficient, we are buying more and more of them, canceling out our gains.

Catch-23 means that despite the fact that renewable energy installations are increasing all the time, they are not keeping up with overall energy demand, and so are remaining at the same proportion of overall energy supply.

Catch-23 means we're considering using nuclear power to bail us out, even though we know it will bring another set of problems almost as big as climate change.

Catch-23 results in millions continuing to fly on trivial journeys despite the environmental cost.

The greater our technological advance, the more energy we use. That's Catch-23.

Catch-23 is why carbon sequestration is no answer. It will just mean we'll feel free to use more energy.

Everyone knows this, in their heart of hearts, but they're in denial.

The best known historical example is the Easter Islanders, who denuded their island and then died out.

Our ancestors did the same thing a few thousand years ago when they poured out of Africa and went on a ten thousand year spree, fanning out over the land-masses, including down from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, killing off all the big mammals as they went.

Just imagine it: your tribe enters a landscape heaving with wildlife. All you have to do is throw a spear. A morning's work and you can have the rest of the week off making nookie. And growing the population. It's paradise (the garden of Eden?). You think it will never end. But it does. What the hell, move south to the next valley and start all over again. Generations later you're in the cold tip of South America.

And then you think: where's everything gone? Oh well, better invent agriculture. And so mankind condemned itself to an eternity of toil, tilling the land and guarding against predators – animals, bandits and tax-collectors.

If only they'd seen it coming. Left enough bison, wildebeest, and fish to keep the population steady. But they didn't know what they were doing.

The difference is, we do. We’re supposed to be smart.

But being smart is not enough. Our surival instinct is too short-sighted. We need the right motivation.

Take me for example. I still run a car. I use LPG for heating. That's because I live in the country and couldn't afford a water-powered heat pump. We've all got our excuses. That's Catch-23.

Is there a way out?

Yes. But it's usually too late.

The common way out of Catch-23 is when you have no choice. Lovelock refers to the second world war and how we all changed our behaviour rapidly: changed our diet, buckled under, conserved resources - because we had to.

It's clear we'll only do the same this time too. We're waiting for the crunch, just like those poor people in New Orleans before Katrina struck.

And the ones who died there - would they have made every effort to leave the city if they'd know what was going to happen to them? You bet they would.

Here's the Bush administration last Friday defending its role in the breakaway Asia-Pacific climate pact meeting this week in Sydney: "Most of our pollution control in America will come through good old-fashioned Wall Street financing".

But Catch-23 says that nothing "good, old-fashioned" will work any more. You can't have your cake and eat it. We need new economics and a new attitude: to reduce by at least 60% the energy we now use, as the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution said, all over the world.

The Low Carbon kid says a realistic contraction and convergence figure would be a 90% reduction in the developed world.

Anything else leads straight back to Catch-23, and a whole lot of damage coming our way.


The one who gives a S##T said...

True,this is also the fourth and last Turning of the Millenial Saeculum.Ironic ain't it?We've hit Peak Oil,most likely Methane as well, at just the same period we are entering our Crisis Era.Hopefully,we humans pull through all right:-)

Good books to read are....
"Twilight in the Desert" by
Matthew R. Simmons
"The Long Emergency" by
James Kunstler
"The Fourth Turning" By
William Strauss and Neil Howe

Anonymous said...

The Catch-23 is such a nice image that I felt free to refewr to it in my blog. Cheers. Octavio Lima (