Friday, April 18, 2014

Transitioning to a new normal

Not in his goals but in his transitions is man great. - Ralph Waldo Emerson (1870 Harvard lecture)
Summary - Like many environmentalists, the journal Ecopsychology undergoing periodic re-visioning. This paper imagines how practitioners might help people to prepare for the harder times ahead. It suggests that psychologists are well positioned to help people envision an alternative to our current relationship with resources, to help them to anticipate that everyday life will soon differ substantially from conventional expectations and to help them to realize that, despite a dramatic resource downshift, well-being likely will, if unexpectedly, improve.
How ever vast were the resources used to create industrial civilization, they were never limitless. Biophysical constraints, always a part of human existence, could be ignored for these past few centuries, during a one-time era of resource abundance. This is no longer possible.

Many of the challenges we face can be traced to our centuries-long consumption and construction binge and, soon, to its abrupt culmination. Climate disruption, a consequence of our rapacious use of fossil fuels, is intensifying. The amount of available net energy (the energy available to society after deducting energy used during extraction) was massive at first, misleading us with the false prospect of endless growth. False because, easily unnoticed, net energy has been on a relentless decline. We are approaching the day when net energy becomes insufficient for maintaining, let alone building-out, modern society. And technological innovation, to which we attribute much of our success, cannot create energy or natural resources and our industrial prowess cannot negate the laws of thermodynamics. Thus while our ingenuity can slow the approach of a resource limited future, it will not fundamentally change that outcome.

Soon we will leave behind the infantile techno-fantasy of a world without limits giving us a life without want. We will all, of necessity, accept that biophysical limits are a defining characteristic of life. Such acceptance is long overdue, but hard for us, hard because it demands profoundly different world views and patterns of living. Psychology can help us to realize that our future will be attained through thrift and humility, not by the consumptive growth and boosterism that gave us our fling with material affluence. Unfortunately, we may well try all possible alternatives to outright acceptance before realizing that limits are, by their very nature, not open to negotiation or repudiation.

Yet acceptance is but the first step and not nearly as hard as what comes next. The depth and duration of the required transition is unprecedented. Adapting well to a drawn-out decline in resource availability is not something with which we are familiar. Furthermore, since we seem to be starting late in the process, having temporarily delayed the needed behavior change, we will likely need to quickly respond to events. Prefiguring our response could ease the transition.

It is here that psychology can play an essential role since what is being faced is not a technological or political challenge but an existential one. The broader missions of psychology and that of a society facing biophysical constraints will converge on the need to lay a new foundation for sustainable, interdependent and mutually¬-enhancing relations with nature as well as within the human community. In fact, the coming transition provides the psychological community with a rare moment. During the initial phase of downshifting there likely will be a period of flux, a time during which people might be willing to reshape their emotional connection and moral stance toward each other and the rest of the planet.

Read rest of paper at: De Young, R. (2013) Transitioning to a new normal. Ecopsychology, 5(4): 237-239.

Raymond De Young
School for Environment and Sustainability
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Archived version: January 1, 2014 at: