Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Role of Psychology in Preparing for Lean Times: The Behavioral Context of Energy Descent

Summary - A one-time era of vast energy and natural resources allowed modern civilization to emerge and flourish. This gift of abundant resources supported the building of industrial society’s urban settlements and physical infrastructure. The material richness also supported the creation of a consumerist society now characterized by a massive global flow of goods and services. None of this can be sustained indefinitely since, despite how vast those resources were, they were never limitless. Thus, an energy and resource descent is anticipated and likely inevitable. This situation demands a pragmatic response. Psychology can help to frame that response but the effort must start soon.
A New Biophysical Context

Society is approaching biophysical limits-to-growth (Meadows, Meadows, Randers & Behrens, 1972; Meadows, Randers & Meadows, 2004). Under this scenario, resource supplies first tighten and then begin a long, drawn-out but deep descent. Simultaneously, defensive expenditures rise to address the ecological damage caused by past resource consumption and mismanagement of waste. The notion that there are limits to material growth has been controversial – an astonishing fact given that humans exist on a finite planet. In fact, the very idea of resource limits has been, for decades, much maligned when it was not being ignored. But the expectation of an impending end to modern society’s material growth has recently received renewed attention from both ecologists and economists (Bardi, 2014, 2011; Daly & Farley, 2010; Gordon, 2016; Hall & Day, 2009).

Voracious over-consumption of finite resources, coupled with biophysical constraints, is bringing ever closer the day when the resources at our disposal will be insufficient to maintain growth in, and perhaps the full maintenance of, the personal, social and urban systems to which we have become accustomed. Undeniably, a deep decline in resource availability will significantly alter daily life patterns throughout industrial society. The scope of the challenges being faced has increased tremendously over just the last few decades (McKibben, 2010). Consider that, near the end of this century, the day-to-day challenges of addressing climate disruption will involve producing only about a tenth of current greenhouse gas emissions, and likely requiring a reduction in the consumption of energy and materials by a similar magnitude. The environmental movement has previously argued for major reductions in resource consumption, but rarely have changes of an order of magnitude been envisioned. It may be time for the psychological and behavioral sciences to take seriously the possibility of an unprecedented change in day-to-day living patterns brought on by the end of material growth.  

A New Behavioral Context 

It is difficult to know when this scenario might begin to unfold – and distractions like cheap gasoline can make one doubt that it ever will – but it clearly constitutes a new behavioral context, one that the psychological and behavioral sciences least attends to. There are many features of the coming transition that are unfamiliar to a society enmeshed in a fast-paced, even frenetic, era of over-consumption. Fortunately, although dramatic and deep, the needed changes in behavior would be drawn-out. This is not at all what the popular folk mythology of resource apocalypse predicts. The reality of what is being faced lacks Hollywood’s sudden and catastrophic collapse motif. The change is more likely to occur over many decades – a persistent, although punctuated, downshift to a new normal.

Despite the slow nature of the transition, the anticipated changes in the biophysical basis of life will come to seriously tax our social, emotional and attentional capacities. Individuals and groups will be challenged to remain mentally and behaviorally effective while coping with ever-present biophysical limits. The degree to which a given society thrives will depend in part on how well individuals cope with the everyday challenges of energy and resource descent (De Young, 2010). There likely will be a priority placed on such psychological concepts as emotional stability and clear-headedness, the ability to maintain pro-social inclinations, the capacity to plan and restrain behavior, and a willingness to continue building competencies. As disparate as these aspects of coping seem, they share a common foundation: the ability to keep our wits about us in the face of potential chaos. It is here that the behavioral sciences will play a major role in supporting the coming transition, since what is being faced is not a technological or political challenge, but a psychological one.

Research has begun to explore the effects of energy descent on public health (Frumkin, Hess & Vindigni, 2009; Neff, Parker, Kirschenmann, Tinch & Lawrence, 2011; Poland, Dooris & Haluza-Delay, 2011). Likewise, the possible mental, physical and community health impacts of climate disruption are being mapped out; particularly useful are the guidelines on how communities can cope with the psychological impacts of climate disruption (Clayton, Manning & Hodge, 2014; Doherty & Clayton, 2011). A similar effort is needed to help individuals and communities cope with the equally dramatic social and psychological impacts of energy and natural resource descent (De Young, 2014; De Young & Princen, 2012).

A Role for Psychology

There are a great many ways in which psychological research and practice can assist people as they first envision and then navigate new life patterns over a long-drawn-out transition. A few are introduced here, meant only to suggest how central psychological insights will be in our successfully coping with limits-to-growth. Very early in the process, people may need assistance in exploring alternatives to the current societal relationship with resources. Fortunately, the human mind evolved for just such exploring (Kaplan & Basu, 2015), with fascinating work emerging on the psychology of prospection (Seligman, Railton, Baumeister & Sripada, 2013).

Behavioral scientists and community practitioners must pre-familiarize people with the coming transition in ways that are neither frightening nor overwhelming. It may prove useful to encourage many small, social experiments in simple living – what might be called behavioral entrepreneurship – as exemplified by the growing transition town and ecovillage movements (Litfin, 2013a, 2013b, 2011). The goal of this pre- familiarization would be to craft and share stories that not only honestly portray life under a prolonged and involuntary energy descent, but do so in a way that people crave the experience enough to seek it now.

Another body of psychological research that may be helpful is that focused on the role of nature in restoring mental effectiveness, emotional stability and subjective well-being (Berman, Jonides & Kaplan, 2008; Kaplan & Basu, 2015; Kaplan, 2001, 1995). One of the more useful findings emerging from this research is that the psychological benefits derived from time spent in nature do not require outstanding natural environments. Nearby nature, even the small scale and ordinary, will suffice for the restoration of mental effectiveness, emotional stability and well-being. This is a hopeful finding since under a resource-constrained scenario it will be necessary to get by with the nearby nature already present in our settlements; there may not be the resources, time or political support to secure and maintain new urban and suburban parks, public gardens or open spaces. Time spent in nearby nature is proving to be as effective as dwelling within the beauty of extraordinary natural settings.

There is, of course, a great deal more existing and emerging psychological knowledge relevant to the issue here being discussed than is mentioned above. But it will be important to be future oriented throughout the coming transition – in particular, field-based applications of existing and emerging findings must be a priority. Since it is likely that no single response will fix things everywhere, for all people or for all time, it will be useful to conduct a great many social experiments. Indeed, a culture of small experiments should be fostered. In so doing, and although a resource-limited future will be austere, it may be possible for people to live well while they live within ecological limits. In fact, the coming downshift may provide an opportunity for people to re- connect with nature and other people in ways that provide deep and durable well-being.

References

Bardi, U. (2011). The Limits to Growth Revisited. London, UK: Springer.

Bardi, U. (2014). Extracted: How the quest for mineral wealth is plundering the planet. White River Jct., VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Berman, M. G., Jonides, J., and Kaplan, S. (2008). The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature. Psychological Science, 19, 1207-1212.

Clayton, S., Manning, C. M., and Hodge, C. (2014). Beyond Storms and Droughts: The Psychological Impacts of Climate Change. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica.

Daly, H. E., and Farley, J. (2010). Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

De Young, R. (2014). Some behavioral aspects of energy descent: How a biophysical psychology might help people transition through the lean times ahead. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1255.

De Young, R. (2010). Restoring mental vitality in an endangered world. EcoPsychology, 2, 13-22.

De Young, R., and Princen, T. (2012). The Localization Reader: Adapting to the Coming Downshift. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Doherty, T. J., and Clayton, S. (2011). The psychological impacts of global climate change. American Psychologist, 66, 265-276.

Frumkin H., Hess, J., and Vindigni, S. (2009). Energy and public health: The challenge of peak petroleum. Public Health Rep, 124, 5-19.

Gordon, R. J. (2016). The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The US Standard of Living since the Civil War. Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ.

Hall, C. A. S., and Day, J. W. (2009). Revisiting the limits to growth after peak oil. Am Sci, 97, 230-237.

Kaplan, R. and Basu, A. (Eds.) (2015). Fostering Reasonableness: Supportive Environments for Bringing Out Our Best. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Kaplan, S. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15, 169-182.

Kaplan, S. (2001). Meditation, restoration, and the management of mental fatigue. Environment and Behavior, 33, 480-506.

Litfin, K. T. (2013a). Ecovillages: Lessons for Sustainable Community. Polity Press: Cambridge, UK.

Litfin, K. T. (2013b). Localism. In: C. Death [Ed.] Critical Environmental Politics (pp. 154-164) Routledge: London, UK.

Litfin, K. T. (2011). Seed Communities: Ecovillage Experiments around the World. Retrieved from www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detail page&v=MtNjZaXDGqM on March 31, 2016.

McKibben, B. (2010). Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. NY: Times Books.

Meadows, D. H., Meadows, D. L., Randers, J., and Behrens, W. W. (1972). Limits to Growth. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Associates.

Meadows, D. H., Randers, J., and Meadows, D. L. (2004). Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Neff, R. A., Parker, C. L., Kirschenmann, F. L., Tinch, J., and Lawrence, R. S. (2011). Peak oil, food systems, and public health. Am J Public Health, 101, 1587-1597.

Poland, B., Dooris, M., and Haluza-Delay, R. (2011). Securing ‘supportive environments’ for health in the face of ecosystem collapse: Meeting the triple threat with a sociology of creative transformations. Health Promotion International, 26, 202-215.

Seligman, M. E. P., Railton, P., Baumeister, R. F., and Sripada, C. (2013). Navigating into the future or driven by the past. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8, 119-141.

A related paper on this topic is at: De Young, R. (2014) Some behavioral aspects of energy descent, Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1255.

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

Earlier version archived: February, 13, 2017 at: http://hdl.handle.net/2027.42/136086

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Lean times ahead: Preparing for a resource-constrained future

Summary - Society soon will face significant biophysical limits to growth. Natural resource availability will slowly tighten and then begin a long drawn-out descent while expenditures rise to address the damage caused by past resource consumption. It is difficult to know when this scenario will begin to unfold but it clearly constitutes an entirely new behavioral context, one that the behavioral and social sciences least attend to. Since it is likely that no single response will fix things everywhere, for all people or for all time, it will be vital to conduct many social experiments. Indeed, a culture of small experiments should be fostered which, at the individual and small group level, can be described as behavioral entrepreneurship. It will be useful to both package behavioral insights in a way that is both practitioner-friendly and grounded in biophysical trends and to propose a few key questions that need empirical attention.
Sometime this century, the era of cheap, abundant and ever increasing energy will end, and Western industrial civilization will begin a long, slow descent toward a resource-limited future characterized by simplicity and frugality. Behavioral scientists should begin now to prepare the public for this resource descent, which is defined as a tightening of the availability of energy and natural resources accompanied by a persistent step-wise downshift to a new, reduced-consumption normal.

By the end of the century, day-to-day activities will need to consume nearly an order of magnitude less energy and materials than currently used. Frankly, it may not be possible for members of industrial societies to maintain anything close to a contemporary life pattern while also living within this new biophysical context. However, although the resource-limited future will be more austere, it may be possible, if preparations are made early enough, for people to live well while they live within ecological limits. In fact, the coming downshift may provide an opportunity for people to re-connect with nature and other people in ways that provide deep and durable well-being.

Although recently (at the time of this posting in late 2017) prices at the gasoline pump have dropped significantly in many parts of the developed countries and the production of oil and natural gas has remained on an undulating plateau, these are short-term trends when viewed from the perspective of a many-decades-long descent in net resource availability. The planet’s carbon stores have always been finite and continuous growth in the use of these resources is unsustainable. And though fossil fuels will likely be extracted from the Earth’s crust for centuries to come, the amount available to run modern techno-industrial society over any given time period will slowly decline.

The global production rate of liquid fossil fuels soon may begin -- or is already beginning -- a drawn-out leveling and then a slow descent, with other fuels and materials soon to follow the same pattern. Then industrial civilization, having already scoured the planet of new sources, will experience biophysical limits as a steady headwind against which it must labor. Biophysical limits involve the ability of nature – including the Earth’s ecosystems and its geological formations -- to provide resources and services to humanity. As less energy is available for all kinds of uses, including technological innovation, the opportunity to develop alternative energy sources to replace fossil fuels may slip away. As that window closes, technology will undoubtedly help ease a societal transition but will not eliminate the need for one. Daily life in industrial nations will repeatedly downshift into more austere forms as people are forced to consume less of just about everything. Climate disruption and geopolitical instability will likely complicate the situation. A reduced-consumption existence may become commonplace not because conservation behavior will have been voluntarily chosen by the public or cleverly initiated by behavioral scientists but because there simply will be no other choice. Having ignored many opportunities for voluntary simplicity, industrial society may now face involuntary simplicity.

This is not at all what the popular folk mythology of resource apocalypse predicts. It lacks Hollywood’s sudden and catastrophic collapse motif and its hero/anti-hero story line. The change will likely emerge very slowly, over many decades and throughout all of our individual lives – a personal, persistent, sometimes punctuated, step-wise downshift to a new normal.

The slowness of the transition is what makes this scenario psychologically difficult to accept. It will be perceived as much easier to simply hope that things will eventually return to normal. Thus, the first challenge is one of motivating people to act in advance of circumstance that force behavior change.

The job for behavioral scientists will be to help people cope with the realization that everyday life may soon differ substantially from conventional expectations and to help them envision an alternative to their current relationship with resources. Behavioral scientists and community practitioners can help by pre-familiarizing people with the coming transition in ways that are not frightening or overwhelming. They should also encourage many small, social experiments in simple living, -- what might be called behavioral entrepreneurship, exemplified by the growing ecovillage and transition town movements -- which will serve as models for those who initially resist the coming changes.

The goal would be to share stories that not only honestly portray life under a prolonged resource descent, but to do so in ways that cause people to crave the experience enough to seek it now.

Read an earlier full paper on this topic at: De Young, R. (2014) Some behavioral aspects of energy descent, Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1255.

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

Earlier version archived: June 13, 2016 at: http://hdl.handle.net/2027.42/109261