Friday, August 26, 2011

the psychological roots of resource overconsumption

TheOilDrum | The essay below is an updated and edited version of a post I wrote here a few years ago, I'm Human, I'm American and I'm Addicted to Oil. Richard Douthwaite, Irish economist and activist, (and a fellow at the Post Carbon Institute), invited me to contribute it as a chapter in the just released book Fleeing Vesuvius, which is a collection of articles generally addressing "how can we bring the world out of the mess it finds itself in"? My article dealt with the evolutionary underpinnings of our aggregate behavior - neural habituation to increasingly available stimuli, and our penchant to compete for status given the environmental (cultural) cues of our day. And how, after we make it through the likely upcoming currency/claims bottleneck, we would be wise to adhere to an evolutionary perspective in considering a future (more) sustainable society.

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.