Why Do We Lack Agency and What Makes Humans Happy?


Viking Mountain Overlook, Tennessee

Something I have been spending a great deal of time doing over the past decade has been to try to explain where we are, how we got to this point, and why we lack agency in being able to do much about it. A huge part of this effort has been to explain the difference between a problem and a predicament and the role technology plays in making the existing issues worse rather than better. That is where this article more or less lays out the same basic claims and provides all the empirical evidence for said claims as well [same article in PDF form]. Certainly I can find small bits here and there that I disagree with, but nothing that changes his conclusion in Section 8 or the overall theme of the entire article. It isn't a happy article by any stretch, so brace yourself for the inevitable implications. It does go into more specific timelines which I have found to be problematic in general. For instance, Malthus wasn't essentially wrong in his ideas, but his timeline needed some cleaning up. The same thing happened with Paul Ehrlich and his predictions. Both predictions are now painfully obvious and true, they just didn't pan out to the given timelines at the point in time in which they were shared.

I'm certainly not trying to offer hopium in this regard. I just want to give a measured response to a rather bleak outlook (although nowhere near as bleak as those who think we will go extinct in three years, an outlook I don't subscribe to). There isn't essentially anything ultimately new in the article that I haven't already disclosed here, either. While I don't subscribe to extinction in three years, I never discount the possibility that a nuclear winter could wipe us out right now.

While I have attempted to share and explain the science of these predicaments (the "facts"), people don't tend to change their behavior much regardless of those facts. As a result, despite the fact that most of the truth surrounding ecological overshoot and its symptom predicaments were known 50 years ago, essentially nothing has been done to change the trajectories involved. A recent article interviewing Jem Bendell shows that this is part of what triggered him to write his Deep Adaptation paper which caught the world by storm back in 2018.

Today's article contains a mixture of different articles detailing some of the latest findings with regard to the situation including this one from Gail Tverberg. I most likely don't need to explain it since my readers will already have a firm grasp on where we are heading (collapse is ongoing).

One article in particular gives a different flavor to the typical types of articles about climate change. To a certain extent, this type of activism is a sad circumstance. Most of the people thinking that destruction of infrastructure is a good way of collapsing fossil fuel infrastructure don't understand the Aerosol Masking Effect (aka "global dimming") and that the loss of that will actually produce the OPPOSITE of what they want. The loss of the AME will turbocharge climate change, requiring more energy use of all types, not less. Due to limited rates of fossil hydrocarbon energy being available, people will return to wood for heating and cooking, worsening the existing predicaments of tree decline and deforestation, pollution loading, and climate change substantially, moving land-based carbon sinks into sources.

Those who were relying on "clean" "green" "renewable" energy or electrification to solve anything are in for a damning analysis from Andrew Nikiforuk in this article. Most of all the sources listed in that article have been included here in this space for quite some time, so most likely won't be very surprising to anyone. If nothing else, I have really grown bored with the constant hype and marketing of anything technologically-based to solve any of the predicaments technology use has caused.

A new study articulating the future about the extinction threat is yet another sounding of the alarm bell. James Hansen's latest study has been given a boost with new evidence from temperature analysis of the Cenozoic era and adds relevance to the first paper. This paper is in the peer review process. This statement in the abstract couldn't be more accurate, quote: "Under the current geopolitical approach to GHG emissions, global warming will likely pierce the 1.5°C ceiling in the 2020s and 2°C before 2050."

Going back to what I wrote earlier about the facts of overshoot being known for the better part of the last five decades and little or nothing being done to change the trajectories, the big question is WHY this has transpired. In an earlier article, I mentioned William Catton's book, Bottleneck: Humanity's Impending Impasse, which explains the situation. Just like how many different "solutions" have been proposed based on reductionist, siloed thinking, the way we arrived here is also based on reductionism - the division of labor into smaller and smaller niches - often known as specialization. Kurt Cobb wrote this about it, which goes into detail about this phenomenon and Catton's book.

Another reason for why little or nothing has been done about overshoot is due to our lack of agency. I have mentioned global unity (or rather our glaring lack thereof) as well. This tends to upset many people because they don't want to accept the reality that it isn't possible. Don't get me wrong, I don't like it either; but I understand that whether I like it or not is irrelevant. William Catton explains it in Chapter 12 of his book, "Overshoot," under the subheading, "Pandemic Antagonism." This explains definitively once again why what we face are predicaments and not problems.

The more I learn about our lack of agency to exercise free will, the more I realize how so many different ideas requiring mass unity are nothing more than fantasy (world peace comes to mind). For those readers in the United States, this PBS video inspired this realization. The video is episode 10 of season 50 of NOVA titled, Your Brain: Who's in Control? It is an exercise in humility to discover that most of what we think of as agency to control our own behavior is an illusion and that this behavior can be predicted with uncanny accuracy. Dive into the latest research on the subconscious with neuroscientist Heather Berlin to see what's really driving the decisions you make and watch even her be astounded!

Moving on, I recently returned from another great trip to the mountains, where I was rewarded with the rich experience of spending time in some very beautiful and quiet places. One of the things I noticed on the day where we were all alone with no other campers around and very few cars even traveling down the road to the campground was that the only sounds breaking the silence were birds and insects and the babbling brook next to the van. It was truly delightful. There was no cell service and internet access (via wi-fi) was spotty at best. Yet I was fulfilled in a way I could never be at home. Happiness was definitely achieved.

Speaking of this is in sharp contrast to the reality for quite literally millions of folks. Some people no longer seem to understand exactly what happiness is due to the indoctrination, cultural programming, and the effects of civilization itself. It is civilization that is making us sick and yet every effort to "solve" or "fix" symptom predicaments of overshoot such as climate change mostly buckle down on maintaining this set of arrangements. Looking at how we lived prior to civilization shows us 3 qualities in particular that gave us true happiness and satisfaction with life. Michael Asher pointed out this rare piece of wisdom and something that deserves to be repeated here, quote:

"What makes humans happy?

When I lived with nomads many years ago, one of the things that struck me
was how happy they were. I had been brought up with the idea that happiness
comes from wealth, power, and achievement, yet the nomads had very little in terms of material wealth - and no modern technology at all.

In the end, I realized that their happiness came from three factors that industrial civilization has lost:

1. Community

They lived in small, cohesive communities, in which everyone knew each other, and everything was shared. They had common values, summed up by the word, 
"muhanni," meaning kindness, mutual aid, generosity, and mutual well being. These values were extended to those outside the community as well as those inside it - not all of whom were related. The community was egalitarian - there was no class hierarchy, and no subordination, except where a particular job had to be done e.g. a camel herd moved long-distance, in which case there would be a 'leader' and people would take 'orders' only for the duration of the task.

2. Connection with Nature

For the nomads Nature wasn't the 'environment' or an 'ecosystem' - Nature was US. It was not "out there" - they were in it and it was in them. They did not live in a static world, like the one we have tried to create in industrial civilization, but in conditions that were constantly changing; so that all their most nuanced perceptions and sensitivity were required to adapt and survive. For them, sensitivity - reading the world, sensing that it was not "either/or" - was crucial. All things - animals, plants, rocks, stars, mountains, pools, and water-courses - were their relations. Their world was not a dead and artificial machine-world; it was real and alive.

3. Connection with the Sacred

The nomads' sense of belonging came not only from being at home in Nature,
but from a shared sense of the sacred - the certain knowledge that there was
some power, force, spirit, or Mind - Behind-Nature. Everything that existed,
existed within this spirit, and nothing could exist or be conceived without it. Everyone in the community accepted this, not because it was forced on them,
but because - as they told me often - it was obvious: didn't I feel it, too? For
them, every act was sacred. Their lives were not grey and uniform but magical and enchanted: most of all, life did not end with death, which was but a change of form. Of all the qualities they had that we don't, I think, this was the most important, because it was this - not wealth and power - that gave meaning to their lives.

The devastating effect of the lack of these three factors in our lives - which has steadily grown worse over the past 250 years - is not conjecture. It is well known and empirically proven that an authentic sense of community, contact with nature, and contact with the sacred - all three - have a hugely beneficial effect on both physical and mental health.

Industrial civilization has destroyed community, severed our contact with nature, and turned the sacred into the profane. If we wish to live in a more beautiful world, our first task is to restore these three factors to our lives.

Now, just because we are happy or fulfilled doesn't mean that the predicaments we face will somehow disappear. Still, we can at least make the attempt to reduce our impact on the environment around us and maintain our sense of fulfillment even if we don't have everything we want. Learning to appreciate being fulfilled without needing to have "everything" and instead embracing what we have versus always wanting more is key. Until next time, Live Now! 


  1. Yes but how do you even begin to try to communicate this to anyone? Let alone even establish a pathway to accomplish even a part of it

    1. To be honest, one in a hundred would listen, and out of a hundred who listened, one would feel moved to do something, and out of a hundred of them, one would do something serious. I found this out watching (and briefly being) environmental campaigners.
      All we can do is decide what to do with the gift of our lives, where we are now, with what and who we have now.


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