Storytelling our energy future

Energy columnist Chris Nelder muses on the stories we tell about our energy future, and explores some behavioral and cognitive research about the power of storytelling.
Written by Chris Nelder, Contributor

I want to tell you two stories.

The first is this: You were born into an exceptional culture of enormous wealth. If you work hard and take advantage of the inherent genius and innovativeness of that culture, you can become wealthy, secure, happy, and comfortable. And if they work hard, your children can have even more wealth than you did.

Here's the second: Right now, you are living at the absolute historical peak of human wealth. In terms of the energy you consume, the variety of foods and beverages available to you, and the amount of physical labor you don’t have to do every day, you are vastly more wealthy than any generation before you. Your children will be much poorer than you, will have far fewer options about what they can eat and drink and do with their free time, and will have to do a lot more physical labor. Their children will have even harder lives, and so on into the future, as wealth per capita declines for the next several hundred years.

Now: Which story do you think is more true?

Then: Why do you think it's true?

And finally: When you thought about which was more true, what thought process did you go through?

How we think

How we come to believe what we think we know is a key question for those who would guide the future of energy, the climate, and the many other challenges that now face humanity.

It turns out that how we think isn't quite as rational as we might believe.

Behavioral scientist Daniel Kahneman has an excellent lecture on this subject, which was highlighted last week on Andrew Revkin's Dot Earth blog. Drawing on the body of scientific research on how we think, Kahneman breaks down our thinking processes into two systems.

What he calls System 1 is how most of us operate most of the time. It's automatic, and draws extensively and effortlessly on associative memory. It's what you use when driving a car. It's what your mind does when you hear "two plus two." It's what draws up a wealth of images invoked by "your mother." It's intuitive, instinctive, and immediate, and it biases what you perceive toward what you already think you know in order to produce stories that "make sense." We trust System 1 because it's fast and efficient and mostly correct. With System 1, the conclusions come first, and then the arguments.

The other way of thinking he calls System 2. It's what your brain does when you hear "17 times 24." It's characterized by deliberate, analytical work. It's what controls your behavior when you have to make a left turn into traffic, or read a map, or fill out an income tax form. It's a logical, sequential way of thinking, which is related to control, attention, and rule-governed behavior.

What research has found is that people generally operate by System 1. It comes up with associations which act as suggestions, which are mostly endorsed by System 2.  If your life depends on getting the answer to a question right, Kahneman says, then your System 2 will kick in to double-check what System 1 offers, and possibly correct it. But if your life doesn't depend on it, you'll usually go with the suggestions of System 1.

"What we have is a storytelling system, and the coherence of the stories determines how much faith we have in them," Kahneman observes. "The coherence is associative and emotional. It involves concrete events. You have to assume that System 1 is largely indifferent to the quality and amount of evidence; it is bound more by the coherence of the story than by the evidence behind it."

Because System 1 is associative, when we are confronted with evidence that conforms to our existing beliefs, or with any suggestion that we can process easily, we're biased to believe it is true. Kahneman offers an example in which subjects are presented with two statements identical in meaning, but where one rhymes and the other does not. In this experiment, subjects tended to ascribe more validity to one that rhymes. "Anything that is repeated many times will appear true, or is more likely to appear true than something that is not repeated as frequently," he explains. Conversely, when confronted with evidence that conflicts with our knowledge of the world and violates our pre-existing beliefs, we don't believe it.

And because of the emotional coherence aspect, the source of the message is also extremely important. The source has to be liked and trusted, or else the evidence will have very little coherence. As Kahneman puts it, "the basis of belief for most people is we believe people." We believe people that we like and trust, and this is the basis of most of our beliefs. We don't feel the same degree of belief with people we don't like and trust, because it's not emotionally and associatively compatible. In System 1, belief is not a logical, reasoning process.

This explains why some people don't believe global warming is real, according to Kahneman. He references research showing that Americans who oppose gay marriage also don't believe in global warming. How can this be? Because we believe the people who offer those beliefs. "In some sense it is impossible to explain rationally because there is no connection between the two – but on an emotional and associative basis, they are connected," Kahneman explains.

Global warming is also too abstract and too distant a threat to cohere with System 1, which relies on stories about highly concrete, individual cases. It is much better at drawing general inferences from particular examples than inferring particulars from an ensemble of examples.

Therefore, Kahneman suggests, in order for skeptics to believe in global warming, "it would take trusted, conservative church leaders being mobilized for that kind of message to penetrate or have purchase." So a community of conservative, churchgoing farmers who are struggling to grow crops against increasingly damaging wild weather, experiencing the effects of climate change up close and personal, are far more likely to begin believing it's a problem, particularly when their pastor offers a sermon about it. But if one is forced to use System 2 reasoning to sort through a lot of complex details about scientific observations and climate models, and that information conflicts with what their System 1 intelligence tells them, then they probably won't believe it.

The same is true for peak oil. It's an abstract study of many interrelated, complex factors which cannot be seen firsthand, and lots of unfamiliar data. Understanding it fully requires spending tens of thousands of hours in taxing, System 2-type thinking. (And having spent tens of thousands of hours on it, I can also tell you that for the most part, it's deeply unpleasant.) The implications of it conflict immediately and directly with most of our experience, especially for those who aren't old enough to remember the gasoline shortages of the '70s. It doesn't have the same ring as "Drill, baby, drill," and it doesn't rhyme. And then, if you're one of those odd autodidactic birds who's gone far out of your way to become literate in the subject, you'll find yourself virtually alone with the knowledge, and most people you know will think you've lost your mind, your sense of humor, and your "optimism."

Tribal tendencies

Being out of step with your community—your tribe, as it were—is no small thing. Volumes of behavioral research have shown that we are fundamentally a tribal species. Being "in" produces pleasurable effects in our brains, and being "out" produces real, physical pain. Further, our brains have evolved to make us want to seek status in our tribes, and to prefer immediate gratification over distant, theoretical considerations that might limit our consumption. (For an excellent, evergreen essay on this subject, see Nate Hagens' post on The Oil Drum, "Fleeing Vesuvius.")

The mere threat of being on the outs with one's tribe can be enough to make us avoid thinking independently and rationally about issues like peak oil and climate change.

To see tribal behavior in action, we need look no further than the current crop of partisan politics. As political scientist Brendan Nyhan recently found, people generally prefer political loyalties over facts, and when those loyalties require them to flip-flop on their views, they're willing to do it. For example, about two-thirds of Republicans currently say that the president can do something about high gasoline prices, while two-thirds of Democrats say he can't. But when George W. Bush was president, a majority of Republicans said he couldn't do anything about high gasoline prices, while three-fourths of Democrats said he could. Flip-flopping itself was a useful cudgel for Republicans to wield against John Kerry in the 2004 election; now it's useful for Democrats against Mitt Romney.

This System 1 behavior is literally hardwired into how we think, and it takes a significant effort of will to put System 2 in the driver's seat. For example, consider the various policy mechanisms that have been offered to address climate change. "Cap and trade" was all the rage among Democrats a few years ago, but after careful consideration, I decided that it was too corruptible and ineffective, and decided to support a carbon tax instead.  Breaking with my tribe on that point was politically risky, and gave me some discomfiture. (Although I very much consider myself one of that vanishing species, the centrists, when forced to choose between the two major parties, I generally lean left.) After all, ExxonMobil eventually supported the carbon tax approach over cap and trade, and everyone in my tribe knewthat ExxonMobil was evil, so anything they supported had to be wrong. If I made common cause with them, and was outcast by my tribe, but couldn't get in bed with the other tribe either, might that not leave me a political outcast, lonely and in the cold?

The role of stories

Knowing that stories are fundamental to how we "think" and what we believe, it behooves us to consider their import on our dialogue, and how we convey our thoughts to others in different tribes, or who have different experiences. Storyteller Bill Harley offers some useful insights on this in his delightful TEDx lecture. "Stories are how we make sense of our lives, how we explain how we got where we are, how we imagine where we might go," he says. "I think actually that story-making is at the very center of what it is to be human."

It's also at the very center of the current debate on energy policy.

Consider the story now being proffered by the oil and gas industry about an incipient "energy independence" for America. It's a powerful story, which appeals to all of our tribal and cultural myths about our independent spirit, about our exceptionalism, about our ingenuity and can-do attitude. As I have tried to show in numerous columns, it's also a story with absolutely no basis in data. But for those who live and die by telling appealing stories, i.e., editors and journalists of major publications, it's irresistible. Those editors are quite correct in betting that nobody really wants to know about the details of the data anyway, and that their readers just want a good story that will banish the peak oil threat and restore their sense of comfort and security.

Now consider the stories about transitioning energy from fossil fuels to renewables, and transitioning transportation to rail. These are difficult and unappealing stories. They're complex and require a lot of System 2 thinking to appreciate. They suggest that we will have to embrace unfamiliar lifestyles, so they conflict directly with our System 1 responses. We would rather face the familiar prospect of painfully high gasoline prices (at least in the American context) and hope that new domestic drilling will bring prices back down some day, than have to think about giving up our cars, or having to look at solar panels and wind turbines in our own communities when the power plants we rely on today are located somewhere else, out of sight.

Understanding the dense and difficult data about carbon emissions, the money we spend to protect our supply of imported oil, and the environmental catastrophes of mountaintop coal mining and tar sands production requires us to engage System 2 while most people around us aren't thinking about those things at all. It creates painful cognitive dissonance. Whereas the idea that we can drill tens of thousands of new domestic wells instead—preferably somewhere else, so we don't have to look at them or contend with those trucks on our roads—is just a repetition of the past, so it's much easier to process and therefore, more valid. It's also an idea embraced by the tribes who live where oil and gas is produced because it directly profits them, so it coheres in their mental and emotional associations. Why should blue-collar North Dakotans who are finally getting some much-needed jobs from the Bakken bonanza let coastal white-collar elitists tell them that renewables are really the way to go?

Now think back to the two stories I offered at the beginning of this essay, and why you chose the story you did. If you're up for a mental challenge, explore some of the links I've provided here and try a little System 2 thinking about the data, while squelching your System 1 responses. Consider the stories of Prometheus, Icarus and Sisyphus, and why those stories have survived the ages to be relevant still. Think about the story of your own life, and how you like to tell it. Then think about how your great-great-grandchildren might tell your story, in a time when energy has becoming the defining challenge of their generation. Finally, consider the archetypal hero story about overcoming adversity and bringing a boon back to your community, and imagine yourself as the hero of a new story in which you help your tribe achieve real sustainability.

Graphic: From a slide deck on peak oil by Sally Odland, former petroleum geologist. Used by permission.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards