Tag Archives: Martin Rees

Utopia, Dystopia, Uncertainty and Our Psychological Selves

I have just finished reading Dylan Evans’ book “The Utopia Experiment“, which chronicles the author’s doomed attempt to found a self-sufficient community in rural Scotland as a post-collapse prototype for others to learn from.

It is always interesting to find a hidden back story about one of the authors who sit on my book shelf–and boy does Evans have a bizarre back story. Evans is an LSE-trained philosopher and scholar of risk, robotics, artificial intelligence and evolutionary psychology (after many a wayward turn).  I already own his book “Risk Intelligence”, which deals with many of the issues I confront in this blog, particularly ‘decision-making under uncertainty’. Unknown to me, Evans’ interest in risk, combined with his own personal demons, had previously led to a decision to opt out of conventional society, which in turn led to a complete nervous breakdown.

Evans displays a compulsive personality: he pours himself into a particular endeavour for a year or two, then recoils from any further long-term commitment. To launch ‘Utopia’, he sacrifices everything: his house, his job, his relationships. To justify this, ‘Utopia’ becomes more than a mere experiment but rather a lifeboat being made ready for the collapse of civilisation. In a conversation with Oxford academic and scholar of existential risk Nick Bostrom, he is asked this question:

How likely do you think it is that something like the imaginary scenario you are acting out in Scotland might really come to pass in the next ten years?

Evans replies:

I thought a bit longer, and finally declared that I thought that the chance of such a thing happening within the next ten years was about 50 per cent. Nick looked shocked. Not even the most pessimistic scientists thought things were that bad….

….the precision that Nick had demanded of me forced me to own up to my error in a way that vagueness never would. It betrayed the extent to which what had started out in my mind as an exercise in collaborative fiction had already become an insurance policy against a global disaster that I was increasingly convinced was imminent.

Later he frames this decision as more psychological rather than intellectual. A predisposition toward depression coupled with a generalized angst at living within large corporate structures results in a rejection of his existing social and institutional ties. The irony here, as he later admits, is that for one so psychologically fragile discarding structure is about the worst thing he could have done mental health-wise.

Moreover, ever the contrarian, Evans comes to question his own beliefs more rigorously the more advanced the experiment becomes. Intellectually, his certainty is lost and without that comforting narrative ‘Utopia’ become less a personal lifeboat but more of a rip tide dragging him below the waves.

So are there any wider lessons here? I think there are many. First, as behavioural economics teaches us so well, humans and not what the economist Richard Thaler calls ‘Econs’; that is, emotionless calculating machines as opposed to humans. We can only perceive risk and uncertainty within an emotional framework. Humans have an optimism bias partly as an evolutionary means to advertise positive traits that allow us to mate and flourish but partly just to keep us sane. Examining the downside is painful and can lead to isolation, rejection and depression.

Yet perhaps there are those of us who can maintain contrarianism without falling apart. Evans documents how the participants in ‘Utopia’ rapidly progress from viewing the commune as an experiment to one of preparation for real collapse. They need a narrative to inoculate themselves from the outside world. Yet after a time, Evans starts to question all the collapse narratives that the commune volunteers espouse, falls into depression and is eventually replaced as leader by an early volunteer called Agric.

What Agric offers to the remaining volunteers is a narrative of certainty, which Evans could no longer offer. Further, this is a narrative that is immune to any counter-argument since it rests upon an irrefutable theory.

Part of the reason why Agric was so dismissive of any suggestion that civilisation might not be about to collapse was the fact that he had a powerful theory. He was in the grip of Malthus, like many before him. Malthus had shown that population growth must always outstrip food supply, right? He had proved it.

And earlier:

The idea that our civilisation might not only survive global warming but also continue to grow richer had appalled me, and this was perhaps why I had believed so ardently that it would collapse. I had wanted it to. Agric still did.

At this point it would be easy to laugh at the ‘Utopia’ pioneers, painting them as New Age fools. But not so fast. Evans’ story shows how hard it is to disentangle the dispassionate from the emotional when it comes to risk and uncertainty, particularly when it comes to tail risk. But this cuts both ways.

Let’s assign a 1% probability to collapse rather than Evans’ 50% and let’s push out the horizon to five decades rather than one. We are now entering the territory of intellectual respectability. The kind of probabilities that former Astronomer Royal Martin Rees sets out in his book “Our Final Century“.


Yet the vast majority of us are repelled at discussing such negative scenarios. Nick Bostrom points out that the academic literature is many times richer when it comes to publishing papers on dung beetles or Star Trek than it is to considering existential threats to humanity (here).

Academic Prioritisation jpeg

I propose that to seriously consider those dark-side scenarios you need either 1) immense psychological detachment and resilience or 2) no psychological detachment at all (a joyful embrace of the collapse narrative). In short, psychology-wise you need to be built differently from the vast majority.

Nonetheless, some true contrarians do exist in a variety of fields, for example, finance, and walk a fine line between delusion and perception. It is such people who populate Gregory Zuckerman’s book “The Greatest Trade Ever” which retells the story of five individuals who made their fortunes from the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the onset of the Great Recession. These are not Thaler’s dispassionate, calculating ‘Econs’ devoid of emotion. These are five individuals with their own rather peculiar character quirks who are naturally uncomfortable with both the status quo and the institutions that support the status quo. In this particular case, they emerge from Zuckerman’s book as prescient heroes. Of course, we never hear of the thousands of similar individuals whose backs are broken on the wheel of markets that go the wrong way.

Perhaps our differing reactions to upside and downside risk is nature’s way of hedging its bets. A few of us are comfortable operating in the super optimistic probability tail of upside risk and fewer still like Agric like to wallow in the pessimistic tail of downside risk. From an evolutionary perspective, most of the tail risk jockeys end up as road kill. But things do change, and perhaps a maladaptive mutation will suddenly becomes a vital survival trait. Those Agric-like fellows who believe they know the future will be the equivalent of bacteria on a petri dish that survive a dose of penicillin. A mutation that may previously have been an impediment becomes a life-saver as circumstances change.

We each have our own view of rationality, but it is our emotional state that keeps us sane when seeing the world. Don’t get me wrong: I am no post-modern relativist. For example, I think there does exist an objective assessment of the likelihood that the globe will experience extreme climate change leading to economic collapse by end century (and a non-negligible one at that). This is certainly not enough risk to make me run off to the wilds of Scotland, but it is a risk nevertheless. But I think that only some people can psychologically live with such a fact. Most can’t. The dominant narrative is: let’s pretend that climate change doesn’t exist as a factor in our or our children’s lives and carry on regardless.

Dylan Evans’ story may perhaps be one of the delusion of a few, but humanity’s inability to tackle climate change is a story of the delusion of the many. So let’s not laugh too long at ‘Utopia’.

The Dystopian Dance

The issues of peak oil and climate change can both come across as having a certain millennial taint. Humanity, in its stupidity, is punished by nature. Or, as James Lovelock would put it, we are seeing the ‘Revenge of Gaia’. The Millennialists, however, see a happy ending at the other end of the tumult—at least for the chosen, enlightened few—while those of an atheistic or agnostic view of the world are condemned to a permanent descent into dystopia. No escaping ‘the end of days’ for them in a society under collapse.

Nonetheless, the fact that dystopias have frequently been the province of cranks does not mean they are not worthy of closer inspection. Prose writers have traditionally been the first ‘unto the breach’ when it comes to contemplating what the man (or woman) on the street deems unmentionable. Wells, Huxley, Orwell and Burgess come immediately to mind when we think of technological or political dystopias. Who having read Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘1984’ could not be a little more aware that a government (from any part of the spectrum) offering a political utopia may not instead transform our lives into a permanent dystopia.

Back in the 1970s, I read Nevil Shute’s ‘On the Beach’ and the completely abstract concept of a nuclear exchange had a little more meaning in one teenager’s mind.

With a novel, it is very difficult to throw the epithet ‘alarmist’; the writer is not telling us with certainty what will be but rather imagining what can be. And it is the description of a possibility that will alter our brain’s cognition of risk more than any number of reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report (as I touch on in my last post here).

To date Peak Oil has brought out better works of fiction than climate change (although usually climate change has a walk on part). James Howard Kunstler’s ‘World Made by Hand’ and ‘The Witch of Hebron’ both bring home in vivid colours the day-to-day struggles in a world with no easy access to cheap oil. Like many such works, though, there is a strong thread of the irrational. Religion (although not as we traditionally know it) and magic become a greater part of life’s mix in the author’s eyes, as a result of the failure of rationalism as embodied in science.

Kunstler is still somewhat a cult figure and has not acquired the literary fame of two other novelists that have dealt with dystopias head on: Cormac McCarthy and Margaret Atwood. The environmental campaigner and journalist  George Monbiot even had these words to say about McCarthy’s ‘The Road’:

“It could be the most important environmental book ever. It is a thought experiment that imagines a world without a biosphere, and shows that everything we value depends on the ecosystem.”

Both McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ and Atwood’s ‘The Year of the Flood’, however, start their stories after some unknown cataclysmic event. The reader may be left with a sense of unease, as was my teenage mind with Shute’s ‘On the Beach’, but an unease with what (with Shute I knew exactly)? Genetic engineering, global capitalism, advanced technology, pandemics, climate change? Tellingly, the publicity shot below from the movie ‘The Road’ has recently been wheeled out to accompany press articles on the potential impact of a euro break-up; the movie has become a generic metaphor for collapse, and climate change has to get in the queue.

Personally, I believe climate change has yet to find its Tolstoy. We see such luminaries from the world of science as Martin Rees openly contemplating the catastrophic potential of climate change, but this has had little resonance in the arts—or at least art that has caught the public’s imagination. Bill McKibben, the founder of the campaigning organisation 350.org, contrasts the situation with HIV, which produced “a staggering outpouring of art that, in turn, has had real political effect” (here). McKibben’s frustration is palpable:

Here’s the paradox: if the scientists are right, we’re living through the biggest thing that’s happened since human civilization emerged. One species, ours, has by itself in the course of a couple of generations managed to powerfully raise the temperature of an entire planet, to knock its most basic systems out of kilter. But oddly, though we know about it, we don’t know about it. It hasn’t registered in our gut; it isn’t part of our culture. Where are the books? The poems? The plays? The goddamn operas?

McKibben goes on to lists some of the reasons artists have not effectively engaged: diffuse perpetrators, disbursed victims, different time frames—in fact, a nightmare plot to narrate. But despite the difficulties, I believe that until we get the ‘goddamn operas’ communicators of climate chance science will have an uphill battle in changing people’s minds.