Feeling the Elephant

elephant-in-the-roomgc2reddit-logoOff the keyboard of Jason Heppenstall

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Published on 22 Billion Energy Slaves on November 6, 2015

Artwork by Digital Gheko


Discuss this article at the Kitchen Sink inside the Diner

Most people have heard the Indian tale about the blind men and the elephant. For those that have not, it goes something like this. A group of blind men come across an elephant and, perhaps puzzled by the noise it is making, set out one by one to investigate. The first one feels the elephant’s leg and rushes back to report to the others that it is some kind of pillar. The second one feels the beast’s tail and decides that the thing making the noises is some kind of rope. The third feels the trunk and decides that it must be some kind of tree. Another feels a flapping ear and thinks they must be dealing with a giant fan. The last one feels a tusk and concludes the bellowing noise is coming from some sort of pipe.

When the blind men get together again they cannot agree with one another at all about what they have encountered. Because each one of them had felt a different part of the elephant’s anatomy they all had a different subjective explanation for the phenomenon. Different traditions tell different versions of the story. In one, the king laughs at the blind men and tells them “You are all correct, and yet you are all wrong.” In another the blind men work this out for themselves and collaborate to build up a picture of the whole elephant based on the subjective experience of each one of them, thus obtaining an objective whole.
The story of the elephant works as a nice analogy for our understanding of the world. Each one of us is blind in so many ways and yet we all have to feel the elephant of reality. Our blindness is often educated into us, or sometimes it is because of a lack of experience. Some people see the world in terms of economics and finance. They are always talking about monetary policy and central banks and the value of currencies and commodities as if these things are the only aspects of any worth. Others see it primarily in terms of competition and threats. There are ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ and allies and enemies. To their mind the world is just a stage for conflict, where the victorious and the defeated dance a tango until the end of time.
Then there are the religiously blind. These are the people who feel that everything can be explained through their own ‘one true faith’ and that the people of other faiths have got it all wrong. They say that God created the elephant in a magical flash.
For the greater part, most people can’t even be bothered to feel the elephant. "Roaring noise, what roaring noise?" they say. They are too busy listening to the snake charmer playing his flute, and they walk towards the sweet music, unaware of the cobra coiled in the basket.
And perhaps it’s dangerous to stand there for too long feeling the elephant. If one blind man were to run his hands all over the elephant’s body he might suddenly realise he was dealing with an immense beast that had the power to put a tusk through him like a toothpick going through an olive. And even if the beast didn’t do that and he ran back to his blind friends, who were all arguing about whether it was a fan or a pipe or a pillar, shouting “It’s a giant beast and it’s going to trample us!” they might all assume he had been at the shisha pipe too much and tell him to shut up.
The elephant analogy is often used to illustrate the concept of systems thinking. Thinking in systems gives us a wider perspective and allows us to see things more clearly, and to make predictions based upon this. If more people thought about the important systems that sustain them there’s a good chance that our problems as a species would be lessened. They might, for example, realise that pouring pollutants into the biosphere in ever greater amounts would inevitably lead to the biosphere being degraded and unable to support them. Instead, and given that we tend to be ruled by short-term economic thinking, we are told that the economy has a greater value than the biosphere, even though it is a tiny subset of the latter. An intelligent species would reorganise human economic affairs so that they complemented the natural processes of the Earth. Instead we get fracking, nuclear power and excessive fossil fuel burning.
But systems thinking has its limits too. Because humans are not robots we tend to be irrational in our actions and thought patterns. The conceit of many an intelligent systems thinker is that the boundaries of their mental model are wide enough to incorporate ‘enough of reality’ so as to make the stuff that lies outside of their model irrelevant. This can be a fatal error in a world of chaos theory because what you don't know or can't see can hurt you.
That's why the more intelligent branches of systems thinking recognise the limits of both knowledge and understanding. So, for example, someone practicing permaculture on a piece of land may have come up with what they consider to be the spiffiest design that incorporates natural cycles and organisms right down to the earth worms and the mychoorizal tendrils that transport nitrogen from plants' root nodules to nearby trees. If they are a good permaculturist they will know that their model is not infallible, that they can never know about the millions of different microscopic organisms that make up the soil and how they will interact with one another. They will do their best to create some system resilience by piling on organic matter, by not using industrial poisons, and by encouraging a diversity of life to flourish. But at the forefront of their mind will be the thought that they are merely the baton-waving conductor of a vast orchestra in which most of the musicians don’t even have eyes. They know the boundary of their perception and they hope things will work out. They observe and they make adjustments, but they can never play God. 
I was thinking about this recently in terms of renewable energy. Renewable energy, such as solar and wind, is abundant and free and relatively non-polluting. And yet, when you get down into the nitty gritty and feel the elephant, it looks a lot less feasible than its proponents claim. There are any number of grand claims that renewables can power an ever-expanding industrial civilisation in such a way that we don’t need to make any cutbacks in our usage. But, to me, these claims look highly dubious because they take little or no account of many of the major factors that make industrial civilisation – and therefore the production of these renewable energy systems – tick. Where would the investment capital come from to transform the world’s energy systems – which have taken over a hundred years to build and are eminently designed to burn fossil fuels and distribute the resultant energy from centralised generating plants? Where would the materials to do so come from? How will the political will to do such a thing be garnered in the face of such stiff opposition from powerful players? How would you convince the majority of people – most of whom either do not regard energy depletion or climate change as a problem – that the huge subsidies fossil fuels enjoy should be switched to renewables? There are plenty of parts to this elephant.
So, having felt the renewable energy elephant, the picture I get in my head is that barring some kind of miracle there will be – cannot possibly be – a worldwide rollout of renewable energy to replace the fossil fuelled infrastructure in any time frame that could realistically be achieved. It’s simply not going to happen.
But then …
But then I consider that whatever opinion I might have reached on the matter doesn’t feature at all in the calculations and daydreams of those who claim that it is possible. And thus we get memes spreading around the internet like wild fire claiming things such as ‘Denmark produced 140% of its electricity from wind power in one day’ and ‘X square miles of solar panels in the Sahara could power the whole of Europe.’
So then I have to add in another factor to my mental elephant, namely that: even if I think, based on some pretty extensive feeling, that this beast is an elephant, everyone else is claiming that it’s a tiger. And what happens if something you think is an elephant is widely considered to be a long-nosed tiger? Will people be feeding it live chickens and admiring its imaginary stripes? Or will, on some metaphysical level, the elephant turn into a tiger?
Put more prosaically, will the fact that so many people believe a worldwide renewable energy grid could work – despite physical reality seeming to say otherwise – actually lead to its creation? Or will it lead to some kind of half-realised dream or, worse, will we end up with a tusk through our chest? When I pointed out the absurdity of Denmark’s claim to a friend he responded curtly “Yes, but at least they are trying.” It has a certain logic to it: trying is better than not trying.

So maybe that’s what will happen. Perhaps if we try hard enough we’ll produce enough renewable energy infrastructure to take the some of the sharp edges off the soon-to-be precipitous decline of fossil fuels (precipitous because we are can't dig 'em up cheap enough for our growth-wired economies to function). Perhaps at that point people will realise that renewables are great for some things and lousy for others but that we don’t really have a choice any more because of the nature of entropy. What will happen then? No doubt some will still hold onto their dreams of limitless energy and flying cars and cities on Mars, but by that point they will be in the minority. Perhaps then – and not until then – our shared predicament will mean we can start to agree on a consensual version of reality once again.


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