Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Faustus and the Monkey Trap

One of the factors that make the crisis of industrial society so difficult to deal with is the way that crisis unfolds out of the most basic assumptions we use to make sense of the world. Albert Einstein’s famous dictum about trying to solve a problem with the same sort of thinking that created it has rarely been so relevant. Notably, many of today’s attempts to do something about peak oil rely on the same logic that got us into our present predicament, and turn out “solutions” that promise to make our situation worse than it is already.

Of the dozens of good examples in the daily news, the one that seems most worth noting right now is the economic blowback set in motion by the US government’s attempt to bolster its faltering petroleum-driven economy with ethanol. As corn and other grains get diverted from grocery stores to gas tanks, commodity prices spike, inflation ripples outward through the economic food chain, and the possibility of actual grain shortages looms on the middle-term horizon. More than twenty years ago, William Catton pointed out in his seminal classic Overshoot that the downslope of industrial society would force human beings to compete against their own machines for dwindling resource stocks. His prediction has become today’s reality.

It’s all very reminiscent of an old metaphor in cognitive psychology. Many centuries ago in southeast Asia, some clever soul figured out how to use the thinking patterns of monkeys to make a highly effective monkey trap. The trap is a gourd with a hole in one end just big enough for a monkey’s hand to fit in, and a stout rope connected to the other end, fastened to a stake in the ground. Into the gourd goes a piece of some local food prized by monkeys, large and solid enough that it can’t be shaken out of the gourd. You set the trap in a place monkeys frequent, and wait.

Sooner or later, a monkey comes along, scents the food, and puts a hand into the gourd to grab it. The hole is too small to allow the monkey to extract hand and food together, though, and the rope and stake keeps the monkey from hauling it away, so the monkey keeps trying to get the food out in its hand. Meanwhile you come out of hiding and head toward the monkey with a net, if there’s a market for live monkeys, or with something more deadly if there isn’t. Far more often than not, instead of dropping the food and scampering toward the safety of the nearest tree, the monkey will frantically keep trying to wrestle the food out of the gourd until the net snares it or the club comes whistling down.

The trap works because monkeys, like the rest of us, tend to become so focused on pursuing immediate goals by familiar means that they lose track of the wider context of priorities that make those goals and means meaningful in the first place. Once the monkey scents the food in the gourd, it defines the problem as how to get the food out, and tries to solve the problem in a familiar way, by maipulating food and gourd. When the hunter appears, that simply adds a note of urgency, and makes the problem appear to be how to get the food out before the hunter arrives. Phrased in either of these terms, the problem is impossible to solve. Only if the monkey remembers that food is of no value to a dead monkey, and redefines the problem as primarily a matter of getting away from the hunter, will it let go of the food, get its hand out of the trap, and run for the nearest tree.

The monkey trap may not look like a viable theme for great literature, but exactly the same dilemma forms the main plot engine of Christopher Marlowe’s classic play Doctor Faustus. In Marlowe’s vision, Faustus is an intellectual manqué who has mastered all the scholarship of his time and dismisses it as worthless because he can’t cash it in for power. So he conjures the devil Mephistopheles, who offers him twenty-four years of power over the world of appearances, in exchange for his immortal soul. Faustus gladly makes the bargain and proceeds to run riot for the better part of nine scenes, with the ever-obsequious Mephistopheles always ready to fulfill his every wish but one. Finally, the twenty-four years are up, and at the stroke of midnight a crew of devils swoops down on Faustus and haul him off to Hell.

All this came to Marlowe out of the folk literature that gave him the raw materials for his play. What makes Marlowe’s version of the story one of Elizabethan England’s great dramas, though, is his insight into the psychology of Faustus’ damnation. Faustus spends nearly the entire play a heartbeat away from escaping the pact that ultimately drags him to his doom. All he has to do is renounce the pact and all the powers and pleasures it brings him, and salvation is his – but this is exactly what he cannot do. He becomes so focused on his sorcerer’s powers, so used to getting what he wants by ordering Mephistopheles around, that the possibility of getting anything any other way slips out of his grasp. Even at the very end, as the devils drag him away, the last words that burst from his lips are a cry for Mephistopheles to save him.

The logic of the monkey trap underlies the entire scenario, because the monkey and Faustus trap themselves in essentially the same way. Both have a track record of solving problems using a specific method – the monkey, by manipulating things with its hands; Faustus, by summoning Mephistopheles and having him take care of it. Both encounter a problem that looks as though it can be solved in the same way, but can’t. Both keep on trying to use their familiar set of problem-solving tools even when they clearly don’t work. Even when the real shape of the problem becomes clear and breaking out of the old way of thinking becomes a question of immediate survival, they keep on struggling to make the problem fit their choice of solutions, rather than adjusting their solution to the actual problem.

Mephistopheles and the monkey hunter have a crucial ally here, and its name is stress. It’s one thing to step back and take stock of a situation when there seems to be plenty of time and no sign of danger. It’s quite another to do it in the presence of an imminent threat to survival. Once the true shape of the situation appears, stress reactions hardwired into the nervous systems of men and monkeys alike cut in, and make it very difficult indeed to reassess the situation and consider alternative ways of dealing with it. The final scene of Marlowe’s drama, as Faustus waits for the stroke of midnight and tries every means of escape except the one that can actually save him, expresses this dilemma with shattering intensity.

The same dilemma on a larger scale underlies current efforts to deal with the imminent decline of world oil production by finding something else to pour into our gas tanks: ethanol, biodiesel, hydrogen, you name it. Our petroleum-powered vehicles – not just cars, but the trucks, trains, ships, and aircraft that make our current way of life possible – are the food in the monkey’s hand and the pact that binds Mephistopheles to Faustus’ service. The problem of peak oil, as many people even in the peak oil community see it, is how to find some other way to keep the fuel tanks topped up. This seems like common sense, but that’s what the monkey thinks about getting the food out of the gourd, too.

Approached as a question of finding something to fill our gluttonous appetite for highly concentrated energy, the problem of peak oil is just as insoluble as the monkey trap when that’s approached as a question of getting food. The discovery and exploitation of the earth’s petroleum reserves gave human beings a fantastic windfall of essentially free energy, and we proceeded to burn through it at an astonishing pace. Now that the supply of petroleum is beginning to falter, the question before us is not how to keep burning something else at the same pace, or how to find some other way to power a civilization of a sort that can only survive by burning extravagant amounts of energy, but how to scale back our expectations and our technology drastically enough to make them fit the much more modest energy supplies available to us from renewable sources.

Expecting some other energy resource to provide energy on the same scale and level of concentration as petroleum, just because we happen to want one, is a little like responding to one huge lottery win by assuming that when that money starts running out, another equally large win can be had for the cost of a few more tickets. This is close enough to today’s consumer psychology that it’s easy to imagine somebody in this position pouring all the money he has left into lottery tickets, and throwing away his chances of avoiding bankruptcy because the only solution he can imagine is winning the lottery again. And this, again, is exactly the mentality of current attempts to fuel industrial society by pouring our food supply into our gas tanks.

Faustus may be a better model than the monkey, too, because the predicament we face, like his, is precisely the result of what we’re best at. Faustus became so dependent on his attendant devils that he lost track of the possibility that he could do something without them. Change devils to machines and the parallel is exact. We have become so used to solving problems by throwing energy-intensive technologies at them that when technologies themselves become the crux of a predicament, we have no idea what to do. If any of the achievements of the last three hundred years are to be salvaged from the approaching spiral of crises, we need to rethink this now, before the social, economic and political stresses become so pressing that clear thought becomes impossible and our fossil-fueled familiar spirits appear, on schedule, to drag us off to a tolerably close equivalent of the Hell of Marlowe’s play.


Loveandlight said...

It also bears pointing out that ethanol from corn as an energy source is a scam. The corn is grown with fossil-fuel-powered agriculture (fertilizer and machines for planting and harvesting), and the amount of energy used to produce the ethanol more or less equals the how much energy we get from the ethanol.

David said...

The question becomes: what does it take for the non-Faustian contingent of humanity to prevail over the Faustian contingent? Scary question.

"Faust" is German for "fist", adding a nice parallelism to the two metaphors here.

Great post.

Sabretache said...

Whilst reading this post, I also had a Bloomberg interview with Michael O'Leary CEO of Ryan Air, the 'low-cost' carrier, about UK plans to cope with a government projected doubling of UK air passenger traffic by 2015 and TRIPLING by 2030, playing in the background. It was surreal, and a vivid demonstration of precisely the point you are making here. Sanders Research does a good job of demonstrating why such an expansion is simply not possible Here . The problem we constantly hear articulated by our government is how to accommodate such expansion in terms of the required infrastructure (getting airport expansion plans past an awkward public and such). The availability of kerosene in the vastly expanded quantities needed is simply taken as a given , if it is considered at all. Even the opponents of such expansion frame their arguments pretty much exclusively in 'Green' (Global warming, concreting over the landscape etc) terms. When you consider the clear motivations underlying Western military operations in the Middle East, it is bizarre that our government appear as ignorant of peak oil as the mass of the general population. We live in strange, interesting times!

LizM said...

Well, as long as we're talking about monkey traps and the surreal, I attended a mayoral forum on energy in Philadelphia, which featured three of the city's Democratic candidates. Set aside that the moderator was awful, knew little about peak oil and steered the discussion away from it, and that wouldn't permit another moderator specifically assigned the task to ask the candidates how they could acknowledge that we face an energy constrained future while still promoting visions of a shining corporate megalopolis of eternal growth.

The surreal monkey trap moment for me was when one of the candidates trumpeted his part in securing funds for wind energy to power new terminals as part of the colossal expansion of our international airport.

I nearly choked.

dopamine said...

Hello. I’ve always enjoyed your lucid thoughts and writing. Here’s a little twist on monkeys and gourds.Imagine many of such gourds full of unrestrained treats. The monkeys eat and procreate in their paradise. More monkeys get in line to eat from the gourd every day. They’ve seen the wonderfully comfortable lives lived by the first beneficiaries. Unfortunately the gourds are now half empty. You really have to reach around to find anything good to eat. Soon the monkeys will have to spend more energy feeling around in the gourd than they get from the morsels of food they find. Each monkey standing in line starts fashioning some sort of tool, long sticks, sticks with prongs, sticky sticks, anything to help reach the diminished fruit. But it’s to no avail. One monkey screams “There’s no more food in here.” The 5 billion monkeys that have yet to taste the succulent fruit of the gourd become irate. Some die of hunger while waiting in line. They destroy the gourds and their tools and look upon the pathetic fat monkeys cowering in the distance, the ones who grew fat when the gourds were full. They have no pity.

In one of his speeches President John F Kennedy said, "Today, every inhabitant of this planet must contemplate the day when this planet may no longer be habitable. Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness.”

Will the monkeys abandon the gourds before Damocles sword sweeps down upon them? How can they abandon them when 2 has become 4 has become 8 has become 5 billion monkeys standing in line? What happens when the owners of the gourds decide that the contents are too precious to sell at any cost?

What happens?

riverbird said...

Not only another good post, but a great set of comments to boot.

JM, I will say you notably forgot to mention one set of machines:
>> Our petroleum-powered vehicles – not just cars, but the trucks, trains, ships, and aircraft that make our current way of life possible. <<


Food sourcing being so critical to this drama. Maybe we can run tractors on biodiesel for a while, but like ethanol, it takes more than a gallon of petro to manufacture a gallon of bio - bad math.

I am a gardener/ groundsdkeeeper by livelihood. While I yet am driving to various projects, I am also committed to doing my work by hand; no leaf blowers, lawn mowers, and the like. I often get quizzical expressions about this from new folks wondering why I would choose to 'do it the hard way,' meaning using my own power or being concerned about the 'cost' of the added time it takes.

The human machine is far more efficient than any machine of man; a gallon of gas has the equivilent calories of three weeks man labor, and I can put apples in my human for fuel. My little car may get 45 mpg, but I am also preparing to do my rounds by bicycle in time.

Now there is the question of what 'local' is in terms of food production, 200 miles, 100 miles, 100 yards. Under the lens of peak oil, it is aswered by another question, "How far are you willing to walk or bike to feed yourself daily?" And what are we going to do about all those other, 5 billion, crazy monkeys running around with gourds trapped on one hand and pointy sticks in the other??

Random Goblin said...

Excellent post. A readable, incisive, persuasive analysis.

Mauricio Babilonia said...

Thiis post might be what James Howard Kunstler would like to write on the topic of why we can't continue business as usual, but far better reasoned and more compelling. John, it is among the best you've written to date. Thank you and please keep it up.

FARfetched said...

Good analogy.

The thing that has me wondering is why more people don't take a look — not just around, but at their own lives — and wonder why they still insist on running the rat race. Do they enjoy the commute? (I doubt it) Do they enjoy not having any time or energy left except to eat and watch TV? (again, I doubt it) So why are we all — myself included — still doing the same thing over & over, knowing it's killing us?

It's a horrible future we may face, but I'm sure of one thing: I won't miss my commute. Ever.

John Michael Greer said...

Loveandlight, yes, the net energy loss from corn ethanol is highly relevant -- more flailing around by the monkey with its hand in the gourd, who's too fixated on the food to notice how counterproductive his actions are.

David, IMO, as long as you're dividing humanity into "Faustian" and "non-Faustian" contingents, you're missing the point. We all have a Faustian side, and many of those who consider themselves "non-Faustian" are using as many resources as the alleged Faustians. Real change starts in the details of our own lives, not in demonizing the other.

Sabretache and Lizm, those are just about perfect examples of the monkey trap at work! Many thanks.

Dopamine, your metaphor is certainly one way to look at the situation, but I want to focus here on the changes we -- and that includes you and me -- need to make in our own thinking to get our hands out of the gourd.

Riverbird, of course you're right -- and your comment about the superiority of human energy to machines is something I'll be discussing at length in a future post. Many thanks!

Random and Mauricio, thanks for the encouragement! I'm currently talking with a publisher about a book along the same themes as The Archdruid Report, so there'll be plenty more to come.

Farfetched, you've got your finger on the core of our dilemma. We know our current way of living isn't working; it doesn't make us happy, or meet more than a small fraction of our real needs; it's driving us headlong into a future nobody but a few survivalists want -- so why are we so resistant to change? That's the lesson of the monkey trap, but of course it goes beyond that. More on this shortly.

Mauricio Babilonia said...

I also think that the Faustus example is more apt because humanity supposedly understands delayed gratification. After all, behavioral science would have us believe that the monkey is hard-wired to seek food and would have no choice but to hang on to the morsel, come what may. Would behavioral science make the same argument for our relationship to the less essential products of our industrial culture? Should my grip on my car have the same intensity as the monkey's grip on the food in the trap? Really, much of what comes out of our mouths, and especially our politicians' mouths betrays the same confusion between want and need made so evident in Marlowe's play.

Two interesting reads on this distinction and the question of our happiness. One is a series of reviews of Bill McKibben's new book Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future over on Energy Bulletin, and Sharon Astyk's Not the End of the World on her blog, Casaubon's Book

Sololeum said...

JMG- pull you head in - I'm living with three 80W solar panels on our little acreage, miling goats and growing veggies - how about you old son!!!

Ares Olympus said...

Wonderful post! Stories are instructive for helping us step back from our self-interested blindness.

The main weakness of the monkey story is he fails too quickly, while getting lured by the devil (power) and a slower corruption is a more ordinary human experience.

My weekly reading found a long and interesting thesis on the history of money and how we got to fiat money:

Capitalism is an amazing scheme to empower individuals and "easy money" is a hard fruit to let go of whatever the cost.

I agree our failure is to only see "solutions" that allow us to keep our prize - easy fast and cheap travel.

The best thought I gleamed from the paper above is that there's 3 uses for debt: (1) Investment (2) Consumption (3) Speculation.

It helped me see what I already knew - why so much of debt accepted by others seems senseless to me.

Accepting debt is like making a deal with the devil. A good motive and disciplined focus may win the prize (freedom from debt), but easy to get greedy, and easy for others to take advantage of our greed.

Adrynian said...

"The thing that has me wondering is why more people don't take a look — not just around, but at their own lives — and wonder why they still insist on running the rat race... So why are we all — myself included — still doing the same thing over & over, knowing it's killing us?"

farfetched, I tried to outline a sociologically and cognitively grounded theoretical explanation for this problem in the comments from two posts ago (the 2nd Korten review).

People in the West tend to be generally resistant to the perspective I outlined, however, as it seems to question the ideology of individualism, so I won't go into it again; (fear not people, I won't perpetuate another debate). But the short of it is that people basically need to be confronted with the contradictions of a worldview they have been socialized into before they can consider alternatives without reacting with visceral, emotional rejection (and sometimes not even then).

Humans are not as reflexive as we like to imagine. In psychology, one learns that first opinions are the strongest; as in, beliefs, once formed - and even if based on questionable "evidence" - are very difficult to change. This is part of the reason why socialization is so powerful: people form beliefs about topics they have no education in (empirical or theoretical), on the basis of nothing more substantial than the opinions they hear from others (whether friends, family, politicians, media, teachers, etc.), and these beliefs tend to stick with them for the rest of their lives unless they're confronted with (or at least exposed to) the failings or contradictions of those beliefs in a manner that leaves little wiggle room.

That's why it's so difficult to address a problem with thinking other than that which got you into trouble in the first place; often we fail to acknowledge that it won't appropriately address the problem until it's already too late to do anything except face the music. (Thus the importance of the next generation, who often have yet to form their opinions on the matter.)

9anda1f said...

Good stuff! Thanks to all!

Don't forget the role of our "comfort zone" in the complaceny (read apathy) we all see around us. The cocoon of our individual webs of comfort are a part of the reason we can't let go of the fruit, pull our hand out, and escape. Being comfortable is a deep well of inertia. It will take a significant "wake-up" of discomfort to stimulate change. It took an attack on Pearl Harbor to wake up the US to the immediacy of WWII. Hopefully, when the PO wake-up comes, we will be able to collectively respond with a change in our perspective and approach instead of the increasing panic of the monkey with his fist caught in the gourd.

John Michael Greer said...

Mauricio, too true -- and many thanks for the references, which are great.

Sololeum, good for you. I live in a small town so I don't need a car, get nearly all the food that doesn't come from my backyard from the local growers market and food co-op, and the electricity I use comes from hydropower, which is a good deal more sustainable in the long term than current PVC panels (which require petroleum products for their manufacture). There are plenty of ways to live in harmony with nature!

Ares, yes, debt is one form of Faustian bargan in today's society. There are plenty of others. More on this later.

Adrynian, the problem with your theory is that as stated, it seems to miss the fact that cultural metanarratives are multiple and contested among competing viewpoints, and thus subject to negotiation by individuals. I'd point to your own comments as the best available counterexample.

The metanarrative you're presenting here -- the claim that most people are stuck within the metanarratives their culture provides them -- is one of many metanarratives in contemporary Western culture; you chose it from among many others. Was your choice constrained by social forces? If so, your metanarrative is no more valid than the one you criticize. Was your choice at least partly free? If so, your argument fails.

9anda1f, comfort zones certainly play a part in the process. The thing that makes the monkey trap interesting is that the further the monkey gets out of its comfort zone, the tighter it clings to the food.

RJ said...

Great post! While walking to the grocery store this morning, I noticed a plane towing an advertising banner on his way to the beach. The ad was for Ethanol-America's Future! Besides the obvious irony in touting the ethanol scam from an airplane, another thought occurred to me. These bastards will try to make a profit on anything, including overshoot. No, the people running the capitalist show are very much aware of what's coming, their monkey trap is power.

riverbird said...

Adrynian, let it go. everbody hears your systems theory drum. Systems theory is great, for planning systems - it's not a plan of action. If you will push through the closed door at the back of your theory ("consider alternatives without reacting with visceral, emotional rejection"), you will come through to see the small scale action necessary to implement your plan. systems and individuals are not couter to each other, like to have one at the exclusion of the other. Systems thinking has it's place in planning. I think you grossly miscategorize JM's and others mantra of individual action - it's nothing to do with individualism as a cultural (west) meme as you're trying to suggest.

Adrynian said...

This is what happens when one tries to provide some counter-weight to an unbalanced argument. I am put in the undesirable position of having to continually focus my attention on the contribution of social forces to the dynamic, to the exclusion of the flip side of the same coin: agency. And, even when I repeatedly state that agency and individual action are necessary and important elements in my analysis, people only hear, “Socialization is everything!”

riverbird, I am not critiquing the mantra of individual action, per se, but rather the way in which it has been advocated; that is, to the exclusion of a consideration of the equally important social forces at work and how they can influence the outcome – and one’s optimal actions, given some goal state. More specifically, I was originally (i.e. a few weeks ago) attempting to critique an account of social change and memetic engineering that explicitly belittled any analysis and/or strategy of action other than an individualistic one.

JMG, the counter-argument you present is flawed. Unfortunately, this is the problem one encounters when seeing agency and socialization as a dichotomy, when it is better to see them as interacting components of a whole system (a.k.a. dialectic).

Firstly, it is not necessary to take an ‘everything is relative’ position when dealing with “metanarratives,” as you call them – what I was referring to as discourses. That is to say, just because there are many discourses doesn’t mean that one isn’t more “valid,” in the sense that, as Kuhn puts it, it can make the more compelling case and even clear up what might otherwise be apparent contradictions in the available evidence. You have conveniently ignored the evidence from past social movements that masses of people mobilize largely when the contradictions of their situation are too apparent to ignore any longer, which a faith in individualism and unconstrained agency cannot account for. Individual action is not a recipe for reengineering society, it is one ingredient among many.

Secondly, it is not true that my argument fails if a choice is “partly free;” again, this is the failing of a false dichotomy. The “choice” to adopt an alternative discourse can be seen to have been influenced by various “formative experiences,” which may undermine one's socialization into a dominant discourse sufficiently enough to allow them to acknowledge its failings and adopt another perspective (critical education can play this role, though it is often just various life experiences). The crucial point was simply that you cannot truly expect someone who has never had any counter-socialization, or alternatively, experiences with the contradictions and failings of a discourse they have been socialized into – who has never critically engaged with it – to be able to somehow still spontaneously reject it for an alternative. They have to be “primed,” as it were, beforehand. “Choice” is what occurs once the options are actually made apparent by such formative [priming] experiences; until then, people stick with what they "know" (i.e. were taught).

Remember, as I said before, we can only speak probabilistically about people; the element of choice is still present. Two people may have had a similar socialization and similar formative experiences but still adopt different perspectives. This is completely acceptable within my paradigm. It is our socialization that largely determines the subset of discourses from which we “choose” our perspective and our various formative experiences that influence the strength of our individual attractions to the various options; a role of the dice does the rest (at least, when viewing it from the scale of populations of people). What I have been trying to point out is that the more experiences one has highlighting the contradictions, the more likely one is to reject the dominant discourses (i.e. the stronger is the attraction of alternative discourses).

You’ve conveniently ignored crucial aspects of my argument in order to set up a strawman counter-argument and I find it rather disappointing – though not unexpected, given that I’m arguing against one of the dominant perspectives in the West.

Adrynian said...

I should also point out that just because there are many discourses out there doesn't mean that everybody learns equally about all of them and then chooses the one they like best, which is what you're presupposing, JMG.

That is the whole definition of dominant discourses: it's in the name... they are the worldviews that dominate people's attention. (Such is the tragedy of limited attentional and other cognitive resources, I suppose.) One has to go out of one's way to learn about the alternatives, and thus one has to want to learn about them, whereas the dominant discourses are in your face every single day: in the media, on the tongues of politicians, teachers, friends, family, etc. (unless one's friends or family are part of an alternative subculture).

John said...

Perhaps you've seen Freeman's peak oil essay where he employs the same "monkey trap" allegory.


I'm convinced peak oil or population (pick either one - they are somewhat interchangeable) are the most pressing issues we face today. Thanks for blogging about this.

Steve said...

It's amazing how often the Faust analogy comes up in relation to Oil/ Environmental issues. Here's George Monbiot in 'Heat' - "Faust is humankind, restless, curious, unsated. Mephistopheles, who appears in the original English text as a 'fiery man', is fossil fuel." (2).

Faust seems to say something very profound about the kind of mentality that operates at least in Western Culture from about 1500 onward, and which is, arguably, fuelled by our energy-windfall of trees, then coal, then oil - individuality, expansionism, instrumentalism, imperialism, the cult of the machine etc.

Every time someone brings up the analogy I have to bite my tongue and try not to start ranting about Oswald Spengler. But it does seem strange that so few in this corner of the cyber-sphere have read 'The Decline of the West' - it anticipates so much of contemporary declinist / primitivist / peak oil / collapsist thought, even down to defining Western Culture as 'Faustian' and describing the adverse ecological effects likely to result from hyper-technologisation. I think I need my own website...