Storr on elite overproduction

Elsewhere, Goldstone finds a predictable precursor to societal collapse to be ‘elite overproduction’ — when too many elite players are produced and have to fight over too few high-status positions. A moderate level of overproduction is beneficial, as it creates healthy competition and increases the quality of the elites that do end up occupying the most prestigious positions, in government, media, the legal world, and so on. But too much overproduction leads to resentful cadres of failed elites forming their own status games in opposition to the successful. They begin warring for status, attacking the establishment, which contributes to its destabilization. Goldstone finds these dynamics in the years leading up to the English Civil War, the French Revolution and crises in China and Turkey. Once again, we find chaos and history being made in the aftermath of the game’s expected rewards failing to pay out.

Storr, Will. The Status Game. William Collins Books; London; 2021. p. 115


Climate change policy durability

One of the main points in my PhD dissertation on climate change and activism is that, in order for them to improve outcomes, policies to control climate change and abolish fossil fuels need to be sustained for decade after decade (§5.7, p. 201).

Only when there is confidence about the future direction of policy can individuals and firms make sufficient investments in post-fossil fuel infrastructure.

Likewise, if people think that policies to get off fossil fuels are changeable, they will exert their efforts to lobby the government to make those changes, instead of working to decarbonize.

Right now, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is demonstrating the dangers of policy instability: Rishi Sunak announces U-turn on key green targets. Also:

The backtracking on electric vehicles was most surprising. Just two months ago, the government promised a £500m ($643m) subsidy to Tata, an Indian conglomerate, for a new battery plant in Somerset. (And in July Michael Gove, a cabinet minister, had agreed the 2030 deadline was immovable.) Other carmakers immediately reacted angrily. Ford said the industry needed “ambition, commitment and consistency” from government, all of which had been undermined. Sir Simon Clarke, a former Conservative cabinet minister, asked how businesses should plan “if we respond to one by-election…by tearing up key planks of government policy.”

As always, it is vexatious and painful to see that our leaders don’t have a serious plan to avoid climate change catastrophe. The fact that they don’t shows how they see it as someone else’s problem: just a legacy of ruin that other people will need to endure.

I feel like I have been seeing increasing journalistic coverage about young people not wanting to bring new children into this world. Often the focus of these stories is economic, but I feel like there must be deeper climate-related motives too. The message older generations have sent is that they are quite happy to ruin the Earth for future generations if doing so will protect their personal interests. When their elders have made that choice — and keep voting consistently with it — perhaps the young deserve praise for not wanting to keep this species going.

Envy of the high-statused

Our ill feeling toward high-status players has been captured in the lab. When neuroscientists had participants read about someone popular, rich and smart, they saw brain regions involved in the perception of pain become activated. When they read of this invented person suffering a demotion, their pleasure systems flared up. Psychologists see this effect cross-culturally, with one study in Japan and Australia finding participants took pleasure in the felling of a ‘tall poppy’: the higher their status, the greater the enjoyment of their de-grading. The most venomous levels of envy were reported when the poppy’s success was ‘in a domain that was important to the participant, such as academic achievement among students’ – when they were rivals in their games.

An yet, as we’ve learned, we’re also drawn to high-status people: we crave contact with the famous, the successful and the brilliant. So our relationship with elite players is thunderously ambivalent. On one hand, we gather close to them, offering them status in order to learn from them and, in the process, become statusful ourselves. On the other, we experience grinding resentments towards them. This, perhaps, is the result of the mismatch between our neural game-playing equipment and the massively outsized structure of modern games. Our brains may be specialized for small tribal groups but today – especially at work and online – we play colossal games in which poppies loom over us like redwoods. Status is relative: the higher others rise, the lower we sit in comparison. It’s a resource and their highly visible thriving steals it from us. The exceptions we make tend to be for ambassadors from our own groups: artists, thinkers, athletes and leaders with whom we strongly identify. They seem to symbolize us, somehow. They carry with them a piece of our own identity, a pound of our flesh – so their success becomes our success and we cheer it wildly. To our subconscious these idols are fantastically accomplished versions of us: our copy, flatter, conform cognition overrides our resentment.

Storr, Will. The Status Game. William Collins Books; London; 2021. p. 97-8

Low feelings

It is hard to say when it began, because the stress and loneliness of the PhD blended into my post-PhD feelings, but it’s quite fair to say that I have been feeling consistently low at least since I learned that I would have to leave my old home in North York in March.

One big contributor is surely the feeling of anticlimax after the dissertation was released. This wasn’t some obscure academic tract about an issue of specialist interest, but a very current-day analysis of humanity’s most pressing problem. I was expecting, or at least hoping for, debate and pushback from people in the activist and policy communities. So far, the most substantial response to what I wrote has been a half-hour discussion with my brother Mica and his wife Leigh when they were visiting Toronto. In the dissertation I express my worry that — even though their aspiration and plan is to change the world — activists get caught up in routine behaviours like marches which occupy their time and effort but do little to change minds or policy. The total non-response to my research so far is a minor bit of additional evidence that activists aren’t generally too compelled by external analyses of their efficacy.

Another dimension is no doubt simple isolation. The layers have been stacking for me in that area: it’s harder to make and keep friends as an adult, it’s harder when you’re no longer a student, and it has become harder as people have pulled their social attention inward to a small group during the pandemic. Getting anybody to attend any sort of event has become substantially harder, and as corollaries the events that do happen have less attendance and energy and there are fewer events.

Another item for this decidedly non-comprehensive list is my sense that most of the people who I know (or, at least, peers and younger people — the dynamics of the affluent and established are different) are not doing well. People seem stymied in achieving the sort of adult lives they want, and especially in finding any sort of work which is psychologically and materially rewarding. It feels like to a large extent our parents got rich and retired, but most of us have never been able to move up into the positions they held at our stage of life. As with housing, there is a feeling that the older and best-off parts of the population have grabbed everything and are keeping it for themselves. This feeling becomes especially embittering when paired with the knowledge that they are actively choosing to hand over a ruined planet to their descendants every time they keep electing leaders who keep the future-wrecking fossil fuel industry going.

It is hard to escape the feeling that I have spent the last 20+ years building up for what I thought would be an intense period of intellectual effort, civilizational re-consideration, and mass political re-organization… and have found myself instead in an epoch where smaller-scale but acute disruptions have monopolized public attention to the point where we seem to be paying even less attention to the big trends than we were 10-15 years ago. It’s very hard to feel optimistic about the future, and it is simultaneously profoundly alienating when society at large is choosing to ignore the existential seriousness of the crisis which we are in. Living among people who are likely to be remembered as history’s greatest wreckers (on the optimistic assumption that anyone will be around with luxuries like paper and literacy to write the history of the present) carries with it feelings of rage and hatred against everything around me: the cars pumping out their fumes in a million lines idling behind red lights, the kaleidoscopic variety in our supermarkets at the same time as we are smashing the Earth’s biodiversity and capacity to support us, the elections that still turn on trivialities even though the consequences of our choices are as serious as death…

Feeling that our civilization is such a disaster is utterly isolating, since our fellow human beings cannot help taking that personally as a criticism and rejection of their own lives and priorities. Meanwhile, it’s impossible to have any confidence in the future. Over the last 20+ years, humanity has shown that we are totally capable of knowing the consequences of our actions and the stakes being played for and still choosing to ruin the world which we inherited. As much as I sincerely delight in the possibilities and experiences of life, I don’t know how to avoid the feeling of being a witness during the time of humanity’s downfall.

We are sliding toward geoengineering

Geoengineering is a very dangerous and ethically questionable response to climate change, but it feels increasingly inevitable.

Governments are simply not willing to do what is necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change, which is unsurprising because voters refuse to elect anyone who even gestures at the scale of change required.

Furthermore, there is no evidence that worsening climatic conditions make people more willing to support fossil fuel abolition. Instead, it seems to drive people toward false solutions or just inchoate anger. Even the ‘serious’ governments are still using taxpayer money to subsidize brand-new fossil fuel production. Everyone has a story about why their industry is the one that doesn’t need to shut down.

It is hard to believe that when climate disruption continues to get worse every year (with El Nino, people are predicting next year will be the hottest in history) the worst-hit places won’t start modifying the atmosphere to try to cancel it out — side-effects, impacts on others, and long-term risks be damned. We are a species that has always preferred monthly life-long $1500 injections with a mystery drug to be thinner, rather than changing our diets.


Can a machine with no understanding be right, even when it happens to be correct?

We are using a lot of problematic and imprecise language where it comes to AI that writes, which is worsening our deep psychological tendency to assume that anything that shows glimmers of human-like traits ought to be imagined with a complex internal life and human-like thoughts, intentions, and behaviours.

We talk about ChatGPT and other large language models (LLMs) “being right” and “making mistakes” and “hallucinating things”.

The point I would raise is — if you have a system that sometimes gives correct answers, is it ever actually correct? Or does it just happen to give correct information in some cases, even though it has no ability to tell truth from falsehood, and even though it will just be random where it happens to be correct?

If you use a random number generator to pick a number from 1–10, and then ask that program over and over “What is 2+2?” you will eventually get a “4”. Is the 4 correct?

What is you have a program that always outputs “4” no matter what you ask it. Is it “correct” when you ask “What is 2+2?” and incorrect when you ask “What is 1+2?”?

Perhaps one way to lessen our collective confusion is to stick to AI-specific language. AI doesn’t write, get things correct, or make mistakes. It is a stochastic parrot with a huge reservoir of mostly garbage information from the internet, and it mindlessly uses known statistical associations between different language fragments to predict what ought to come next when parroting out some new text at random.

If you don’t like the idea that what you get from LLMs will be a mishmash of the internet’s collective wisdom and delusion, presided over by an utterly unintelligent word statistic expert, then you ought to be cautious about letting LLMs do your thinking for you, either as a writer or a reader.

How status quo bias blocks political change

Studies carried out in diverse settings demonstrate that system justification engenders resistance to personal and social change. In the United States, political conservatives—and high economic system justifiers—often down-play environmental problems such as climate change and accept false statements about scientific evidence, as we saw in the last chapter. In Finland, perceptions of climate change as threatening to the national system predicted general system justification and justification of the Finnish food distribution system in particular (Vainio et al., 2014). In Australia, economic system justification was associated with a lack of engagement with environmental issues and decreased support for pro-environmental initiatives (Leviston & Walker, 2014).

Craig McGarty and colleagues (2014) have put their finger on a key problem facing opposition movements, namely “the taint of illegitimacy that comes from attacking a national government that is wrapped in national symbols, controls national institutions, and … represents critics as being disloyal to the nation” (p. 729). This formulation of the problem is highly conducive to a system justification analysis because backlash against protestors often reflects system-defensive motivation (e.g., Langet et al., 2019; Rudman et al., 2012; Yeung et al., 2014). Members of mainstream society are typically suspicious of those who challenge the status quo, and their backlash intensifies in response to system criticism. Nevertheless, system justification motivation can be harnessed to promote social change, as we saw in the preceding chapter, and justice critiques may help delegitimize the status quo over longer time periods. Furthermore, the promotion of utopian thinking about alternatives to the status quo appears to undermine system justification motivation while strengthening commitment to social change (Badaan et al., in press; Fernando et al., 2018).

Jost, John T. A Theory of System Justification. Harvard University Press, 2020. p. 267-8

Jost introduces system justification theory

It is hardly surprising that de la Boétie’s student essay, penned during the Renaissance, falls short of providing a complete or adequate theory of how and why human beings submit to tyrannical regimes. Nevertheless, some of his observations about human nature anticipate the framework of system justification theory, a social psychological perspective that seeks to elucidate the individual-level and group-level mechanisms contributing to people’s inability to see the true nature of the socioeconomic system, as in the Marxian concept of false consciousness. In addition to people’s blindness to their own oppression, a social system—any social system—can provide psychological benefits. Gramsci emphasized the popular tendency to experience “the existing social order” as a “stable, harmoniously coordinated system” (Fiori, 1970, pp. 106–107). According to system justification theory, people are motivated—often at a nonconscious level of awareness—to defend, bolster, and justify the social, economic, and political institutions and arrangements on which they depend. As the French historical archaeologist Paul Veyne (1992) observed, “the tendency to justify what exists constitutes one of the factors which combine to shape opinions” (p. 379)—including opinions about the legitimacy of hierarchy, inequality, and exploitation. The psychological tendency to justify what exists is, in a nutshell, the subject of this book.

Experimental studies, which will be revealed in some detail in subsequent chapters, demonstrate that when women, for instance, are made to feel especially dependent on the social system, they come to view gender disparities in politics and business as natural, desirable, and just. In other words, people are very good at making a virtue out of necessity, coming to accept (and even appreciate) the things they cannot change. For example, interviews with domestic workers in post-apartheid South African homes reveal that these women, most of whom were Black—far from seeing themselves as underpaid or exploited—saw themselves as lucky to be part of a symbiotic relationship with their wealthy white employers. Similarly, rather than blaming their problems on the social system, low-income Latinx and African-American mothers in the United States reported that poverty is caused by drug and alcohol abuse and other personal shortcomings of poor people. And despite significant disparities in income, education, employment, and health, low-status minorities in New Zealand—Māori, Asians, and Pacific Islanders—legitimize hierarchical group relations as much as, if not more than, members of the European majority.

Because it would be too painful to acknowledge that one is living in a state of injustice or exploitation, those who are disadvantaged may be motivated to distort and defend against certain realities by concluding that things are not really as bad as they seem. Psychological research suggests that this process of rationalization yields palliative emotional benefits for the individual insofar as it decreases negative affect and increases positive affect as well as satisfaction with the status quo, but it also undermines support for collective action aimed at changing the system. That is, individuals—including members of disadvantaged groups—who defend and bolster the legitimacy of the social system are less willing to protest on behalf of the disadvantaged than are those who question the system’s legitimacy.

Jost, John T. A Theory of System Justification. Harvard University Press, 2020. p. 3-4

Reasons I will never have a child

1) I don’t see it as an obligation or a virtue

There are already so many humans that our biomass far outweighs all the wild animals on the planet. I don’t see any reason why a world where the population falls by 90% through free choice would be a bad thing. The idea that individuals have an obligation to reproduce the species when the species is already so numerous and dominant that it threatens its own survival does not make sense to me.

2) I don’t expect to be financially secure, especially in old age

The lesson again and again from our politics is that the people who are influential right now skew the system for their immediate benefit. The people they usually harm to do so are those in the future. Our politics seems to be growing more and more dysfunctional as climate change stresses the system. If we do zoom right over the cliff edge into 4 ˚C+ of warming by 2100, I don’t expect any government pension or health care systems to still exist in Canada by the late 2040s or so, when I may really start needing them.

I have been working hard since elementary school, but I do not have stable housing or a sense of security. Nor do I expect to find either. In a life where I can barely take care of myself, it doesn’t make any sense to add someone else on.

3) They would be born into peril which we are still choosing to worsen

The kind of Earth our generation inherits does a lot to establish our life prospects. The people in power right now are behaving as though they are determined to leave a maximally impoverished planet for our descendents. We are devastating biodiversity, recklessly unbalancing the planet’s vital systems, and permanently closing off avenues toward a good life for people who can come after us because we act primarily to satisfy our desires in the here-and-now. We also have a million self-serving justifications for why our behaviour is OK, and the people who we are harming in the future can do nothing to censure or stop us.

The coming generations will be living inside the most colossal act of vandalism one group of people have imposed on another. So far, that is the chief legacy of the people alive and making policy decisions now.

4) I don’t want to devote that much of my life to any project

Whenever a friend sees me enjoying playing with a stranger’s dog, there is a good chance they will tell me that I ought to get a dog. To me, this seems like the difference between enjoying sandwiches and choosing to own a bodega. I like dogs when their owners are at hand, when I am not responsible for their care and welfare, and where someone else will take over immediately if there is a problem. Having a dog of my own which requires constant and expensive care is way beyond what I am willing to take on, and a human baby would be infinitely worse.

I already have no idea of how to plan for the future. Analytically, I have to accept that wildly different possibilities exist for the rest of my lifetime. It is very plausible that we end up in a future of climate chaos, where international cooperation breaks down and conflicts flare, and where individuals retreat from empiricism and reason into self-justifying delusions and self-serving religions. If we add several metres to sea levels and make vast areas uninhabitable, the disruption will be far greater than the world wars — and it may persist for hundreds or thousands of years. At the same time, nobody can say what the promises of advancing human knowledge and technology may be. Perhaps new energy sources and technologies like artificial intelligence and synthetic biology will not just solve our climate problem, but throw us all into a techno-utopian post-human future. It is also possible that we will muddle through into a world largely similar to what we have now (perhaps if we use solar radiation management geoengineering to push off the climate problem for another few decades). That’s the only scenario where conventional old-age planning (max out your RRSP contributions!) makes sense, and it feels to me like the least likely scenario given how all the disruption which we are experiencing today is the time-lagged effect of GHG pollution in the 1980s, and we have polluted much more since so we have much worse to expect even if we change course in the future.

To sum up, I can’t even afford a bus pass. I don’t know where I will be living in six weeks or what I will need to give up in order to get there. The future to me broadly looks terrifying and like more than I will be able to handle. Under those conditions, a determination not to procreate seems sensible and hard to dispute.

Humanity’s marbles

In humanity’s efforts to fight climate change, we’re not just playing for all the marbles — we are playing for every marble factory and shop that ever was or will be, every piece of art and writing which has ever concerned or alluded to marbles, every historical record about marbles which has ever been generated or read, and every mind with an understanding of what marbles are and mean.

Political parties with a planet-wrecking policy on the issue (allowing any new fossil fuel development) are unelectable regardless of the rest of their platforms, economic conditions, or the limitations of their opponents. Being OK with destroying the future for today’s young people makes them morally unworthy to govern. It would be the greatest betrayal that has taken place from one group of generations to their successors, to destroy the uncomprehended and irreplaceable richness of the living Earth humanity inherited all because some dirty industries and the governments and banks they control want to hold us back from abolishing and abandoning fossil fuel energy.