[Editor’s Note: This is a transcript of this podcast episode produced through the help of an A.I.-powered automatic transcription service. Although A.I. will one day take over the world, as of now it sucks as a transcriptionist so please excuse the many typos and mistakes.]
This episode contains discussion of subject matter. That may be upsetting for some listeners. Please refer to the show notes before listening. Thank you.
“Any fool can tell when a crisis arrives, the real service to the state is to detect it in embryo.” -Isaac Asimov, Foundation.
“All great and beautiful work has come of first gazing without shrinking into the darkness.” -John Ruskin.
Welcome to this is the end of the pop mythologist. And today we’re talking about foundation, apple TVs, adaptation of the novel and series by Isaac Asimov.
Even though I used a quote from the book, I haven’t read any of the books in this series. So I’ll only be referring to the show. Incidentally, the only Isaac Asimov book that I have read is I robot, which I didn’t really like at the time. And so when I was trying to decide if I should read more of his stuff, I thought, you know, with so many great authors and books out there, do I want to force myself to read an author just because he’s renowned and, , you know, that was long ago.
And then as I’m watching the show, I’m wondering maybe I should reconsider that because I really like this show a lot. And it’s just so timely in so many ways. One of the main themes of foundation, you could say it’s the. Is societal collapse, which is also one of the overarching themes of this podcast. But more specifically foundation is about the dangers of ignoring the warning signs of collapse and the warnings from those who specialized in the study of various kinds of crises, such as the climate crisis that may lead to or contribute to collapse before I continue. I just want to warn that there will be spoilers, but really only for the first couple of episodes. So I recommend that you watch episodes one and two before listening to this episode, the basic synopsis of foundation is that there’s this galactic empire, , kind of like star wars, but a little more cerebral and, and less space opera ish.
This empire is vast and powerful. And it’s complex because early in your show, we see both the darker aspects of the empire, but also some ways in which it legitimately provides some stability and security for its citizens. In any event, there’s this scientist named Harry Seldon, who discovers a new kind of science that he calls pyschohistory.
Which combines esoteric mathematics with basically social science, such as that he can use it to analyze the patterns of history and then to use it as a basis to make predictions about the future. Not like in a mystical way, but in a very logical analytical way and only for societies as a whole.
So psycho history can’t predict the actions of individuals. Which can potentially disrupt the flow of events. And I think this is kind of symbolic in a nice way in that no matter what things are happening in society, we as individuals can, , and always should do something uh if we can. Anyway. So professor Selden tries to warn the empire that it will soon collapse how soon, you know, a few centuries, which seems really long, but the empire thinks in terms of millennia.
So from their perspective, a few centuries is actually nothing. It’s like the equivalent of just a couple decades for, for us in real. As you might imagine the empire doesn’t take to this prediction very kindly, but it does entertain the notion for a brief moment. And so the rulers asked Seldon can the collapse be prevented?
And Dr. Seldon basically says at this point, no, not really, but you can do. A few things. Number one, you can delay it. You can slow it down. So it happens later rather than sooner. Number two, you can soften the fall. So the chaos that would ensue from a collapse would be somewhat mitigated. And number three, you can shorten the time between collapse and the revival of society.
In other words, there’ll be a dark age of sorts, but it can be a long dark age or can be a shorter, dark. The empire doesn’t like this answer either. So they decide to banish Selden, but they give them kind of a chance, like, meaning they don’t just exile him by himself, but they let him take with him a team of people who, from their perspective, intend to safeguard human knowledge or the best of human knowledge and serve as the foundation for the revival of society. Hence the title foundation. So the empire doesn’t believe him and doesn’t want to believe him, but they do allow the foundation to form just in case. Meanwhile all throughout the rest of the galaxy that are already signs of not just social and political unraveling, but also impending ecological crisis, which don’t seem limited to just one particular planet.
Like the show seems to be hinting somehow that there’s kind of as over overarching interlinking ecology throughout the entire galaxy, because we get to see numerous planets with ecological issues, the character Gail, for example, who becomes Harry Selden’s protege comes from a planet that is getting drowned and rising seawater.
And then there’s another major planet, known as the maiden, or actually it’s a moon, there where there’s a lot of people living on.
But it’s drying up and it’s running out of water. So repeatedly throughout the galaxy, we get glimpses of what appears to be some sort of overarching, ecological crisis . Anyway, it’s clear that the show is not afraid to be quite direct about the symbolic connection with real life climate change.
And it’s kind of funny because I’m sure you’ve seen all those memes that say like at the beginning of every disaster, there’s a scientist, who’s ignored. A lot of those memes were circulating early on in the pandemic and that is totally foundation. Like it totally starts with a scientist, big ignored, which I think is kind of funny.
All right. So that’s enough. Synopsizing about the show. Like I said, that’s just the only spoilers in there are for like the first one or two episodes. Let’s now look at how this show is really in a fascinating way, reflective of certain things playing out right now . So one thing in this show that I see being reflected in real life is a theme of resistance or rather resisting the message shooting the messenger, ignoring, attacking , ridiculing, or even exiling the messenger figuratively, or literally like in foundation.
And it’d be one thing. If these were a people who read an article on the internet and now all of a sudden they think they’re experts on the subject, but it’s not that these are very alerted experts in their fields who have spent many years researching this stuff. Even their entire careers, but even so society for various reason, doesn’t want to listen to what they have to say.
And there are two levels of resistance that we see in foundation. One level is resistance from society in general. And we see some of that on Synnax the home planet of Gail Dornick, the character played by Lou Llobell and the second level of resistance, which is more prominent on the show is from those in power.
And both of these occur in real life. I mean, we saw in the very first early stages of COVID, for example, resistance from within both leadership and the general public. So to illustrate a real example of something similar to the shooting of the messenger that we see on Foundation,
I’m going to discuss an ongoing debate between a community and movement known as Deep Adaptation and on the other side, some critics of Deep Adaptation and you know what I observed. Between two parties where one is making certain criticisms and the other is responding. Sometimes I get frustrated because I’ll read or hear what the critic is saying.
And I know for sure that they have either misunderstood or are misrepresenting what the other side is actually saying or trying to do. Not necessarily intentionally, but it’s still frustrating to witness. If I myself have carefully read the arguments and I feel like I understand what they are.
So deep adaptations started as just a concept used in a paper written by professor Jim Bendel. A professor of sustainability leadership at the university of Cumbria is kind of like a real life, Harry Seldon.
And part of the thesis in his paper is that as a result of the severity of human caused climate change combined. Not enough at large-scale action that at this point, societal collapse eventually is highly possible or already in the process of taking place. In fact, professor Bendel himself believes that collapse is actually inevitable, but there’s not complete agreement even within the deep adaptation.
On this. I just want to clarify that. Okay. So professor Bendel himself feels that way, but there’s a lot of members in the movement. Now, the community who don’t agree that collapse is inevitable, but they may feel that there’s various levels of probability. Like they may feel that it’s very plausible. If we stay on the current course.
The part that everyone in the movement does agree on is that we need to hold numerous scenarios in our mind simultaneously, even as we try our best to prevent worst case scenarios, we need to also acknowledge the possibility that things might not go the way we prefer. No matter how hard we try so that we should prepare for.
Things not going the way we want. The easiest way to think about it is like preparing for natural disasters, such as hurricanes flooding and things like that. If you know, there’s a high probability of a certain kind of natural disaster in your area, then it’s better to acknowledge that. Rather than deny it so you can prepare.
If it happens and you’re not prepared, the damage can be extreme, but if it happens and you are prepared, the damage can be minimized and recovery can be much quicker if by chance the hurricane never comes. It’s still not really the kind of thing you’re probably gonna regret preparing for. I mean, just the peace of mind by itself is worth it. And a lot of the benefits of preparing for natural disasters carry over into other things. So for example, in the event of another pandemic or a large scale ransomware attack that shuts down the power grid, I mean, we’ve been seeing more ransomware attacks, right?
Simply having certain measures in place will naturally make. Individuals communities and by extension, ideally the world more resilient. And by the way, deep adaptation also stresses the importance of not just structural and physical resilience, but also mental and emotional resilience, which is also super important.
And which I feel like is kind of largely ignored in things like natural disaster preparation and things like. So that’s one way to simply summarize one of the key ideas in deep adaptation, which is resilience. Only instead of natural disasters, they’re speaking more broadly of climate change overall.
And the domino effects of that, obviously natural disasters are part of it, but with collapse, you wouldn’t be preparing for just natural disasters. There’d be other considerations, such as disruptions to agriculture and food production. And so like, how would you then make sure there’s enough? Food for your communities and your towns and so on.
Okay. So the main purpose of the deep adaptation paper isn’t to prove the part about climate change or a collapsed, evidence for those things are elsewhere. Instead, the purpose of the paper is to simply call for. Dialogue about the need to take discourse around climate change to a different level. And that is instead of just relying on societies and governments to take action, that what we might want to do at this point is to.
Get more real and honest about the true extent of the situation we’re facing and also to start discussing how we can make ourselves again, more resilient. Like I mentioned to whatever disruptions might occur, even as we continue. Everything we can to fight for climate action. It’s not an either or thing.
These things can co-exist in a nutshell, deep adaptation can be summed up in four words, resilience, which I talked about next is relinquishment in which we ask, what should we let go of? So we don’t make the situation worse. Maybe our consumer’s lifestyle, for example. Another word is restoration.
What could we bring back to help us in difficult times, for example, old technologies or old lifestyles, John Michael Greer, who isn’t a part of deep adaptation, but he’s also an activist who writes a lot about this stuff. And sometimes advocates reviving older technologies. If need be. Which can assist our lives, but don’t rely on fossil fuel or aren’t as energy intensive.
For example. Horse and buggy. And then the fourth word is reconciliation in which we make peace with whatever we may wish to make peace with as we contemplate our mortality, which I think is a good thing to do anyway. So we have the four R’s resilience, relinquishment, restoration, and reconciliation, and the cool thing in relation to foundation, the show is that the purpose of the, , Foundation. The group of people that Harry Seldon forms is to contemplate all four of these concepts. And we kind of see this be played out in various ways. They don’t say it out loud, explicitly but I think if you really pay attention while watching the show, you can see it.
And that’s because. Not because the writers were thinking about it, , or were thinking about deep adaptation, I think, but because in some ways these concepts are kind of like common sense in the face of a major crisis.
While I said I was going to discuss some of the criticisms toward deep adaptation to show how that reflects with the way, Harry Seldon and the foundation’s message in foundation is resisted and a very notable example is an article published in open democracy by a few members of the extinction rebellion movement, which is really interesting because there are actually a lot of ties between extinction rebellion and the deep adaptation movement.
The latter has inspired the former in numerous ways and vice versa. Okay. So again, on the whole, I respect the criticisms, but I think some of them are really unfair because as mentioned, they’re based on a faulty understanding or misrepresentation of what the movement’s actually saying. There won’t be enough time to go through each and every criticism that I want to respond to.
But I do want to give a few examples to illustrate how complex, challenging, and important these issues are and why we need to be discussing them in a fair, open, honest, and mature way. The first and one of the most common criticisms of deep adaptation is that it’s a form of doomerism or doomism. For those not familiar doomerism is another one of these slang terms used to refer to a mindset where one believes that complete and total societal collapse is unavoidable
and that there’s no point in trying to do anything about it because nothing you could possibly do would make any difference. That’s doomed prism. In fact, nevermind the part where I said that they believe that societal collapse is unavoidable. That’s not the key. Of doomerism. It’s not what makes a, doomer what makes a doomer is believing.
There’s no point in trying to do anything about it, because like I said earlier, there are some members of the deep adaptation movement that indeed believe. That collapse is inevitable, but they are not doomers in the sense that there’s a major focus in the entire community on constructive action.
People are urged to come together and take action. And that is literally the opposite of doomerism in which the whole point is. You might as well give up. There’s no point it nothing you do will make a difference. And that is the opposite of deep adaptation. Another criticism is that deep adaptation, by looking at all the evidence and considering the idea that collapses possible.
Critics say this messaging approach isn’t effective because it can create a strong negative emotion such as fear, which would discourage people from taking action. Now I do think this is a good point to raise and requires that we do some real. Serious and honest, introspection dialogue and research as a hypothesis.
The idea that being more honest about how dire our climate crisis is, would cause paralyzing fear is a sound hypothesis, but ultimately I, and many others don’t agree with it and here’s why. Number one, we don’t actually know yet whether the dominant response among people to a more honest dialogue would actually be paralyzing fear or not .
We just don’t know that yet. There isn’t enough social science research on this . So for now the idea that telling it like it is will cause overwhelming fear and. Inaction is mostly conjecture for all we know. And this is what deep adaptation believes. A lot of people’s responses might actually be that they’re galvanized into action, which is what happens.
What has happened with most members of the deep adaptation community who are deeply engaged and highly active and taking constructive action. Number two, there’s a small amount of preliminary evidence that supports both sides of this question. So for the critics who say deep at a patient’s approach would de-motivate action.
There’s a study they mentioned, which found that eliciting a sense of futility. Indeed the motivated people from taking action. But I was looking at that study and it seemed to be one of those examples that show that polls and surveys are all about how you frame the questions. For example, if you were to ask me, Hey, if you knew that cataclysmic climate change was inevitable and that nothing you could do would possibly make any difference, would you take action then?
Honestly, I might say no. But if you were to ask me, Hey, if you understood the full magnitude and urgency of this issue and that the current path we’re on is taking us towards guaranteed disaster, but there are definitely things we can do to mitigate this in many ways. Would you take action then? I would say yes.
So it’s all about how you frame the question and this very same study. In fact, also points out and I quote. Perception that climate change poses a risk or danger increases the likelihood of behavioral change end quote. And then in another section, it says, quote, people who believe that climate change poses a risk or danger to themselves, their nation or their family are likely to change their behavior or support ameliorative policy efforts.
Even if they are personally costly. So, if anything, I think this study supports the deep adaptation perspective more than it undermines it. And there’s also some early evidence that suggests that realizing the existential threat of climate change. It does indeed push people into action and professor Bendel links to this in one of his articles, which I’ll also include in the show notes.
And then there’s some also some cool work done by a social researcher named Rebecca Huntley who wrote a book called how to talk about climate change in a way that makes a difference. And she talks about how so-called negative emotions can play an important and constructive role in behavioral change, at least for some people.
And the part of the reason that people aren’t afraid enough. Of climate change is that it’s too nebulous of a concept that too vague a threat. Interestingly, both Dr. Huntley and professor Bendel specifically specialize in the area of communications for social change, which I think is really interesting. But let me take a step back here and reaffirm the neutral position which is that the honest truth is that at this point, nobody really knows for sure and I would offer the point that, , the more moderate approaches of messaging in which we try to get people to take action while also giving the sense that there’s still time, the moderate approach has been the dominant approach.
And yet, I don’t think that anyone in the climate activism community would disagree that so far, the actions being taken are not enough to reverse stop or even slow down climate change. So if the dominant approach hasn’t been working to the extent that we needed. Then it’s worth asking, should we try something else?
And can we afford to not try something else? And one thing that the critics of deep adaptation agree with is that we are indeed facing an unprecedented emergency in terms of climate change. So in that paper that I mentioned earlier, that article that was published in open democracy, they say this, and they also agree that policy makers.
And society in general are not doing enough right now. And that there needs to be widespread and sustained action. That’s the key word there’s widespread and sustained action to adequately meet this challenge. So it seems to me there’s actually not as big a gap between. Deep adaptation and its critics, as some of the critics themselves may think.
So the bigger problem then becomes a question of how do we go about with the messaging and the communicating of the magnitude and urgency of the issue. . And the only thing we do know for sure is that whatever we’re trying so far hasn’t been working, or at least not working enough.
So I do think it’s reasonable at this point, too. Consider other options, but to go about it with as much sensitivity and honesty, as we can keep the dialogue open, to look at any new evidence that may emerge that supports either argument. And for those of us in the deep adaptation movement, there might come a time when maybe there’s some evidence or maybe there’s enough evidence showing that the more direct, unflinching approach of messaging isn’t working.
Then at that point, we may want to reconsider. And likewise for the critics, if you start to see signs that it’s working, there may be time to reconsider your own previous position as well. And it might be as I suspect that we actually need both perspectives, the moderate approach and the deep adaptation approach.
So it doesn’t have to be either, or it might be a case of different strokes for different people, and that we need to be flexible. And adapt our approach depending on who it is we’re trying to reach and how they may uniquely respond to different types of messaging, depending on their personality.
Okay. Another point is that some say the unflinching approach of deep adaptation is bad for mental health. Now certainly I think mental health is an important component here. And most members of the deep adaptation community deeply understand this. And when never try to force a discussion about this onto people who don’t wish to engage with it. Okay. We would never do that. We would respect people where they are at, well, we also respect the right of people to know for those who want to know the full range of implications of this issue and the right for this perspective to be out there for those who wish to explore it.
On the other hand, suppressing the viewpoint of anyone out there writing about or speaking about the risk of societal collapse due to not just climate change, but also, you know, various economic, political and societal factors that suppressing these viewpoints or ridiculing them or anything like that might make people more comfortable right now.
But if there were to eventually be. God forbid a major breakdown in decline of societal institutions. Then by not talking about the possibility of that in advance. We’re now putting people in a far worse situation. So to go back to that example of a hurricane, if you’re convinced the hurricane was coming, but you suppressed the information because you thought it would be bad for people’s mental health.
Then the hurricane comes and people lose their homes, lose shelter, lose everything, and then they don’t have a power or water or maybe even food. That’s going to be far worse for the mental health. Then if they had been exposed to some temporarily uncomfortable information that may have helped them to get ready so that they wouldn’t have had to lose their homes.
That would be better for their mental health over the long-term. All right next. I like to try to keep a pulse on what the younger generations are feeling and saying.
And many of them want to talk about this. They’re already feeling all this stuff intuitively and feel like they’re being gas lit by the rest of the world. And so when they find people who are trying to speak honestly about it, they say. Yeah, thank you for doing us. The respect of bring this out into the open, instead of trying to, you know, tell us that everything is okay, because we know it’s not, in fact, professor Bendel has said in an interview that when he talks about this stuff with younger people, their reaction is mostly openness and curiosity and the desire to know more. It’s the older generations who tend to react with fear or react negatively.
One more thing when it comes to this debate, sometimes critics may characterize the societal collapse that deep adaptation is talking about is something on the level of an apocalypse or Armageddon. Like it’s the worst thing that anyone could possibly imagine happening. And just like I talked about in episode zero of this podcast, it’s really important to be clear about terminology and exactly what we mean, especially when we’re talking about such heavy subject matter, the societal collapse that deep adaptation and numerous other authors and researchers talk about is not arm.
Again, granted people will often talk about the cataclysmic effects of climate change. If we keep going down this route such as the earth. Eventually becoming uninhabitable, but that is a different and more extreme concept than societal collapse, which is a different concept. And we need to understand this difference.
So uninhabitable earth is one concept. Concept societal collapse is a different concept.
And the other thing is that collapse refers to the collapse of industrial society and its reliance on things like fossil fuels, technologies and globalized supply chains. To equate the collapse of industrial society, which has only been around for like a couple hundred years, which is nothing in the grand scheme of history to equate that with Armageddon.
I would argue is kind of a first world centric, modern centric viewpoint, because all throughout history, and even now in some parts of the world, people have lived and do live in non-industrial societies and they have done just fine. For example, I don’t think the Amish would characterize their own lifestyle as being deprived or horrible it’s by choice and.
In fact, I think some of them probably maybe have pity on us for being so dependent on our industrial systems, to the point where if these systems were to become undermined, then we’re kind of helpless. There’s just one more criticism that I have time for uh that I want to mention. And this is a point made by. The aforementioned Rebecca Huntley, the researcher of social change. And, , in an episode of a podcast called the principle of charity, where she had a very lively and thoughtful discussion with a representative of the deep adaptation community named Alan heat. And Dr. Huntley made a great point, which was that even though she appreciates certain aspects of deep adaptation, part of the problem with the movement is that as it grows, then you have one person finding out about it and then telling another person about it. Like once you get a few degrees removed, the core messaging can get corrupted.
It’s kind of like the way rumors get embellished upon, as they say. And especially when you have a topic as sensitive, as deep adaptation, where the nuances are really important, that can be a problem and deep, and unfortunately deep adaptation can get co-opted by genuine doomers who might use it to maybe lend some credibility to their positions and misrepresent what the movement is actually.
And this I do think is a good point, but then if you think about it, the same applies to just about any movement or philosophy, and that doesn’t necessarily stop people from talking about those. So it also doesn’t seem fully fair to me if this should somehow apply more to deep adaptation, as opposed to any other set of ideas that can also get corrupted while being December.
So coming back to foundation, you have a community of scientists and activists who are willing to face criticism or even ridicule and exile to tell the truth as they say without sugarcoating it. And, , no, we can’t draw any parallels between this and something like Q Anon and how people spreading that are so brave or anything like that, because there’s no evidence for U Q Anon. Whereas climate activism is based on mountains of evidence.
And there are even people who just like Harry Seldon and Gail Dornoch literally use math to map out probable outcomes. I’ve spent most of this episode talking about deep adaptation. So. Give a couple quick mentions of, , real life researchers out there who are really like, just like these characters on foundation in which they use the hard sciences and use math to come up with their, forecast.
One is professor Tom Murphy, who is an astrophysicist by trade and who got into this kind of by accident. And he tells a story that as part of an effort to better understand the energy industry, he started doing these mathematical calculations, but then once he saw what he saw. He kept trying to redo the calculations and effort to convince himself why he actually shouldn’t be worried.
And every time the numbers would basically tell him, no, you need to be worried. And so he felt a responsibility to share what he discovered. And you started writing about this stuff on a blog and the blog took off because the things he was saying resonated with. Who I think many had already intuitively felt the kinds of things he was writing about.
And here he was essentially providing the math to show that what people were feeling was correct in some ways, which is that we are in a real emergency situation. And he says that he wishes there were not the case because he loves astrophysics and part of him wishes, he could just spend all his time doing that.
He feels a moral responsibility to be out there talking about the risks and dangers of collapse, even if it turns a lot of people off, because reality doesn’t care how we feel about it. Reality is simply what it is. . Or as Dr. Murphy writes in his book, quote, nothing in the end escapes, physics end quote, and that’s from a book called energy and human ambitions on a finite planet. If you want to get a bite-sized version of Dr. Murphy I’ll link to a podcast episode, that does a great job interview.
One more quick example. A Peter Turchin is a proponent of something called Cleo dynamics or a mathematical history, which sounds just like psycho history actually in foundation. And the quick point I want to make about Dr. Turchin is the important role that behavioral science can play in all this and the way that’s often neglected our sideline.
For example, remember back when the CDC said, okay, everyone we’ve looked at the data and for those of you who are vaccinated, you don’t have to wear your masks in public anymore. But for those of you who aren’t vaccinated, please continue to wear your mask. And I remember just like listening to that and being like, you guys need to hire some behavioral scientists, or if you already have a couple on your staff, you need to hire more because clearly you don’t get it.
But the point being that behavioral sciences can play and do play a very important role in, kind of getting a grasp of this issue and the actual predicament. In, cause it’s not just a matter of the numbers, but also what are people likely to do in XYZ situations and how can that help us then forecast probable outcomes and then prepare for those outcomes?
All right. So we have real life versions of Harry Selten, Gail Dornoch, and the foundation, um, who are out there warning us that. You know, foundation is essentially a parable of what can happen when society ignores the warnings of the hairy Seldens and Gail Dornoch of the world. And put simply the lesson I think is that we should, at the very least, if we’re willing, listen to these people, If we’re in the frame of mind to do so again, if you feel like it’s affecting your mental health too much, , then turn away for the time being.
But if you feel ready, then listen, and look at the evidence that presenting, , to the best of our ability, even if we’re not scientists and then just arrive at our own conclusions or temporary conclusions, because we are allowed to change our mind about things over time.
And the last thing I would say about that too, is just imagine any crisis in your life, like a really big crisis. Think back, and remember, just take a moment to do that. And. If you could have known in advance, at least the possibility of that crisis happening, would you have preferred to have known, and your answer is valid, but I know my answer would be that yes, I would have preferred to have known in advance.
And I can’t tell you , how much. Better and a place I would have been had I known in advance and had I been able to prepare in various ways for at least the possibility of it happening.
Okay. So there’s so much more about both the show foundation and about this topic. I wish I could talk about, but I’m looking at the clock now and I see that I’ve gone way over. So what I think I’ll do is put some of this stuff in a separate bonus episode. So for the time being, I thank you for listening.
Until next time I am the pop mythologist and this is the end.
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