The Ladder of Awareness


Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.

Genesis 28

In a 2012 paper entitled The Ladder of Awareness Paul Chefurka describes the gradual awakening that many people experience as they learn about the predicaments that we face. He divides the awakening process into the following five stages.

  1. Dead asleep.

  2. Awareness of one fundamental problem.

  3. Awareness of many problems.

  4. Awareness of the interconnection between many problems.

  5. Awareness that the predicament encompasses all aspects of life.

I describe the five stages below. I illustrate them by describing my own journey through these stages. (My journey started with peak oil and alternative energy analyses. However, for most people climate change is what makes them aware of the limits that we face.)


Stage 1. Dead Asleep


At this stage there seem to be no fundamental problems, just some shortcomings in human organization, behaviour and morality that can be fixed with the proper attention to rule-making. People at this stage tend to live their lives happily, with occasional outbursts of annoyance around election times or the quarterly corporate earnings seasons.


People at Stage 1 do not understand that the world is changing in a fundamental way. Unusual events — extended summer droughts, for example — are treated as something that that can be handled on a case-by-case basis. Although most people fall into this category, many are increasingly uneasy about what they hear and what they see, particularly with regard to climate change. These people are edging into Stage 2.


Stage 2. Awareness of One Fundamental Problem


Whether it’s Climate Change, overpopulation, Peak Oil, chemical pollution, oceanic over-fishing, biodiversity loss, corporatism, economic instability or sociopolitical injustice, one problem seems to engage the attention completely. People at this stage tend to become ardent activists for their chosen cause. They tend to be very vocal about their personal issue, and blind to any others.


The second stage is ‘Awareness of One Fundamental Problem’. My own transition from Stage 1 to Stage 2 was to do with peak oil and the use of alternative fuels. Somewhere around the year 2008 I read an article in a chemical engineering journal to do with the use of ethanol as a biofuel (unfortunately, I do not recall who wrote the article or when it was published, so I cannot provide a citation). The article described the then relatively new concept of converting corn (maize) into ethanol which could be added to gasoline, thereby reducing the need for imported oil.


What was striking about the article was its tone of surprise. Having explained the chemical process, the author looked at what we now call Energy Returned on Energy Invested (a term that is described in Chapter 2: Predicaments and Opportunities of the book Technology for a Changing Climate). He evaluated the overall system in terms of net energy. He found that the energy needed to manufacture ethanol is almost a great as the energy that the ethanol provides when used as a fuel. It was as if the author had started a straightforward journey to a known destination, but had somehow been sidetracked into unexpected territory.















Matthew Simmons (1943-2010)


I recognized the author’s tone of surprise, but did not make a full transition into Stage 2 until I came across a series of Powerpoint presentations by Matt Simmons  around the year 2009. Simmons was part of the oil investment community — he knew the business intimately. In  the year 2000 he became suspicious of the claims made by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) to do with the size of their oil reserves. To get around this secrecy Simmons spent many hours in the library of the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) in Richardson, Texas, reading many papers to do with oil production in the KSA. Although most of these papers discussed only a narrow topic, he was able to piece together a bigger picture. His conclusion was that the reserves in the KSA were much less than generally accepted, and that the nation would soon be entering a period when oil production would decline. Hence he wrote a book with the title Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy. After reading Simmons’s book it “clicked” that the supply of oil throughout the world, not just in Saudi Arabia, was finite, and that when it was gone, it was gone.

Stage 3. Awareness of Many Problems    


As people let in more evidence from different domains, the awareness of complexity begins to grow. At this point a person worries about the prioritization of problems in terms of their immediacy and degree of impact. People at this stage may become reluctant to acknowledge new problems — for example, someone who is committed to fighting for social justice and against climate change may not recognize the problem of resource depletion. They may feel that the problem space is already complex enough, and the addition of any new concerns will only dilute the effort that needs to be focused on solving the "highest priority" problem.


For myself, studying the Peak Oil problem led to an awareness of related issues, including climate change, over-population and the destruction of the biosphere. Like most other people, my first response was to ignore these new issues on the grounds, “That’s someone else’s concern, I can’t cope with any more problems”. But these topics cannot be siloed so easily — they all matter. They are all components of the ‘Age of Limits’, and they all interact with one another, frequently in ways that are difficult to understand or even identify. People who are at Stage 3 are fully aware of how complex and interactive these issues are; it is not enough to look at just one issue, say climate change, on its own. It interacts with many other issues such as population growth, industrial production, pollution and financial policy.

In my case, an introduction to systems issues was provided by the Club of Rome Limitations to Growth report, issued in the early 1970s.Its findings are summarized in the following chart (which has been updated).





















People who arrive at this rung on the ladder of awareness also come to understand that the interactions between variables are both difficult to identify and difficult to measure. No matter how good our mathematical models and simulations may be, they are limited in their ability to predict the future because we do not understand all the parameters that are involved.


Stage 4. Interconnections Between Many Problems


The realization that a solution in one domain may worsen a problem in another marks the beginning of large-scale system-level thinking. It also marks the transition from thinking of the situation in terms of a set of problems to thinking of it in terms of a predicament. At this point the possibility that there may not be a solution begins to raise its head.


An understanding of Stage 4 came to me as I worked on technological solutions to climate change. It quickly became apparent that such solutions do not exist, even if we as a society were to put all of our effort and resources behind them (which we are not doing). Climate change is a predicament.

When faced with a predicament we can respond and adapt, but we cannot make it go away. In our case, we will have to adjust to a climate that will be radically different from the one we grew up with.


Stage 5. All Aspects of Life

Stage 5 includes everything we do, how we do it, our relationships with each other, as well as our treatment of the rest of the biosphere and the physical planet. With this realization, the floodgates open, and no problem is exempt from consideration or acceptance. The very concept of a "Solution" is seen through, and cast aside as a waste of effort.

Three insights can be developed once we understand that our predicaments include all aspects of life.


First, our responses cannot be just technological. We need to understand a truth that is holistic, relational and intuitive. This way of thinking governs our relationships with other people, our appreciation of art and music, and religion.


The second insight that comes from considering “all aspects of life” is to do with human nature, and the fact that we frequently fail to act as we know we should. For example, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has been organizing meetings and publishing reports to do with climate change since the year 1988. One of the themes of its analyses is that if we are to control global warming then we need to reduce the concentration of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. The chart below (the Keeling Curve) shows progress to date. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has climbed steadily, even in recession years such as 2008. There has  been no progress to date.  Overlaid on the chart are some of the important conferences and reports that have been issued. They have made not difference to the inexorable climb in CO2 concentrations.

Keeling Curve IPCC COP

The third insight is related to the first two. If we accept that we face predicaments that cannot be made to go away, and if we accept that human nature is what it is, then our response will have to include an element of acceptance. We need to recognize that we are not in control of the material world.

Our response will also need to incorporate an understanding that individuals will have to make significant sacrifices to their current standard of living. This is where the church can provide leadership. No politician can call for the public to cut back on their way of living — to do so would lead to that politician soon becoming an ex-politician. It is at this stage that the church can provide leadership. In other words, our response needs to include a spiritual component.