Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The counterfactual thinking trap: what if civilization wasn't?

I had just finished cooking a stellar batch of sweet potato fries to use as a vehicle for testing my latest attempt at homemade ketchup. I walked the pot of still smoking-hot oil carefully down the back steps and out to the compost pile. I read somewhere that cooking oil shouldn’t be thrown into the compost because it can make the composting process less efficient by sealing off areas of the pile from air and water exposure.

Fuck efficiency.

I have two side-by-side four foot square “compost corrals” made by alternately stacking 4x4 pieces of heavy-duty oak pallet wood that my son-in-law brought home from a construction site. When the first one fills up, the contents are shoveled into the second, where they sit until the following spring when they are spread on the garden. It was late summer, the second corral had been sitting full for a couple months already and the first had a sizable start with yard debris from the last storm and the usual surfeit of kitchen scraps forming an amorphous damp mound in the center.

I emptied the pot directly above the kitchen scrap mound and witnessed a holocaust beyond all reckoning. The hot oil instantly deep-fried the debris at the top of the pile, releasing a violent waft of steam accompanied by a satisfying sizzling sound. I was expecting that. But what I hadn’t anticipated was the number of living creatures that came pouring out from the moist earthy depths—a desperate and screaming mass of life, each wriggling, crawling, buzzing part expending every drop of itself in an attempt to escape an oily incineration.

Compost is decayed organic matter. And a compost pile is a pile of organic matter in varying stages of decay. But, a compost pile is also a vibrant local ecosystem that includes all manner of invertebrate animal life, and in a moment of thoughtlessness I had committed an atrocity, the local effects of which will resonate for days.

My initial surprise quickly turned to shocked remorse, and then to anger directed at my own lack of forethought. I should have known.

“I should have known” is a form of counterfactual thinking. It assumes that the past could have happened differently than it did, that there are alternative courses for events that have already transpired—or at least that there were viable alternative courses open at the time. Counterfactual thinking is clearly an adaptive human capacity. To re-envision the past is in some sense to prepare for the future. By imagining alternative outcomes for past events, we enhance our ability to act should a similar situation arise later on. The problem comes when we treat the alternatives, clearly visible in hindsight, as if they were actual possibilities within the unique context of the passing moment. This particular problem with counterfactuals has several names, regret and recrimination being the most common.

Civilization didn’t have to happen. After 100,000 generations of human experience, civilization intruded unexpectedly, a toxic anomaly. That it happened when it did, that it took the historical forms that it did, that you and I find ourselves in the present moment, wrapped in its cancerous embrace—all of this might not have been. But it did. And it is. And the past can’t be undone. We must live with the past as it ingratiates itself on the present. There is no choice.

But the future always and forever remains an open sea of possibility.

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