The present is a difficult time – I am sure this is something people would say regardless of the era they were born, but I don’t think they were facing planetary-scale destruction.
To me, climate destruction is a symptom of the actual problem. We await for technology, governmental policies and space colonisation to save us, but my hypothesis is that even if the effects of climate change can be mitigated with a miracle combo of all of those, we will continue to head towards the destruction of ourselves as long as the fundamental issue is not solved.
Always needing more
The issue is us. More concisely, it is our psychology. We are primed, conditioned and raised to think that we would always need more. We believe there is never enough, and we don’t stop even where there is enough. We hoard, we compete, we defend, even if it means annihilating and bullying our own species.
This was probably considered a feature – our primal conditioning. In a world where there was danger and predators, we needed fear to survive. And arguably, a murderous instinct to wipe out all other competition to ensure our own longevity (although I constantly wonder if this was even necessary but I guess our primal brains would never have allowed us to contemplate otherwise, and the peace-loving cooperative variants of us are probably all wiped out ).
What this really means is that we are trapped in a vicious system of loops:
As long as we believe more is always better, we will design systems which success hinges upon by how much we can produce and consume. People are conditioned by these systems to want more. Asking of people to consume less, is asking of them to go against a lifetime of societal systemic conditioning, if not millions of years of evolutionary programming. It is an impossible task.
There are people who will be able to transcend their natural instincts, but they are in the minority. Since most economies are designed to see people as producers so that people at the top can hoard even more, the reality is that most people are too stressed and tired to make rational decisions, even if they know climate change is real and oncoming.
Some of us if not most of us, have trouble dealing with challenges right in front of us, where do we find the capacity to deal with something that still seems so abstract and unmanageable? We can’t even get our personal health and finance in order, neither do we have the time to spend with our loved ones, how do we muster the ability to make conscious decisions? Moreover, the systems are designed to take most of the power out of ordinary citizens – we are conditioned to believe we are powerless to make great change – even our governments cannot seem to organise themselves to do something significant for the climate, what sort of chances do we powerless citizens have?
The ordinary people are scapegoats of powerful industries and nations. We guilt-trip ordinary people into consuming less, while major industries plow and pollute our environment to produce more without regard of consequences. Governments allow companies to go unchecked, if not encouraged. Some governments are willing to let a lot of people suffer and die in favour of holding on to and expanding their perceived power.
At the end, whether we are a powerless citizen or a powerful leader, we are driven by the same primal fear. We are a species willing to destroy ourselves to prevent others from destroying us first.
I know there is a dislike for critiques without solutions, but in this case I think we have not even been framing the problem right. We seem to keep thinking of it as a technological problem with a technological solution. I keep seeing people citing Malthus as an example who predicted that human beings would starve because there is not enough food to go around, but he turned out to be incorrect as industrialisation and technology made sure that there was now an abundance of food – for most of us. Their argument is that even though now it seems we’re heading for destruction, somehow our human ingenuity will arise to save us once again.
In my opinion, it is true that we didn’t starve as predicted, but a sudden abundance of resources created other problems, such as inefficient distribution and mindless waste of resources. We have so much that we are running out of places to dump. I think that even if we manage to avoid climate destruction, we will continue down a path of self-destruction if we do not seek to understand and address our own human psychology. There will still be geo-political instability and chronic health (mental and physical) epidemics. We will continue to seek the destruction and oppression of others. If we don’t hoard material things, we hoard power.
Why does it matter? Putting altruism aside, why can’t we continue to oppress and live in an unequal society? This warrants an entire essay but to sum it up: we are wasting our own human potential, restricting the possibilities of our own purported ingenuity if only a select few get to express it; we are also creating unnecessary suffering for ourselves. There is always a price to pay for power imbalances, even for the oppressor.
I think it is prudent to pursue technological solutions, but to create true sustainable change there has to be a shift in how we think of ourselves. We have to think of ourselves as human beings, not just cogs in systems. Leaders have to be aware of the connections between human suffering and societal, environmental destruction. We have to rethink national policies. We have to raise whole, healthy people, not people who are constantly insecure and anxious because they believe they need to always be seeking more to survive. We have to invest in true education, not just education as a tool to make people effective producers. We have to start treating human psychology and mental health seriously, armed with the latest developments in neuroscience.
There are countries that are making steps in the right direction, such as New Zealand designing a budget around people’s well-being. But the effort of a few small countries is not enough to stop the destruction of our natural resources, neither will it be enough to stop unnecessary political issues that has the power to cause suffering for the rest of us.
When we suffer: we hoard, hurt, destroy, and consume.
I think if given the time, the conditioning of human beings will eventually catch up to the fact that we no longer need to live in constant fear of our survival or depend on the oppression of others to survive. Perhaps this is a necessary process of evolution. I am just not sure if we have time.
I don’t think we will go extinct due to climate change. It will be a chronic, painful process. Some of us would survive, but the world will be a massively different place. What I will grieve for will not be losing what we had, but what we could have been. But perhaps even that is a human sentiment, while it is only but a natural order of things in this impermanent universe.
This is an essay (or perhaps a series) I have been wanting to work on for a long time, but perhaps the amount of work it entails is putting me off it, so I will work on it in an iterative fashion, so this is a rough draft/outline. I plan to expand this outline and add cited evidence, possibly eventually making it interactive.