Last week, we noted that most Americans now consider climate change to be a high priority. Does that mean that significant action will be taken? No.
Why not? That’s now the big question. It’s also increasingly the focus of this website.
Over the last few years, more and more people have come to accept that our planet is now undergoing a massive change. The evidence is no longer simply in scientific books and papers warning about the future; it’s in the weather – the droughts, floods, heat waves, cold spells and other dramatic fluctuations. It’s in the demise of so many of the iconic species that are succumbing to the Sixth Great Extinction: the elephants, tigers and sharks, the coral reefs that support so much of ocean life, and so many more
But still nothing changes. Everything just gets worse. How come?
The answer, it seems, lies deep in human psychology, and is probably unfixable. It is, very simply, the way we are.
In a post yesterday, we looked briefly at the work of renowned English psychiatrist Dr. Iain McGilchrist, who explains, through his understanding of how our brains evolved, how and why we have created such a disastrous situation.
In a post on Truthdig, also yesterday, former New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges, author of the best-selling War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, writes that it’s one thing to have a general intellectual understanding of what’s happening; it’s another thing altogether to absorb this, digest it emotionally, and truly come to terms with the reality of what’s happening:
To emotionally accept impending disaster, to attain the gut-level understanding that the power elite will not respond rationally to the devastation of the ecosystem, is as difficult to accept as our own mortality. The most daunting existential struggle of our time is to ingest this awful truth—intellectually and emotionally—and continue to resist the forces that are destroying us.
Hedges quotes from several books that can help us understand our own mental processes and why we are so resistant to a true acceptance of what’s happening. One of these is A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright, which describes how and why civilizations, both large and small, tend to collapse so dramatically soon after they reach their greatest potential. Hedges discusses this with Wright, who talks about what he calls “the progress trap”:
“We have had a 500-year run where Europeans, Euro-Americans and other colonists have overrun the world and taken it over. This 500-year run made it not only seem easy but normal. We believe things will always get bigger and better. We have to understand that this long period of expansion and prosperity was an anomaly. It has rarely happened in history and will never happen again.
“We have to readjust our entire civilization to live in a finite world. But we are not doing it, because we are carrying far too much baggage, too many mythical versions of deliberately distorted history and a deeply ingrained feeling that what being modern is all about is having more. … These societies go on doing things that are really stupid because they can’t change their way of thinking. And that is where we are.”
The Romans, the Mayans, the Sumerians, even small societies like on Easter Island, all experienced this – but nothing like on the scale of modern Western civilization in the last few hundred years.
Wright predicts that we, like they, will retreat (are already retreating) into what anthropologists call “crisis cults” – belief systems, often governed by strong leaders, that offer bizarre explanations of what’s happening and create rituals and cultures that purport to overcome disaster. In our own times these forms of magical thinking include the well-known Christian “Rapture” by which believers will be “taken up” and saved from the devastation on Earth. But they also include belief systems that gain currency in intellectual political circles, like “American exceptionalism,” which offers the very palatable idea that if only government will “get out of the way,” then the natural (more like supernatural) forces of capitalism will somehow make everything right and save us from our troubles. This particular belief is, understandably, fostered by the huge corporations that are so invested in the destruction of the oceans, the forests and the atmosphere and that play to populist movements like the Tea Party.
As Wright explains it to Hedges:
In the past these crisis cults took hold among people who had been colonized, attacked and slaughtered by outsiders, who had lost control of their lives. They see in these rituals the ability to bring back the past world, which they look at as a kind of paradise. They seek to return to the way things were. Crisis cults spread rapidly among Native American societies in the 19th century, when the buffalo and the Indians were being slaughtered by repeating rifles and finally machine guns. People came to believe, as happened in the Ghost Dance, that if they did the right things the modern world that was intolerable—the barbed wire, the railways, the white man, the machine gun—would disappear.
We all have the same, basic psychological hard wiring. It makes us quite bad at long-range planning and leads us to cling to irrational delusions when faced with a serious threat. Look at the extreme right’s belief that if government got out of the way, the lost paradise of the 1950s would return. Look at the way we are letting oil and gas exploration rip when we know that expanding the carbon economy is suicidal for our children and grandchildren. The results can already be felt. When it gets to the point where large parts of the Earth experience crop failure at the same time then we will have mass starvation and a breakdown in order. That is what lies ahead if we do not deal with climate change.
If we fail in this great experiment, this experiment of apes becoming intelligent enough to take charge of their own destiny, nature will shrug and say it was fun for a while to let the apes run the laboratory, but in the end it was a bad idea.
The trouble is we have already failed. Elsewhere in his post, Hedges looks at why we have failed and it why we still cannot confront this, and at some of the other books that help to explain much of this. We’ll look at all of them in some upcoming posts.