To emotionally accept the end of a lifestyle on global scale — the end of this civilization — is not much different to facing our own mortality. It means giving up all our hopes and wishes for us and our children. No more holidays at the seaside. No fixed income. No pensions. Maybe not being able to make ends meet from time to time. Once one realizes that the future will be not so bright and shiny as advertised — in fact quite the opposite — a lot of not-so-pleasant questions pops into one’s mind: will I have food when I’m hungry, water when I’m thirsty, medical care if I need it…? Will I survive the coming storm?
Sometimes these questions can be terrifying on a personal level, not to mention thinking about them on a social level. We are not talking about a distant future here — these questions arise on a daily basis in many countries around the world. Sadly, their numbers are increasing and based on our predicament, it is only a question of when, not if, this becomes a reality in your neighborhood.
Warning! If you are an activist, who believes and sincerely hopes that we can stop climate change and prevent all the other global bad stuff from happening, please stop reading. If, on the other hand you are curious why humanity is acting the way it does and have the courage to confront your own assumptions about agency, stay tuned… but remember, you were warned.
Now, that I have lost 99% of my readers, we can continue.
Since we are social animals motivated — and thus easily manipulated — by strong emotions, by understanding individual motives we might shed some light on why the world is heading full speed in the wrong direction. And what could be a stronger emotion than our innate fear of death…? When millions share this same anxiety a pattern arises. The great sociologist C. Wright Mills defined it as the fate of history:
“Fate is shaping history when what happens to us was intended by no one and was the summary outcome of innumerable small decisions about other matters by innumerable people.”
OK, but what does this has to do with my feelings about meeting my own demise?
Terror management theory
Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon and Tom Pyszczynski developed a theory in 2015 according to which
„death anxiety drives people to adopt worldviews that protect their self-esteem, worthiness, and sustainability and allow them to believe that they play an important role in a meaningful world.”
Put in another way by Tim Jackson to describe the predicament of our time:
Terror management theory tells us that, when mortality becomes “salient”, instead of addressing the underlying fear, we turn for comfort to the things which make us feel good. Capitalism itself is a massive comfort blanket, designed to help us never confront the mortality that awaits us all.
This explains a lot. Like deliberately misunderstanding overshoot as a matter of technical issues and a perceived lack of human will: as if the planet could be saved by consuming more (investing in building out a new energy infrastructure from scratch). Similarly, like believing that we have an “agency” and an “urgency” to „tackle” [sic!] the climate crisis. Like we could change the outcome of this wast experiment going on for centuries, if not for many millennia. Like we — individuals living today — were any more important than those who came before us.
Like all this could have happened any other way.
Individual agency has been so deeply engraved into modern societies (especially in the Anglo-Saxon world) however, that to question it is tantamount to heresy. „Be the change you want to see.” “You can do it.” “Act now! Your actions matter!”— and the list goes on into infinity. While there is some truth to these ideas — as always with overstatements — these are nothing more than deliberate myths. Strong, appealing, motivating, but ultimately false beliefs. We are looking for a piece of mind and happiness in the wrong place — driven by the desire to escape our fear of death and to find meaning in life.
I fully understand, that my statements go face first against the core beliefs of many living in western societies today. The unprecedented change humanity is going through — and which is about to shift into overdrive in the coming decades — will teach us this lesson the hard way however, whether we are ready for it — or not. It is much easier to let these false beliefs go when things are relatively smooth and you still have some time to make amendments, than grappling with them amidst great calamity.
Levels of change
Why do I say then, that we have no affect on how the future of humanity unfolds? First, there is a great deal of confusion around the shape and size of things to come. Let’s start by exploring the extent of change required to turn things around, using a home heating system as an example.
Basically there are two levels of change: the first is adjusting the thermostat (incremental change), while the second is getting rid of the old heating system and installing a new one (systemic change). (Of course there are an infinite number of options in between, but for the sake of clarity let’s consider these two endpoints only. Any change to a system in between these two can be fairly easily assigned to either this or that. The question to ask is: did the fundamental concept change, or are we just making adjustments between the boundaries of the old system?)
Generally, it is a lot easier to perform an incremental change than a systemic one. “Hey darling, can you turn up the heating?” Up to a certain point this should not be a problem. In the rare and unlikely case your „darling” would turn into a lizard with a heating requirement of 38°C (above 100 F), you would be immediately faced with a need for a systemic change. You no longer trifle with the usual 15–25°C range — you step out of it. In order to do that you would need to install a new type of heating system which allows for such a high temperature, plus you must also cope with your extra personal cooling requirements. No wonder people start to look for other options instead.
The problem in our case is that we are confusing these two levels of change way too often. Naturally, we like to approach climate change the easy way: switching light bulbs, eating less meat (whenever it’s convenient), riding a bike once a week. These are incremental changes on a personal level: nothing more than minor adjustments. On a country or state level politicians like to do the same: adding a few Megawatts of photovoltaics here, a couple of wind turbines there… And here lies the heart of the problem: we tend to think that these are effective (systemic) changes, while in fact these are nothing more than few clicks on a control dial — cheap ways to put our fears to rest.
God is a DJ
In order to effectively change the system and thus “save humanity”, you have to a) understand the system in question and b) have a complete control over it. Our leaders lack both, unfortunately. They lack the understanding, namely that the root cause of our problems is not green house gas (GHG) emissions, but an ever increasing overall energy consumption and an unchecked population growth — on a finite planet with rapidly depleting resources.
Global warming is just the side effect induced by our polluting activities. Should we succeed in adjusting the GHG knob by installing “renewables” everywhere and reach “net zero” — we would found ourselves among 4km wide and 2km deep mining pits interspersed with radioactive acid lakes, a totally depleted top soil unable to feed the population, and most of the trees and larger-than-a-rat animal species extinct. Why? Because we have depleted most of our existing mines enough already, that in order to accomplish a “green revolution” we would have to dig up almost every possible square km on Earth to obtain that 0.1 to 0.01% grade copper ore needed for the increased material requirements of building out a new energy system from scratch. Fortunately, this could not be achieved: such a planetary scale destruction is energetically impossible. Processing such low grades (and remember it’s not only copper, but almost every other mineral!) requires exponentially increasing amount of energy, which we will not be able to provide — neither with our slowly depleting fossil fuels, nor with the yet to be built (but hopelessly intermittent and challenging to store) “renewable” electricity network.
This energetic and geological predicament is completely out of sight — out of mind for 99.9% of the population (including politicians, economists and engineers). It’s no wonder then, that there is a complete misunderstanding what is the system we are talking about, and what needs to be changed in order to become sustainable (so we could finally stop being afraid of death).
Since our leaders do not get it, that we have simply overshot the carrying capacity of Earth and will slowly run out of available energy (not to mention a living habitat) everybody points to a different direction. Neo-liberal economists point to the free market and monetary policy. Bright greens think its the electric grid (not having a second thought about 3/4 of our energy consumed in the form of high heat and pressure in our internal combustion engines, various industrial applications, buildings etc.). Leftists think it’s our social structure with all its inequalities and injustices — maybe capitalism itself.
The list goes on… while in fact all of these factors above (plus many-many more) are just knobs and dials on a wast sound mixing desk — without an agreement who the DJ is, not to mention that we have no one to qualify as such... And all the while a thin line of blue smoke started to eminate from the device.
Have no illusions: not even a single dial is under control. When did you last saw a president successfully stopping for example drilling for more oil? The current one in the States? He just asked the Saudis to pump more after he realized that fracking for oil is dead and thus can safely be banned on federal territory. Knowing that fossil fuels still provide more than 80% of our energy — just like 50 years ago — no one really dares to touch that dial. Not to mention the backlash from the industry, but that’s another story. Since we are living in a complex adaptive system, hell bent on burning as much energy it can (without knowing what it’s doing) this shouldn’t come as a surprise. The system itself takes care of its own self-regulation — there is really no one needed behind that sound mixing board.
The situation we are in is a result of multiple generations doing what this mega-machine „wanted” them to do: it simply could not have happened any other way.
Let’s not forget that we are not Gods. Not even Demigods. We as a species have spent 99% of our history as hunter-gatherers, occasional gardeners and artists — and did not gave a rat’s buttock about sustainability. When we were hungry, we hunted mammoths. When mammoths were gone we turned our spears towards the bison — not knowing that we just might have caused a species’ extinction.
We are somewhat smart, but otherwise totally unwise apes.
Just like other members of our primate family, we like to live in small groups and would do anything to remain part of that group. During our 3 million year history to be ostracized was equal to be dead — and to be dead we fear the most. Thus, to avoid conflict with others we have adopted stories on how sustainable our group’s practices are and how our group is the smartest of all. It also served the need to protect our worthiness and to keep us believing that we will be here forever. Never minding for a second if those stories were eventually on a collision course with reality.
It is always a lot easier to take up an existing belief system — no matter how unsustainable it is — than to convince others that we are in for a crash. In the human social system only slight course adjustments are possible. You might succeed only if a) you happen to be a trusted advisor to your group, b) there is an imminent danger, which c) can be avoided by a slight change in direction. Flip any of these parameters to their opposite however and your failure is guaranteed. Want to try and convince another group? See how successful scientists were in persuading politicians about climate change (beyond the usual magical thinking and happy talk). How about a major course adjustment (i.e. systemic change — like de-growth) or long term risks vs imminent danger (avoiding something tomorrow, not 10 or 100 years from now)? If you still think otherwise, look at how successful mask wearing campaigns were in different parts of the word in the face of imminent danger (COVID) and a slight adjustment (covering your mouth and nose with a mask). Good old denial on the other hand could always be trusted to protect a group’s self-esteem, values and way of life.
We are constantly overestimating our ability to convince others — and all too easily fall into the trap of thinking that if I could persuade 10 people to join my movement, then these 10 will convince a hundred and so on… As if the group of potentially convincible people would equal Earth’s population (or at least 10% of that according to those who believe that there is a tipping point in such a complex matter). Then we stand surprised that the movement has stopped growing at the size of 176 people — as a result of us failing to take it into account how many of us are truly interested in climate change, so much so as to give up a carrier and a way of life. We are all too inclined to believe that everyone else thinks the same way as we do… “It’s logical / ethical for me, thus it must be logical / ethical for others!” — our thinking goes. We simply lack the power to imagine how diverse human thinking is.
Our span of control as individuals or even as heads of large organizations are thus very-very limited. It is a false belief that we have agency in convincing a significant part of the population about any matter — especially about those issues, which are not tied to an immediate danger and can be avoided by major course corrections only. Humanity has fragmented itself into billions of groups, and while superficially it might look like a homogeneous mass, in fact it is quite the opposite. If you have an idea of how the world should look like, you can be sure that there will be at least one rival tribe with an opposing interest — hence the case for wars. It’s not a modern phenomenon either: think about tribal disputes, shepherds vs farmers — you name the opponents. Social media was just fuel to this fire burning for many millennia.
Myth of heroes
The fate of humanity thus lies not at a single person’s hand — not even at a group of people’s. Our fate is shaped by the everyday actions of billions(!) of death anxious apes. Every one of them is just doing his or her job, with or without guilt, acting on beliefs and best (short term) interests. Evolution did not have the chance to equip Homo sapiens with the wisdom much needed in our time of planetary scale technology:
genetically (and sometimes culturally) we are still the same old undressed people waving spears in front of outsiders.
Evolution selects for certain features: length of legs, speed, agility, problem solving etc. — not for individuals. Were a feature to appear in a significant portion of the population and found to be useful for survival, it would be replicated and spread across descendants. Thanks to our abnormally large brains, we can develop ideas a lot faster than growing longer limbs. This does not mean however that every idea can take hold in every human brain. Proposals go through a range of selection criteria both on the individual and on the social level (“I might be convinced, but if my group is not, then I will reject the idea too”). If it meets these criteria on both levels though, it gets passed on — if not, it slowly goes extinct.
It really doesn’t matter who comes up with an idea originally— just as it did not matter which individual primate walked on two legs first. When the conditions become right for an invention to come about, it pops out from multiple brains at the same time and start spreading automatically. Some of the originators will be hyped, others will be not. For example: conditions were right to start mechanized flight in the early 20th century, so it came to be. If the Wright brothers had been shot during a drunken bar fight, then we would be celebrating Whitehead today as the father of aeroplanes instead of them. Likewise, other historical events would have played out rather similarly if the main character had died prematurely — others would have taken up the slack faster than a blink of an eye.
It is the circumstances that make history, not individuals.
Circumstances are a result of a nice interplay between billions of us (plus many other living beings) minding our own business and the resources of the environment we all share. We are not inherently destructive nor unsustainable. We are simply doing what we can, limited by our environment more than we would like to think. If we somehow managed to lift some of these limitations by our technology — be it hunting with a spear to compensate our lack of claws, or applying fertilizers to increase crop yield — we expanded and multiplied as far and as fast as we could, just like yeast cells transferred to a larger Petri dish. We are simply obeying the laws of complex adaptive systems and maximizing our energy use to the detriment of our own future, because nothing seems to be capable of stopping us — until now.
When we will eventually learn that technology gave us a temporary lift only, then we will have no other choice than to shrink back to meet natural limits. Of course it would be much-much better if all human tribes would realize that we must do this down-sizing (or de-growth) voluntarily — but I do not expect this to happen. As long as we can keep expanding our energy use, the human enterprise will grow and no one will be able to convince “humanity” that the edge of the cliff is nigh.
In light of the above its both hubris and insane to think that we have the agency to stop climate change, resource depletion or any other global phenomena from happening. We can do however help those we care for the most: our family, our neighbors, our community — acting within our sphere of influence. This is where we need activists: to build community resilience and fight the destruction of our landscapes.
The human experiment is running it’s due course of rise and fall in endless circles. This current cycle is bigger, higher and more destructive than any of its predecessors was, or its following ones will ever be — thanks to the one time bonanza of fossil fuels. Nevertheless, it will come to its conclusion. We will have no other choice then, than to come up with ideas on how to handle the situation. If they turn out to be good practices, they will spread around or will be invented elsewhere as well — and that’s all. You don’t need to become a hero and save humanity — nor have to feel guilty that you can’t.
I’m not re-inventing the wheel with this blog either: most of these ideas were born long here before I learned about our predicament. I simply felt the urge to share and reflect on them and hopefully, dear reader, you will do the same. That’s all.
A closing thought from John Gray seems to be appropriate here:
“Most of the things that happen to us are pure chance. We struggle with the idea that there is no hidden meaning to find.”
Until next time,