There is no script for what our societies are going through. There is no map for this territory. Though groups of human beings have caused massive ecological damage to their surroundings throughout our history, the size and extent of industrialization’s infrastructure is unprecedented on the earth. We are becoming, to use a phrase from Marvel, the destroyers of worlds. Or, to take another popular reference, we are engaged in Star Wars where some are building the death star, the ultimate weapon capable of destroying whole planets at a time. To state it as clearly as possible we could say that the human race is becoming a monster.
Last week we touched on the capability of the human brain to record carefully the details around whatever traumatic experiences it has been through. Those events which threaten its continued existence are prioritized by the algorithm of evolutionary fitness which developed it. The same survival priority has also created the brains ability to hide the knowledge of those detailed traumatic memories from the ego, the self-conscious part of the human experience, if the ego would be incapacitated by them. Again, the priority is to get on with the necessary tasks of day-in and day-out living: finding food, shelter, mates, and maintaining the body in working order. To accomplish this animals have developed the ability to learn and the most powerful lessons are those that concern surviving.
The question of future survival is exactly what our ecological sciences are warning us is no longer assured. Though we are acting as though we do not know this, the facts are so well dispersed among the mass media that very few people are completely unaware. This leaves our social lives in a condition somewhat parallel to someone who is in denial about their childhood abuse. Such people are left doing what they can in the day-in and day-out tasks of their lives but are handicapped by unacknowledged fears, angers, and pain. Psychologists say the body of such people remembers the abuse, the brain of such people has seared the lessons into memory but the memory remains inaccessible to the ego. These repressions mold the ego which needs to navigate around the hot spots, placing it in the state of cognitive dissonance where they both know and do not know what is real for them. In order to avoid thinking the thoughts that would uncover the truth of their past, at some level of consciousness they remain obsessed with that past pain. This allows them to remain vigilant in their task of never allowing the thought that cannot be thought.
When the pain of such dual awareness gets to be too much, such people need to find relief in drugs, fanaticisms, violence, and other less than optimal behaviors. Are our societies that different?
The ongoing and accelerating sixth extinction is weighing heavily on our shoulders. As the evidence of climate change’s loss of climate stability accumulates and our minds take note of it, this too weighs heavily on our shoulders. As the coral reefs die our bodies respond viscerally since the threat of a dying ocean brings atavistic fears that the source of life itself might become poisoned by our hands. We have seen Venus and we have seen Mars, both providing mirrors of what earth could be. Though we may pretend as we go about our daily business that these things are not bothering us deeply, we cannot deny the evidence of our senses. Pondering and understanding the evidence of our senses is exactly what the human brain has evolved to do.
As hard as all of this is on the minds of every human being alive today, it is not the worst part of it. The worst knowledge of all is how simple the solution is to turn our trend lines into life supporting ones instead of the current life killing ones. We all know what we need to do. We need to stop burning fossil fuels.
Here is the thought that cannot be thought in modern civilized discourse. To think it involves so many unquestioned assumptions by which our existing social arrangements are maintained that we cower from it in fear. We need to recognize that Exxon is the enemy. We need to recognize that Exxon is not a few humans but an artificial construct created by our hands but now alive with a life of its own. Imagine for a moment that all the stockholders of Exxon awoke tomorrow morning from a shared nightmare in which they saw the state of the earth one hundred years from now and it shook them all to the bone. Imagine every stockholder suddenly insisting that the board of directors immediately develop a plan to ween the world off its oil addiction. This imaginative scenario is one in which human beings take the maximum responsibility for their choices and use their maximum courage to stand for what is right. What would be the outcome? Nothing. It is not legally possible for Exxon to do any such thing. It must only do that which will bring maximum profit to its stockholders. This is what I mean by we have created an artifact that now has a life of its own.
I do not want to be misunderstood as just another left-leaning guy railing against corporations. Corporations are simply collections of human beings, some of whom have committed evil acts and made evil decisions and will again, most of whom have not and will not. Most human beings are well intentioned. Human beings have a deep need to give back to the societies in which they have received all they have needed to survive. We are moved by the generosity of the hand that gives us our existence and this whole beautiful earth on which to experience it. It provokes a desire to give something back, to make something of the many gifts we have been given. Corporations simply harness that natural desire, though in the environment of truth-repressions they do tend to deliver shoddy, if not down right destructive, results.
Exxon is, of course, just the whipping pole I chose as an example because it is the largest corporation on earth and the one currently in the driver’s seat of United States foreign policy making. Any number of other organizations could just as easily be analyzed along the same lines. This is what we are up against and so far it is proving to be an enemy to future well-being we are wholly incapable of defeating. How can we defeat the Nazi threat of our generation when it is not concentrated in a country or a particular political ideology but pervades our entire consciousness? We are so enamored by the loud bells and whistles of our modern technology that it has become impossible for most individuals to imagine living together any other way. We are enslaved.
No one in their right mind would choose to create the conditions of a massive die off of both people and animals for the sake of a smartphone. Ok, that is a bit flippant but it captures something I think is very real about our situation. First get clear about the die off our sciences are warning us is heading our way – fast. The existing population of close to eight billion human beings may very well become a population of maybe one billion by end of this century. The diversity of animal species could very well be diminished by fifty to eighty percent. Plant life does not escape these dire predictions either. The massive forest die off already happening across many parts of the world (due to Bark Beetles and such) is expected to only increase in a warming world. The desperate slash and burn techniques for acquiring arable land able to grow crops has, as of today, no counter force by which its accelerating rates might be curbed. Lacking predictable climate stability removes the ability to reliably grow food anyway. Those educated in the ecological sciences realize I could go on and on like this but these quick sketches are enough to indicate the die off we are involved in accelerating with our every choice to try and solve our ecological problems in any fashion other than stopping our burning of fossil fuels. Second, the smartphone was not an arbitrary choice of modern high technology. Social scientists and psychologists have made it very clear that allowing Apple and the other giants to sell these technologies to our children has had a profoundly negative effect on their self-esteem and attention spans. This might be an Apple future generations will wish we did not bite. We are looking at the second generation raised on screens and finding the number of people who read serious books about serious matters such as ecology (not to mention war and peace) has plummeted frighteningly. As a society we seem to have lost the ability to retain memories. Stories of great import hit the news wire and then are never heard about again. Where is the in-depth follow-up and postmortem on our crises by which we might learn something from them? (as a citizen do you personally even know how much national treasure the United States spent in 2017 dealing with climate change influenced extreme weather events? How much did Houston cost, that hub of tough talking Texans and oil?) This is the evidence I present for consideration and debate. These are the real world, on the ground facts that need to be answered and not evaded.
I am just a computer engineer, a systems scientist of sorts with a love of reading and a colorful past. I have no letters behind my name, no organizations backing up my words. What do I have? Just some tears and fears that do not let me deny what I have learned in my studies. No one in their right mind would choose to create the conditions of a massive die off of both people and animals for the sake of a smartphone. That is so obvious to me. What it shows me is that most people right now are not in their right minds because most people refuse to be put out by such considerations, refuse the cost of personal suffering such insight entails. Most people, it seems, have chosen to live instead in the lands of childish make-believe, hoping some big parent (be it our father president on earth or our father religious in heaven) will come and fix everything. No, not childish make-believe. We are into something much darker than that where every perversion and deviance is celebrated as a way forward, as if it were a blow for liberty and human rights. Shutting our eyes, closing our ears, muting our voices, we resemble nothing so much as the three monkeys that see no evil, hear no evil, and speak of no evils. This might be a viable strategy for dealing with problems that are seemingly so much larger than anything individuals can address, but I worry it is not. I think denial ultimately fails because of the nature of trauma processing within the brains we have, brains Demitry Orlov humbly refers to as Monkey Brains 2.0. This is what has lead me to propose Mindful Ecology as an alternative approach.
Human beings are not powerless before the suicidal impulses that can be planted within them. However, dealing with them requires that we recognize the power that human beings have to make choices. That power lies only within individuals, not within magical father projections or group-think run organizations. Recognizing the power of choice clears the air. As sad as it might seem, you simply do not have the power to make good choices for other people, try as you might by whatever authoritarian enchantments you try. You do have the power to make your own choices. Once you become real clear that it is the burning of fossil fuels that is at the heart of what is ailing us, then you become naturally empowered to act on that knowledge in your own individual way. In the last analysis there is nothing else. In the last analysis, nothing else is needed.