A future we have yet to imagine

Ever since I read an article by George Monbiot I’ve been thinking about myths, the stories we’ve told since the beginning of time.  Monbiot writes “Stories are the means by which we navigate the world. They allow us to interpret its complex and contradictory signals. We all possess a narrative instinct: an innate disposition to listen for an account of who we are and where we stand. You cannot take away someone’s story without giving them a new one.  It is not enough to challenge an old narrative, however outdated and discredited it may be. Change happens only when you replace one story with another. When we develop the right story, and learn how to tell it, it will infect the minds of people across the political spectrum.” https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/sep/09/george-monbiot-how-de-we-get-out-of-this-mess

In every culture, every community, every family, every generation we tell our stories.  The form of telling has changed, from spoken to written, from books to video, to computer and internet.   I was talking to my mother recently about our family history and she said, “Well, you tell a good story!”  I realized in that moment that my stories of our family are different from my mother’s.  The stories of what happened, when and most importantly why have changed as I’ve grown older but they remain a central part of me and who I identify as my ‘self’, as different from my mother and her generation.  And I wondered what stories will my children and grandchildren tell about their past, my present, and issues such as what we did or didn’t do about climate change.

The stories we tell shape our beliefs and actions.  Neoliberals on the left and Libertarians on the right have something in common, the belief that the human individual, if left to his or her own good nature, would create a just and free world.  Authoritarians, both political and religious, have taken the opposite view that humans are basically weak or sinful and without a strong leader or a God, we behave badly.  So what is the truth?  Are humans basically good, or basically bad?  Can we trust our motivation to act in time to address climate change or will we simply be forced to endure the consequences? I think the truth is we are neither one nor the other but capable of both, behaving in different ways as we mature into adulthood.

As a baby we absorb information but have no fixed identity of self, this is why babies are seen as innocent.  As children we develop our identity, our ego, our moment of narcissistic reality “I am someone”, and we become able to act.  As we develop adulthood we move beyond self-centered narcissism and begin to develop social consciousness, relating to others around us.  How far we develop as adults varies.  Some people never move beyond narcissism, clinging to the idea that they are uniquely special and acting only to benefit them selves.  Some people move a little beyond, extending their ego identity as far as their tribe, giving their allegiance to a group identity, and distrusting other groups.  Racial prejudice and bigotry are a norm for such groups of people, still acting to benefit only Us not Them.  Very few people reach the state of maturity which goes beyond human identity seeing the complex connections between all life forms, learning to respect life beyond human form.

The story I believe to be true is that humans need personal contact to evolve.  Living life through social media is stunting our growth as humans because of the absence of direct, immediate personal contact.  We need the presence of a close and loving family, a small group of people that know us well, others that we trust.  Families need a stable home, a place where we are nurtured, where we feel safe.  Home is the place we come to rest, to take sustenance, to rejuvenate.  Homes occupied by families need the continuity of community, the groups of families living near each other and sharing values, resources, a way of living and supporting each other.  As the familiar group enlarges beyond a certain size, beyond the community in which we live, we lose direct personal connection with others. In a community, norms function better than laws because it is the people themselves that enforce socially accepted behaviors. In the larger society laws and government become necessary because individuals no longer act, groups act.  Communities need stable connections to other communities, good ‘politics’ to govern our treatment of others.

We do not really know what life is like for others that live in another state, or another country, unless we visit them.  We need travelers and teachers…people who are part of our group but have knowledge of others.  Through them we come to know a larger family we call humanity.  I think Monbiot is right “We have been induced by politicians, economists and journalists to accept a vicious ideology of extreme competition and individualism that pits us against each other, encourages us to fear and mistrust each other and weakens the social bonds that make our lives worth living.  We have lost our common purpose.”  If dystopia, war and destruction are all we can imagine, then violence may be all we can expect.

The story I believe is that we are all part of this dance called life, each of us having our own way of seeing and being.  Every living creature lives in this dance, dependent upon environmental stability to fulfill its main purpose of birth, growth, reproduction, and death.  Humans are different from animals because we search for meaning in life.  And although we may see life’s purpose as different from that of a plant, an insect, another mammal, at the core we all are part of the same striving to exist.

I think finding our way forward, is seeing the value of each other in community.  We need the stodgy old English teacher that insists we learn the proper rules of writing.  We need the conservative traditionalists that keep faith with the past, so that when we go off track we know how to find our way back.  We need the scientist, explorer, radical innovator looking for new ideas because we won’t solve our problems with the same thinking that got us into this mess.  We need the mystics, writers, poets, and artists to help us imagine a world we ourselves cannot see.  And most important of all, we need to coexist with all of the life around us.  We need to listen to each other’s stories, because someone else, even some other life form, may help us find a way into a future we have yet to imagine.

Monbiot and how humans still don’t know who we are

George Monbiot, the acclaimed British writer, recently wrote a review of the book Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change in which he points out the many disturbing social, political, and economic trends that seem to be making us less able to deal with climate change than more so. But there is a way out, he says: “Over the past few years, there has been a convergence of findings in different sciences: psychology, anthropology, neuroscience and evolutionary biology. Research in all these fields points to the same conclusion: that human beings are, in the words of an article in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, “spectacularly unusual when compared to other animals”. This refers to our astonishing degree of altruism. We possess an unparalleled sensitivity to the needs of others, a unique level of concern about their welfare, and a peerless ability to create moral norms that generalise and enforce these tendencies.” https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/sep/09/george-monbiot-how-de-we-get-out-of-this-mess

Now George Monbiot is a good, trying kind of person, very urbane and a fine writer, but it amazes me how he (and we in general) constantly have to pat ourselves on the back about how amazing we are. We have being doing this obsessively since the Renaissance. Can we not give it a rest already? Are are so insecure that we constantly have to pump ourselves up?

I don’t know what kind of experiments led to these findings of our extreme specialness but I can just about guarantee that they were all designed with human capacities in mind. We don’t know enough about the emotional life of other animals to begin to measure their altruism. In my experience most cows are kinder to each other than most humans. But we can barely see them as emotional beings. And this is a problem, because if we can only see ourselves we can’t see the inherent value of non-human beings.

Monbiot goes on to talk about how the way out of our downward spiral is to rebuild community and connection, and I am not arguing with that at all. Rebuilding local communities and social connections among humans is critical, but in order for it to really work we need to see beyond the purely human realm into the life of the places where we live, and all of the non-human lives that are an inherent and necessary part of those places.

Before the wind consumes us

Watching news about Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma enthralled and terrified viewers.  Part of me felt safe and secure knowing I lived far away and my family wasn’t in the path of these dangerous, record setting storms.  Part of me felt worried for those who were.  Part of me felt disgusted by voyeurism of the media prying into people’s lives asking them “How do you feel about your home being destroyed, losing all your possessions?”  It’s really sad to think that climate change only attracts our attention when it causes devastation, instead of discussing how to respond to this threat.

It has become apparent that even educated, environmentally conscious people who take climate change seriously are unwilling to make the kind of changes in their lifestyle that will significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel use. Some educated but less affluent Americans express an interest in sustainable living but can’t afford to make the changes: i.e. buy the energy efficient home, add the solar panels, or purchase land on which to grow food.  There are far too many people who deny climate change or deny that it is caused by humans.

Influential people that trust in the market want to “grow” the economy and maintain the status quo, because it benefits them financially to believe this.   Even the recent damage caused by Hurricane Harvey has benefited the economy by boosting car sales.  Unfortunately, the under-educated, underemployed Americans that believe fake news, voted for Trump, eat nutritionally poor food, and have terrible health problems will suffer the most from weather related disasters but have the least understanding about what is happening and how it will affect them. It seems that there are very few families educated, affluent, environmentally conscious, and willing to change their lifestyle; to be frugal, simple, and less carbon consuming/polluting.

I am reminded of the fable about the frog and the pot of water.  Put a frog in a boiling pot of water and it will jump out.  Put a frog in a cold pot of water, turn on the heat and the frog will sit in the pot until it boils to death.  When it comes to the effects of our changing climate humans appear to be sitting in a cold pot of water and thinking there’s no need to jump out!  If we are so smart, why aren’t we smart enough to see what is happening and act?  Why don’t we act before the storms, floods, and wildfires threaten us?

Human history has seen great advancement.  The development of agriculture led to human population expansion and urbanization. Urbanization led to the industrial revolution; intensive exploitation of resources due to the invention of machines powered by fossil fuels. The age of reason led to the age of science. Science, technology, and the multitude of follow on technical inventions led from the industrial revolution to the computer and information revolution. And here we are…rapidly developing self-driving cars, artificial intelligent machines, the network connected world of things, and cyber warfare. Will humanity survive the challenges we face?  Can we survive the current era of extinction?

I think the reason people are unwilling to change their lifestyle to counter climate change is because of an inability to recognize our dependence on the culture we’ve created. Like an anteater that evolved a specialized nose making them totally dependent on eating ants (thus as the ants go so goes the anteater), humans have become adept at using and depending on fossil fuels and technology. Humans are increasingly moving into urban centers, dependent on importation of food, energy, and all the other resources needed for survival. We depend on jobs to acquire money to buy goods and services.

We are totally dependent on the culture we’ve created, and our culture is totally dependent on the technology and cheap energy that maintains it. We in the West, the humans who consume the most carbon, have lost the ability to make or fix the homes in which we live. We live in buildings that are climate controlled, drive about in climate controlled automobiles, and buy the food and supplies in climate controlled stores (or increasingly shop on line). Our lifestyle is supported by a system of which we have little understanding. Our culture and technology are making us less resilient, less able to recover from the disasters we are increasingly experiencing.

The problem is that we are losing touch with the natural world we depend upon and the dangers we face from climate change. We don’t understand how our food production system works, how food is grown, processed, and shipped from distant places. We don’t understand the connection between soil, water, organic matter, microbes, and long term food production. We don’t understand the connection between the food we eat and our health problems. We don’t understand how our furnace and air conditioner work. We don’t understand how or where the energy comes from to run our furnace or air conditioner. We have very little understanding of the limits in the resources our lives depend upon.

We don’t pay attention to how our political choices affect the government we get, one that is increasingly hostile to the less fortunate, the elderly, the sick, the displaced and downtrodden.  Some of the people whose homes were destroyed by Hurricane Harvey, moved to Texas after Hurricane Katrina destroyed their home.  We are losing the ability and the desire to communicate across the political and economic chasms that divide us one from each other; the powerful vs powerless, the rich vs poor, black vs white, man vs woman, etc.

Science and technology has spawned an information industry that is profiting by selling us a constant barrage of electronic mental stimulus.  We spend most of our time connected to others through electronic media that makes us less thoughtful and more reactionary.  The information technology is collecting vast amounts of information about us in order to facilitate consumerism, while stripping away the very meaning of privacy.  We are in danger of losing what it means to be humane.

Perhaps like the anteater our evolutionary path has led us down a dead end. Our neural networks, imagination, and need for social connections have turned into the path of hyper electronic connectivity, imaginary worlds, and fake or titillating news that will keep us enthralled and addicted 24/7 and unable to see the bus before it runs us over.  Perhaps its time we change, before we face the wind that consumes us.