For almost two decades now, I have been on a journey to understand what comes next in the grand human enterprise. I started out in a mindset superficially similar to that of most people I encounter—assuming that we would innovate our way into a future that became ever better: less poverty and hunger; greater conveniences; a probable space future—fingers crossed.
But the more I dug into the details, the more concerned I became that such a grand vision is an illusion built on top of a highly anomalous period in human history when we over-exploited finite resources on Earth in a one-time bonanza—using those resources to access remaining resources ever faster in an accelerating cycle. I constantly sought reassurance as to what I had wrong about this picture, but found little solace. Those who tried to ease my mind spoke in vague praise of human capabilities and pointed to the arc of history as a reliable pattern by which to understand the future. I did not get the impression that they had confronted my specific concerns and had a blueprint for how to navigate past the pile-up of global-scale problems and irreversible consumption of our inheritance.
Lately, as I meet other academics (via PLAN) who have come to similar conclusions (sober, deep, and careful thinkers, I find), a frequent question that arises is: how can something that seems so obvious to us be dismissed by so many others? What are we missing? Or what are they missing? Why is it so hard to reach common ground? Where is the disconnect?
An answer—or at least a partial one—is beginning to resolve itself in my head. Previously, I tended to focus on growth and ecological overshoot as the most important “upstream” factors impacting our complex civilization on our road to an uncertain future, while issues like climate change and political/social considerations are downstream effects (symptoms) that will not get solved without first addressing root causes (the underlying disease). But maybe I have stumbled onto something even more foundational—the headwaters (pathogen), if you will—and am starting to pinpoint why our peril is so hard to grasp.
I just watched Don’t Look Up! on Netflix. While the movie has a number of flaws, on the whole I recommend it for the insights it contains in its parody of human attention deficit disorder.
The premise is that astronomers discover a comet on a direct collision course with Earth, due to hit in six months’ time. The world has difficulty assimilating this information, quickly polarizing into the all-too-familiar pattern of believers and deniers. Moneyed interests, techno-optimism, and old-fashioned failures (by non-Americans, of course) thwart mitigation efforts, leaving the entire globe in mortal peril. Even at a public event dedicated to the planet-killing crisis, the highlight was a pop star’s performance featuring dazzling lights and costumes. How ’bout them priorities!
Yes, it’s complete fiction, so we need to be careful about drawing lessons from the storyline—just as I would caution against forming opinions of space travel from the big screen. Aside from a list of technical nitpicks, I suspect that something as predictable/certain as a comet slamming into Earth would be taken far more seriously and be more universally accepted than are the more nebulous threats we currently face like limits to growth, climate change, and even COVID-19.
This post lacks a single overarching message, but explores a few worthy themes that the movie brings up for me.
People rarely recognize or admit that they have been brainwashed. Perhaps the term brainwashed is too extreme, in which case manipulated or fooled may be substituted.
An insightful quote from Mark Twain says:
It is easier to fool people than it is to convince them that they have been fooled.
What often happens, in fact, is that people on opposite sides of an issue suspect (or are convinced) that the other side has been brainwashed. Sometimes one side is more justified in the charge than the other, in which case the brainwashed victims effectively assert a sort of projected symmetry that rings false.
Bi-directional allegations of brainwashing show up in the context of COVID: masks provide a clear means of identifying either those (masked individuals) who have been fooled into controlled submission to believe that the pandemic is real and deadly vs. those (unmasked fighters for freedom) who have been sadly misled to think it’s all a hoax and in so doing endanger us all. Each side may feel anger or pity toward the other. Climate change is similar: its denial has become an article of faith for the brainwashed non-believers, who accuse the gullible believers of being brainwashed by self-serving scientists vying for funding, power, or something (cake, maybe?).
To either side, it seems inconceivable that someone could deny the truths that are so obvious to them. For me, an uptick in total deaths closely matching reports of COVID deaths is pretty convincing, and it is hard for me to make out why anyone in power would want to wreck the economy and could somehow convince countries around the world to overlook a competitive advantage and follow suit. It boggles the mind. Likewise, I can see how climate change threatens powerful interests like the fossil fuel industry and even perhaps capitalism writ large—via the imposition of unwelcome limits on what we can do. But I have a much harder time understanding the bizarre allegations of scientists rolling in dough by hopping on the climate change bandwagon. That’s not how it works, people.
In this post, I will provide an example of how I evaluate the question of whether I have been brainwashed in the case of climate change, contrasting the way my knowledge is “received” to that of the opposition.
Readers of this blog will know that I have come to some big-picture conclusions about success and failure that are unsettling. I don’t like them myself. Not only do they create an inner sadness about where I think the human endeavor is heading, but they result in a sort of isolation that I would rather not suffer—introvert though I am. Among other academics at my institution, it is rare for me to find kindred spirits, even among groups self-selected to care about environmental issues. Most don’t seem to see very far beyond climate change in the lineup of existential threats, increasingly focusing on inequities within the human population that stem from climate and environmental disturbances. I am glad that climate change awareness is high (a genuine threat), but even if climate change had never arisen, I think we would still be in grave trouble from the more fundamental flaws in our explosive approach to living on Earth.
This is a large part of the impetus behind PLAN, which I announced in the last post. Already, I am gratified that people joining the network from vastly different fields and experiences have formed similar conclusions at the highest level. So I’m not crazy, unless we all are. In any case, I am less lonely. [I will say that crazy is usually easy to spot in conversation: a little too insistent/enthusiastic/one-track. The PLAN folks feel really solid, broad, and even perhaps subdued to me: not the type you want to back away from at a party.]
But I still try to understand why so few of my colleagues have reached similar conclusions. The easy answer is that I’m just plain wrong. But believe me, I have tormented myself to try to discover the missing piece and go back to being a happy human bumping along in this race to who-knows-where. It’s not that my unconcerned colleagues have thought more deeply about the issues and can help a rookie out, in my experience.
In this post, I venture some guesses about the disconnect—some of which may even be on target. I will loosely frame the discussion in the context of academia, but much of the logic also applies beyond this scope. The basic idea is: complexity makes it hard to differentiate between real and artificial worlds.
I have had some success over the years in talking with people who on the surface do not seem to be very much like myself. Superficially, I am a west-coast liberal elite professor who has cats in lieu of children. My tribal affiliation seems clear, yet I am often at ease discussing heavy stuff with all types.
In a recent conversation with a neighbor whose votes likely exactly counter my own, I believe I made substantial progress in broadening his views on COVID vaccinations, news sources, conspiracy theories, and maybe more.
In this post, I’ll run through key messages in that conversation and elements that I believe may have allowed those messages to land. Then I will discuss more broadly some attributes that I think make substantive conversations with unlikely interlocutors possible.
First, we’ll start with my neighbor, Chip. That’s not his real name, but I want to convey a sense of a man’s man. Chip owns and operates heavy machinery, knows his way around concrete, and loves going fishing on his boat.
I took some honey harvested from my bees to thank Chip for loaning me two massive iron spikes that I used as anchors driven deep into the ground to drag something heavy across the dirt. The conversation we had ranged all over, but I capture main themes here as an example of how one might make progress, perhaps offering tips that may allow others to have similar success.
Purveyors of unpopular messages are often scrutinized for any inconsistent, seemingly hypocritical behavior that might give lie to their preachings and be used to discredit the unwelcome perspective. A famous example is Al Gore’s heavy air travel schedule to spread the word and take action against climate change, resulting in an enormous CO2 footprint. If we all behaved that way, the very problem at hand would be substantially exacerbated.
Such accusations either knowingly or pathetically miss the obvious point that the net effect of Al Gore’s efforts may be positive owing to the simple idea of a lever: a little expenditure here can counteract vast expenditures elsewhere for an overall gain on the problem. For many, the glaring superficial contradiction is enough ammunition to discredit the entire enterprise.
But identifying possible hypocrisy in those who warn of future perils, as I have done, has a dark edge: if even those cognizant individuals cannot get away from behaviors they know to be damaging, doesn’t that only amplify the severity of the warning?
Recent reflections on the long-term trajectory of the human enterprise have somewhat transformed the way I look at most activities. Specifically, I refer to the dual realizations that on 10,000 year timescales ultimate success is effectively synonymous with true sustainability, and that the human race stands in blatant breach of contract with evolution and ecosystem parameters—fueled by a mad grab of one-time finite resources. The net effect is that most human activities today promote ultimate failure rather than ultimate success.
As such, when evaluating a proposed or ongoing effort, I ask myself the question:
To what end?
This post will examine some of the activities of current society, and evaluate how much sense they make in the context of a post-party future.
Evolution is like a lengthy job application process. Each new species endures a long and harsh vetting procedure to judge what role it plays in the ecosystem, how prepared it is to deal with lean years, predators, disease, climate variations, and anything that might reasonably be expected to arise even once in a thousand generations. Those species not able to satisfy the impartial judges of nature are voted off the island. It’s a tough crowd.
The successful species—the ones that have held on for many thousands of generations—essentially have signed a contract with nature. The contract is implicitly a “common law” arrangement: if you’ve stayed with us this long, you’re (indifferently) accepted as part of the family.
The terms of the contract are also implicit: as long as you continue to operate within the parameters by which you were judged to be adequate members of the ecosystem, you enjoy the built-in protection of that same ecosystem to continue survival, having carved out a role integrated into the rest by a complex web of interdependencies.
Humans signed our contract with evolution based on a primitive lifestyle that persisted for hundreds of thousands of years. We also inherited clauses from ancestor species, whose capabilities we incrementally altered, thus extending the vetting span to millions of years.
Humans today stand in gross violation of our pact with nature. We are egregiously in breach of contract. Our protections are thereby revoked.
A 2018 paper by Bar-On, Phillips, and Milo in PNAS contains a fascinating figure (Figure 1) that bears staring at for some time. It shows the dry carbon biomass distribution of various forms of life on Earth. Plants account for 450 Gt (giga-ton; 1012 kg) of mass, while the sum of all animals adds to 2.5 Gt. Humans comprise only 2.4% of animal mass on the planet, but that’s almost ten times as large as wild mammal mass. Add human livestock (outweighing human mass) and wild mammals are only 4% of the human-livestock-mammal trio.
But this post is heading somewhere else: lament about the un-wilding of the planet on your own time (kidding aside, please do!). Let’s start by considering the following question. Which do you think is more valuable: the web of living animals on this planet, or all the gold accessible in the ground? If given a choice to eliminate one and preserve the other, which would you choose? Gold, among Earth’s mineral stocks, is used for this question because it has served as a physically-based monetary standard for many cultures throughout time.
What follows has absurd elements to it, but hopefully in forgivable service of a larger point about the value of life on this planet and in shining a glaring spotlight on current human values.
This is the TV poster for “David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet.” (CNS photo/Netflix)
If you have not already watched A Life on Our Planet, serving as a witness statement from Sir David Attenborough, please find a way to do so. During his experience-rich lifetime, Attenborough has had a front row seat to the steady whittling down of nature. Any contemporary nature show will justifiably sound the climate change horn, as A Life on Our Planet does as well. But Sir David digs deeper, as few tend to do, and scoops up the essence of the matter.
I have now watched the show three times. The first instance resonated strongly with recent revelations and writings of my own, and I gladly watched it a second time with my wife. The third time, one hand hovered over the pause button while the other scribbled notes and captured key quotations. This post delivers said quotes and connects them to themes dear to my heart. Note: the quotes in the show are delivered verbally, so any formatting emphasis is my own.