The question will be in future not only how to make a living, but how to survive in the most elementary sense without generating more heat. A cynical upside from a labor market perspective: humanity will soon be reduced substantially and the problem might solve itself. The era of the Anthropocene implies that we target a 5˚Celsius temperature increase, which will lead eventually to the 6th mass extinction. Some people like Elon Musk prepare themselves and work on our species’ survival on Mars. Nathaniel Rich writes in the August edition of the New Yorker magazine gloomily that all this wouldn’t have been necessary. He claims that between 1979 and 1989 (American) scientists had understood the impact of fossil fuel on the planet and had succeeded to convey these findings to decision making politicians. America was then humanity’s cutting edge and American humanity failed.
There is no point in telling an American that some people elsewhere have figured things out earlier. Illuminated British author Aldous Huxley wrote already in 1962, only a year before his death, the essay The Politics of Ecology. More than 10 years before German-British economist E.F. Schumacher published Small is Beautiful, Huxley boils down the complexities of our species in only a few pages and puts all the blame on greed and fear. If you want to understand the cause of climate change and global warming, this is one of the most authoritative (and shortest) sources.
I get increasingly irritated by all these negative articles, no matter how well they are researched or how many thousand words they contain. Rich’s essay is as long as a book. A book about the science of climate change and global warming. A book about US and global politics reacting to the message of science between 1979 and 1989. A book which fails to connect the underlying psychological dynamics with the environmental consequences. A book which severs the link between information and action as educator Neil Postman famously said. We don’t need more of that.
Journalist Georg Diez asks in the German weekly Der Spiegel in reply to Rich’s essay why the extinction of humanity stirs only little interest. His smartest answer is simply that a species’ biological extinction is a problem too complex to understand. I believe quite on the contrary that Bill Mollison, the co-founder of permaculture, was absolutely right, when he said: Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple. Climate change is not about explaining the scientific complexity of its causes but about putting forward a simple solution that people can work with.
I admit, I am not good in this either. I have a tendency towards dogmatism and my writing could often be shorter and much more upbeat. Anyway, its good to be reminded that hailing brings the message across. This insight is nothing new. Hailing has a great track record. Think for a second of the New Testament. Its four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John do not deliver Hiob’s twitter, but an evangelical gospel, i.e. good news. The root of the word evangelist is classic Greek εθανγελιον | euangelion, which literally means to announce the good. In periods of despair, and only then, people listen to the good, the true and the beautiful. Otherwise they play Warcraft, watch Poltergeist or read the FT.
What we lack is a positive narrative of our own collective future - the dark side of humanity has already been described in all clarity by Aldous Huxley and many others. We know all too well that there is something utterly destructive in our nature and that there is no point to either explain the environmental consequences in all scientific detail or the regression of civilization ruled by a power hungry elite. What we need is a shiny storyline which appeals to our mystic subconscious, guiding us like a lantern out of our cave. Postman was absolutely right, when he compared the present machine age with the past of the dark Medieval Ages. We need a miraculous myth which peels off the apathy and ignorance that has settled on our minds, skins and in our hearts. We need a myth that changes gear from negative thinking to positive action. Don’t despair – do something! Jasmine Lomax posted today on LinkedIn. Yes! But what?
I have tried to think about a positive path like many others when I wrote about Genuine Growth last year. The concept of consciousness growth instead of economic or material growth, respectively the two of them in a healthy balance still makes sense, but it’s like Erich Fromm’s thinking far too abstract in order to be absorbed by a significant part of the global population. Psychologist Wilhelm Reich explains in The Mass Psychology of Fascism that humanity at large is not moved by thoughts, concepts or ideas, but by subconscious mysticism. How did the WWII fascists tap into this force? How can it be harnessed in the 21st century for life instead of death?
Their work features concrete solutions and taller than life individuals who have contributed in different disciplines over the last few decades to the shape of a yet fuzzy solution. There is the biochemist and nutrition scientist Thomas C. Campbell finding evidence that animal based protein causes cancer; or cardiologist Cladwell B. Esselstyn who showed in long term studies that a plant based diet can stop and even heal coronary and cardiovascular disease, the #1 cause of death. There are activists like the founder of the transition network Rob Hopkins who understands like few others the force of a positive story and the power of local communities to bring such a story to life.
The second observation is related to how increasingly difficult it has become to craft a positive scenario for our common future in spite of the overwhelming scientific evidence that we have one or two decades left before shit literally hits the cosmic fan. It is exactly under this pressure of moving into a no-escape bottle neck that messages become more focused and less abstract. A big threat is thus also a big opportunity.
These observations provide a second answer to the question why humanity shows only little interest in its own demise. Yes, we are flooded by media with negativity. I just recall last week meeting a friend of mine in a brunch place. It was one of the few times a year that I got myself exposed to the telly which covered there pretty every wall. CNN broadcasted in an endless loop footage of flooding, storms, bush fires, drought intercepted with interviews of scientists and environmentalists predicting with wide eyes and intense gestures worse things to come.
With such visual messaging on our hard drives it’s pretty sure that we go to sleep with nightmares and do everything to let the reality not emerge from our subconscious into our daily lives. What would happen if we did? We would need to stop and change our way of living in the here and now. And that’s just a too crazy idea. Let’s continue to buy Gucci bags, Starbucks coffee in plastic cups and travel to Palau for a diving weekend. Some day when the flood comes, we need to run anyway. Why not delay until then? This is when procrastination and self-design become a question of survival.
The so-called happiest man on the planet, biochemist and Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, once said that although we want to avoid suffering, it seems we are running somewhat towards it. And that can also come from some kind of confusions. One of the most common ones is happiness and pleasure. But if you look at the characteristics of those two, pleasure is contingent upon time, upon its object, upon the place. It is something that -- changes of nature. Beautiful chocolate cake: first serving is delicious, second one not so much, then we feel disgust.
The truth is though that we have conceived, designed, assembled and manufactured an infinite number of chocolate cakes and the consumer is never bored or disgusted. We might return to the famous Viennese Sacher once in a while, but in between we have hundreds of choices from chocolate brownies to white chocolate praline cupcakes. And if we get bored of chocolate, there is a jungle of sensory stimulation waiting out there. Ordering a new car is such an experience even though MIT tells us that we have reached global peak car: which brand, which model, which color, which seating. I talked a while ago to a designer of the Porsche online configuration system. I can only tell you that decision fatigue got me in an instant. Some people spend though much time if not all their life in such consumption mazes to avoid boredom or run risk that somebody else might make a choice for them.
The consumer is in a processing loop of how to satisfy the next want which is generally created by the sensory stimulation of advertisement which correlates to an epidemic of deficient self-love. What we need to learn is how to sharpen the triple focus (inner, outer and other) as psychologist Daniel Goleman described the attention to the most sincere and urgent needs of the self, others and the environment. Want and need are two different things, like pleasure and joy. A want is something superficial and short lived, a need is something deep and lasting. I might want a quick fuck, but I actually need a healthy relationship. I might want an industrial chocolate bar, but I actually need a healthy, self-cooked and balanced meal. I might want a sports car, but I actually need a decent bike to exercise purposefully. The interesting observation is that mostly what we need is good for others and the planet too, while what we want destroys us and our environment.
To most of us this is nothing new, but still it’s so difficult to change. Why is that? I said before that the second answer to why we do not heed negative messaging is that we fear that things are being taken from us and are desperate to listen to a personal story which tells us the opposite. Cognitive psychologist Daniel Levitin explains why: Prior to the invention of writing, our ancestors had to rely on memory, sketches, or music to encode and preserve important information. Memory is fallible, of course, but not because of storage limitations so much as retrieval limitations. Some neuroscientists believe that nearly every conscious experience is stored somewhere in your brain; the hard part is finding it and pulling it out again. Sometimes the information that comes out is incomplete, distorted, or misleading. Vivid stories that address a very limited and unlikely set of circumstances often pop to mind and overwhelm statistical information based on a large number of observations that would be far more accurate in helping us to make sound decisions about medical treatments, or the trustworthiness of people in our social world.
In short: numbers suck, but stories rule, numbers confuse while stories enlighten. Our brains want the hero’s journey, but media delivers horrifying statistics and dooms scenarios. Levitin continues to explain that our modes of thinking and decision making evolved over the tens of thousands of years that humans lived as hunter-gatherers. But instead of concluding that we need more and better stories to memorize things that matter – or maybe just one grand myth which clears the data jungle - he concludes that our genes haven’t fully caught up with the demands of modern civilization and continues to write a substantial book about how to overcome our evolutionary limitations.
Disney’s 2016 smash hit animation movie Moana told us such a hero’s journey and grossed USD 645 million at the global box offices. A Hercules like demi-God takes the heart from the Goddess of Life (Te Titi) and turns her into the Goddess of Death (Te Ka) bringing draught, infertility and devastation to the people of Maui. It is Moana, daughter of a tribal chief, who trusts her intuition and defies tradition by bringing the forgotten ancestral skill of wayfinding back to life. She heads out into the oceans to restore the heart of Te Titi and her courage is eventually rewarded with the world being put back into balance.
There are solitary warriors like Joan Elizalde, who carry this positive vision of a better future deep in their hearts and act according to their intuition. The Spanish marine biologist lives since a few years with his wife and their toddler son in Shanghai, where he has registered Green Steps, a company which provides outdoor education experiences. Elizalde believes that we can build better societies by reconnecting with nature and through nature with ourselves, others and the planet.
I joined him last weekend guiding an unorthodox team building workshop for Life Solutions, a local water filtering manufacturer. When I arrived with our six year old son, I found a dozen participants in a hidden area of the Wusong Wetland Forest Park in the far North of Shanghai. Dressed in blue company polos they were picking plastic waste from the Yangtze shore and filled their bounty into large white flour bags. In between breaks Elizalde shared with the participants key numbers and key facts about plastic, an omnipresent material of which we don’t know enough.
In the face of a completely polluted shore in the midst of an ecological protection area one number stuck with me in particular. Elizalde explained that only 4% of plastic waste stays on the surface, 96% has already sunk to the ground of rivers, lakes and oceans, where its decomposes into ever smaller particles. Plastic is though forever and only breaks down mechanically into smaller units like stone or shell breaks down into sand. It never really changes its chemical composition. As such it enters the food chain and consequently our own bodies. The life cycle of plastic shows that how we treat the environment is a reflection of how we treat ourselves. Aldous Huxley captured this interrelatedness of the self and the planet eloquently in The Politics of Ecology:
Ecology is the science of the mutual relations of organisms with their environment and with one another. Only when we get it into our collective head that the basic problem confronting twentieth-century man is an ecological problem will our politics improve and become realistic. How does the human race propose to survive and, if possible, improve the lot and the intrinsic quality of its individual members? Do we propose to live on this planet in symbiotic harmony with our environment? Or, preferring to be wantonly stupid, shall we choose to live like murderous and suicidal parasites that kill their host and so destroy themselves?
The 2016 documentary Plastic Ocean tells us that only six countries generate 70% of all plastic waste in our oceans. China generates the lion share amongst these and it is the Yangtze which discharges its 6380km of solid and fluid waste into the China Sea exactly at the location where we were collecting plastic. I remember our 2013 hike through Yunnan’s Tiger Leaping Gorge on the upper Yangtze, when I realized that the white dots which I spotted in the river from far above were not wave crisps but plastic floating downstream towards Lijiang. Back in 2002 when I hiked there for the first time, the river surface was clean.
Shanghai’s Wusong park is of tremendous geostrategic importance to understand China’s impact on the world as a consumer nation. It sits at the confluence of China’s longest river, the Yangtze, and Shanghai’s mightiest river, the Huangpu. Standing here and gazing far out into the Yellow Sea where huge ocean vessels are busy shipping their freight, I wonder how much waste both these rivers, one being the largest of the world’s most populous nation, the other being the largest of this nation’s most populous city, carry every day, every minute, every second out into the open ocean; the Yangtze all the way down from Tiger Leaping Gorge.
Sun Yanhong, a Life Solutions sales manager, captures the challenge which both China and the world has to face. “I am embarrassed by Joan. He is a foreigner teaching us how to clean the shores of China’s mightiest river. Why haven’t we learned this so far and what will happen if we continue to pollute the Yellow Sea?” Joan replies instantly: “Nature doesn’t know borders or nations. This ocean is as much mine as it is yours. We need to cooperate and it doesn’t make a difference who teaches whom how to save our planet and thus future generations.”
I wrote on another occasion that the two mightiest nations on this planet ought to transform their armies into waste squads and allocate their defense budget to environmental causes instead of pouring oil into the fire which causes climate change. Such decisions are beyond the grasp of the ordinary man, but refusing and reducing waste certainly is something we can do on a daily basis. Engaging in the purposeful action of cleaning up our environment helps us to understand why it is necessary to refuse inappropriate consumption and simultaneously decrease the need to consume.
It sounds unbelievable, but if we truly try to understand the interrelatedness between ourselves and the planet, it is no surprise that by giving our time to the planet, we actually do something for ourselves. We will be rewarded with a strong feeling of purpose and probably even beyond that with ideas of what our individual future of work could be.
Contemporary Education Paradigm & Parents’ Responsibility
If we take our children starting from age 4 on such clean ups, we moreover teach them early on, what the consequences of inappropriate consumption are and ingeniously let them feel that a sense of community and an attitude of collaboration decreases our materialistic greed. This is not learned in the form of intellectual understanding, but by so called neuro-markers of good memories, which can be retrieved in multiple ways: smells, sounds, words, pictures, shapes, faces, stories from a just a half day out at the Shanghai shoreline collecting waste.
Most parents, I have realized, don’t really know what to do with their kids. They are in this constant battle of having to supervise and make competitive their offspring while wanting to enjoy their own often sparse time off. The nuclear family has turned into a mini gulag generating maximum GDP growth, because every product and every service has to be purchased by ever smaller family units. We support our economies at the expense of our children who have to pay the bill in less time with their parents and being completely brought off course from a fulfilling profession and life.
This is why in particular in Shanghai cram schools and after school classes are flourishing in a way other industries can only dream of. Recent IPO’s of such privately held companies are evidence of an utterly sick development. Despite class hours having doubled since I attended elementary school, we pressure our little ones into even more classes. We fail to see that what our children need is not more supervision, but only a bit of purpose and lots of community. If there is purpose, then leave the child alone as Tom Hodgkinson wrote in the parenting must read The Idle Parent. Tell them where to go, but let them go alone. The true problem is: we don’t know anymore where to go. We have lost the skill of wayfinding.
Why do we not we not react to the 6th mass extinction? The story of Moana gives us a more complete answer than Spiegel journalist Georg Diez whom I quoted earlier saying that a species’ own biological extinction is a problem too complex to understand. Psychologist Daniel Goleman, known by many for his bestseller Emotional Intelligence, wrote in his last book about the Polynesian art of wayfinding, which is beautifully explained in the Disney animation: piloting a double-hulled canoe with only the lore in your head, traversing hundreds or thousands of miles from one island to another. Wayfinding, he writes, embodies system awareness at its height, reading subtle cues like the temperature or saltiness of seawater; flotsam and plant debris; the patterns of flight of seabirds; the warmth, speed, and direction of winds; variations in the swells of waves; and the rising and setting of stars at night. All that gets mapped against a mental model of the where islands are to be found, lore learned though native stories, chants and dances.
Ancient lore is the integral understanding of and ultimately surviving in an ecosystem, which is handed down from the elders to the next generation. As the world has industrialized we have lost our local ecosystems and deal with a global ecosystem. We have lost our lore and are rendered blind to the system at large. Goleman elaborate furthers: Through human history, system awareness – detecting and mapping the patterns and order that lie hiding within the chaos of the natural world – has been propelled by this urgent survival imperative for native peoples to understand their local ecosystems. They must know what plants are toxic, which nourish or heal; where to get drinking water and where to gather herbs and find food; how to read the signs of seasonal change. […] Native lore has been a crucial part of our social evolution, the way cultures pass down their wisdom through the time. Primitive bands in early evolution would have thrived or died depending on their collective intelligence in reading the local ecosystem: to anticipate key moments for planting, harvesting, and the like – so the first calendars came into being. […] But as modernity has provided machines to take the place of such lore – compasses, navigational guides, and, eventually online maps – native people have joined everyone else in relying on them, forgetting their local lore, like wayfinding.
Goleman continues to give a neurological answer why we are not able to react properly to the 6th mass extinction. In addition to mismatches of our mental models and the systems they presume to map, there are even more profound predicaments: our perceptual and emotional systems are all but blind to them. The human brain was molded by what helped us and our forerunners survive in the wild, particularly in the Pleistocene geological epoch (roughly from 2 million years ago to about 12k years ago, when there was the rise of agriculture). We are finely tuned to a rustling in the leaves that may signal a stalking tiger. But we have no perceptual apparatus that can sense the thinning of the atmosphere’s ozone layer, nor the carcinogens in the particulates we breathe on a smoggy day. Both can eventually be fatal, but our brain has no direct radar for these threats.
Its not just perceptual mistuning. If our emotional circuitry (particularly the amygdala, the trigger point for the fight-or-flight response) perceives an immediate threat it will flood us with hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which ready us to hit or run. But this does not happen if we hear of potential dangers that might emerge in years or centuries to come; the amygdala hardly blinks. The amygdala’s circuitry, concentrated in the middle of the brain, operates automatically, bottom-up. We rely on it to be on the alert for dangers and tell us what we need to pay urgent attention to. But our automatic circuitry, usually so reliable in guiding our attention, have no perceptual apparatus or emotional loading for systems and their dangers. They draw a blank.
“Its easier to override an automatic, bottom-up response with top down reasoning than it is to deal with the complete absence of a signal,” Columbia University psychologist Elke Weber observes. “But that’s the situation when it comes to dealing with the environment. There’s nothing here in the Hudson Valley on this lovely summer day to tell me the planet is warming.” […] But unless you live in the Maldives or Bangladesh, it seems far away. The dimension of time is a huge problem – if the pace of global warming were accelerated to a few years instead of over centuries, people would pay more attention. But it’s like the national debt: I’ll leave it to my grandchildren – I am sure they’ll think of some solution.
At one time, the survival of human groups depended on ecological attunement. Today we have the luxury of living well using artificial aids. Or seem to have the luxury. For the same attitudes that have made us reliant on technology have lulled us into indifference to the state of the natural world – at our peril. So to meet the challenges of impending (global) system collapse we need what amounts to a prosthesis of the mind.
We are at a crucial junction of cultural evolution. Local ecosystems have mostly vanished, so has local lore. We have entered a global ecosystem and need to craft a global lore, if we want to survive. We do not act upon the threat of the 6th mass extinction because we lack a sensory system to perceive it as a threat. It’s a bit like meta-procrastination. You know that you have to do something to make a relationship work, but you put it off until it eventually breaks apart. In fact, there is no difference between a global, a local or even a family ecosystem. They are all made up of human beings as their most impactful actors and all human beings whether a few or billions obey the same biological algorithms, namely instincts and emotions.
According to oral traditions recorded by missionaries in the 1860s, the island originally had a strong class system, with an ariki, or high chief, wielding great power over nine other clans and their respective chiefs. The high chief was the eldest descendant through first-born lines of the island's legendary founder, Hotu Matu'a. The most visible element in the culture was the production of massive statues called moai that some believe represented deified ancestors.
Now, there are some scientists who claim that tribal chiefs insisted on their right to erect massive stone sculptures to worship ancestors. Even common sense tells us though that worshipping ancestors in such a public manner serves only the single purpose of consolidating power structures. The moai were built to show the tribal chief’s status not only to their subjects but also to the afterworld in a similar manner like the great Xian terracotta army. I will never understand why we visit such monuments in awe instead of disgust about the sickness of our species.
The multiple-ton-heavy moai required lots of timber logs to transport them from the respective quarries to where they were eventually put up for display at the island’s coastline. The consequential deforestation induced a collapse of the isolated and fragile ecosystem. I have heard and read this explanation of why the Easter Island civilization disappeared already several times. What I have never heard though is a psychological explanation.
If we look again at Maslow’s pyramid of human needs, we see that status is a higher human need, which is a few levels above the biological needs that secure the survival of a species. Nowadays, we might live in a global economy and we might use a wider variety of resources than those available on a small island, but as human beings we still operate according the same psychological principles as our ancestors on the Easter Islands did. We buy big cars and build grand mansions because of status. National governments maintain large armies and finance ambitious scientific projects because they want to show their power and international rank. We are not motivated by purpose or survival, but by an excessive focus on other human needs.
The solution – then and now – is self-design and thus a disengagement from the economic and political paradigm which we are embedded in. We have to realize that each one of us is a small, but important unit of the system at large. If we choose to focus on survival needs instead of esteem needs, we do now what is in our power to turn the ship around. We moreover teach our children new coordinates towards a system of behavior which makes them fit for the future.