In the face of catastrophe, we should accept that we are weird and fleeting

I.

I want to briefly elaborate on the radical environmentalist position in regards to the climate crisis. There are different forms of environmentalism. The bright greens tend to suggest that new technologies will help us solve our predicament. As examples you can think of self-driving electric cars, lab-grown meat, solar panels and other technologies. On the opposite side of the spectrum exist the dark greens, who suggest that environmental destruction is to some degree intrinsic to the human condition. Dark greens tend to support economic degrowth, population reduction and technological simplification.

There’s an overlap between “anarcho-primitivism” and dark green environmentalism, but they’re not the same thing. Some dark green positions are critical of civilization and suggest we should push for its collapse, others suggest that we should simply pursue radical simplification of our lives.

I consider myself to fall firmly within the dark green tradition of environmentalism, although I don’t really embrace the term anarcho-primitivism, because I don’t wish to pretend that we can somehow return to an idyllic state before the emergence of civilization, without imposing dramatic suffering on people in the process.

II.

I could spend a lot of time explaining why I am not a bright green, but I’ll give you some simple things to consider. Between 2010 and 2018, people’s desire for SUV’s increased demand for oil by three million barrels per day. How much did the rise of electric vehicles reduce demand for oil during that time period? By 100,000 barrels per day. I think this illustrates a problem you’ll encounter everywhere: New technologies that help reduce our demands on nature, simply enable a minority of the population to consume more.

When it comes to renewable electricity, we tend to encounter the same problem. Solar panels and wind turbines might deliver green electricity, but they don’t replace fossil fuels, they merely tend to supplement the grid. Estimates tend to suggest that it takes four units of renewable energy, to displace one unit of fossil fuels.

There’s also no clear evidence that renewable energy can genuinely fully replace fossil fuels. The first units of solar energy are very useful: They satisfy demand in the afternoon during summer, when electricity demand tend to be highest. On the other hand, as you start adding more solar energy to the grid, you end up needing to figure out a way to store the electricity. That’s what’s expensive. What we’ve seen in practice in Germany is that once the low-hanging fruit has been consumed, construction of new solar capacity drops dramatically.

Instead, almost every major industrial economy is looking towards biomass to satisfy energy demand. I don’t expect this will work, because we used biomass for most of human history, the industrial revolution was made possible by the fact that we found good sources of energy besides biomass. The world has limited photosynthetic capacity, so using biomass to satisfy our energy demand will end up coming at the cost of our old growth forests home to our biodiversity reservoirs, as well as our ability to feed people.

III.

So, to me it is clear that our material consumption will have to decline dramatically. Climate change is caused by the world’s wealthiest people. If the world’s wealthiest 20% wanted to genuinely address the climate crisis, the best option we would have is to pursue political change, to implement government policies that require our nations to dramatically decrease our material consumption. We would stop heating our homes during winter unless absolutely necessary, we would tax the private automobile out of existence, we would dismantle our airports and meat and cheese would be reduced to a luxury for the holiday season.

I don’t think that’s going to happen, but I try to live my life as if that were possible. I’ve been positively surprised before. A few years ago I decided that I was going to stop flying for the rest of my life. This was still a very niche thing at the time. I assumed it would be me, a few depressed climatologists and a couple of other weirdos on the Internet, who would together decide to dissociate from this orgy of greed. Then a Swedish teenager came along who became famous because she genuinely took the climate crisis seriously, the rest is history.

You might think that with this bleak perspective on the climate crisis that us dark greens endorse, we ultimately don’t expect that civilization will be sustained. For me this is correct. I think it’s physically possible to live happy lives with a fraction of our current material consumption. I don’t think it’s politically and socially possible however, most people will refuse to give up the luxury they have grown used to. I expect that we’re going to face enormous economic problems in the decades ahead, with mass starvation in third world nations, eventually followed by mass starvation in first world nations. I’m not looking forward to that outcome, I’m not gleeful about it.

My expectation is that the changes we triggered to our climate will eventually be so catastrophic that our civilization will be wiped out in the process. I expect that we already triggered that process, so now our priority should be to limit the further emissions of greenhouse gasses, to ensure that as many lifeforms as possible can survive through the cataclysm. If the multi-meter sea level rise that James Hansen predicts will occur during this century, the associated decrease in global temperatures will ensure that many places will survive that would otherwise perish in the extreme heat. We have to make sure that our own emissions drop dramatically, to give nature the time it needs to unleash these negative feedback loops that help stabilize global temperatures during this enormous transition that we have triggered.

In simple terms, this is what I consider our responsibility: Help nature defend itself, by giving nature the proper time it needs to respond to the damage that we have caused. We don’t have to solve this problem on our own, we are simply a small part of nature, defending itself. The trees in the forest defend nature by sucking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and releasing stored water during drought, the ice sheets defend nature by releasing cold water into the oceans, bacteria and viruses defend nature by euthanizing the billions of animals imprisoned by us in factory farms, feral parrots and raccoons defend nature by stealing our harvest.

And you and me, my dear friends, we defend nature, with the tools that nature gave us. We vote against the fossil fuel industry, we use our bodies to blockade the machinery, we use our wallets to bankrupt the factory farms, we use our words to reveal the atrocities that underlie this way of life. The jellyfish swim into the pipes that suck up water to cool down the coal and nuclear plants, we lay down on the railroads that deliver coal to the turbines. We all work together, because we are nature defending itself.

IV.

I don’t believe in the need to do whatever it takes to somehow sustain our industrial civilization. People at companies like Shell are quite open about the fact that they see no way to limit the global temperature increase to two degree Celsius, instead they expect we’ll somehow start sucking CO2 out of the air around 2100. With an attitude like that, you merely ensure that our problem will get even worse than it has to be.

They take that perspective, because they can’t imagine a life worth living without our industrial luxury. If you work as a corporate board member at a company like Shell, you’re used to weekly business trips around the world, a countryside manor, a private yacht. Taking the 2 degree target seriously would mean having to give up that luxury. Some millionaires who lost their fortune to Ponzi schemes commit suicide, because they can’t imagine being content with the standard of living that you and me take for granted.

Similarly, I have no illusions that I would be a happy man in the post-industrial landscape of the 22nd century. I was born into this era, I fit into this era. I enjoy reading, I take a broad range of psychedelics from around the world, I have a diet that would fit a medieval king. However, I don’t believe in sacrificing the whole world, just to sustain a way of life that us wealthiest 20% of the world’s population take for granted. There are people who live happy lives as hunter-gatherers, or as self-subsistence farmers. What right do we have to turn their homelands into inhospitable deserts, to annihilate them, to sustain our own unprecedented wealth for a few more decades? I’m an unusual product of exorbitant material wealth, I have come to accept that this is not something that will be sustained indefinitely into the future.

There are some philosphers like David Pearce and many transhumanist types, who can’t make peace with nature. They look around them and see insects torn apart by spiders, or wild deer with maggots crawling out of their legs. That’s horrifying to them, so they imagine that nature is essentially evil. They don’t call it evil, because that would undermine their credibility, they call it cruel in its indifference. What they fail to understand is that they’re projecting their own mental state on people and organisms who are used to an entirely different state of being.

If you’ve spent your whole life as an ivory tower academic and end up suffering an accident in the forest and find yourself infested with maggots in your legs, that’s an experience of intense suffering. If you’re a deer in the forest, always wandering through the forest with the prospect of death around a corner, dying with maggots crawling out of your legs still sucks, but it’s not a form of unimaginable suffering. Your baseline hedonic state as a deer in the forest is much lower. In addition, you are incapable of abstractly contemplating what is happening to you, which is where most of the suffering originates from.

In a similar manner, if you’re an ivory tower academic, burying your child is a traumatic experience from which you might never recover. If you’re an 11th century mentally healthy Icelandic woman, you might find yourself killing your own newborn child, without suffering any severe trauma in the process. Why is that? You grew up in a different cultural context, so you can make peace with situations that are unimaginable to us.

What’s intense suffering, is when we suddenly experience events that are vastly outside of the range of experiences our mind considers probable. A duckling is swallowed by a heron? It sucks for the mother duck, but she’s the descendant of numerous mother ducks who had ducklings swallowed by herons and did not succumb to intense crippling depression in the process. You come home one day from your office job and find your newborn baby is eaten by coyotes? That’s a form of intense suffering, because it’s vastly outside of the range of experiences that you are equipped to deal with. As middle class people in industrialized nations, we’re simply poorly equipped to deal with forms of suffering that wild animals are well equipped to deal with.

So, my position as a radical environmentalist is that I want to take the effort needed to preserve a planet habitable for human beings and wild animals, even though the kind of conditions they would live in are not the kind of conditions I am personally equipped to deal with. You and me are communicating in an extremely unusual period of fleeting material abundance during this planet’s multi-billion year lifespan. You and me grew up with extremely nutritious diets enabled by material abundance, which gave us the cognitive capacity to even consider these kind of problems we are discussing here in the first place. You’re exceptional and the people you know are exceptional, but we should acknowledge that we’re also a fleeting phenomenon.

V.

Perhaps most importantly, we should acknowledge that although we’re not well-equipped to deal with the kind of life a mother duck might live, we’re not that well equipped to deal with the kind of life our industrial civilization enables either. If you look at the statistics, you’ll find that depression and various other forms of mental illness have grown dramatically over the past fifty years. Suicide rates for teenagers in the United States are higher than they have ever been. Life expectancy in wealthy nations is declining, because people are dying of drug overdoses, committing suicide or eating themselves to death.

We have unimaginable material wealth, but we’re not happy people. The main reason for that is because our world changed much faster than we were mentally prepared for. Genetically you’re no longer the same person who chased after deer in the savannah a hundred thousand years ago. However, you’re also not the person who is perfectly content studying endless factoids in preparation for an exam that will earn you the college degree that makes sure you won’t have to ask people if they would like fries with their hamburger.

This is the problem you’re dealing with. You’re a mixture of people. Your body and your brain were just slowly genetically adapting to a life as subsistence farmers, when an explosion of material abundance happened. Now your body and brain are forced to adapt to entirely new circumstances, your body is forced to learn how to cope with enormous amounts of calories, your brain is forced to adapt to a world where naked women are visible through the push of a button, or to spending the whole day sitting at a desk under artificial lighting. None of this makes genuine sense to you, although you are more intelligent and have more knowledge available than most people who lived before your time, you spend the entirety of your life in an endless state of crisis and confusion.

All the evidence I can think of, suggests that this modern way of life is not working for most people. The mental health services are not equipped to deal with the vast numbers of people in need of help. There are entire American states with more painkiller prescriptions than people. Technology gave us all the options we need to tweak our bodies and our brains, so we respond by endlessly pressing the pleasure button, like a rat in a cage.

On the other hand, the animals are happy. At least, they seem happy when we leave them alone. The wild elephants today are a society suffering a collective trauma, because humans have killed so many of them, but the animals can live happy fulfilling lives when we don’t destroy their societies. Indigenous people too tend to live happy lives, when they are free to continue their low-complexity lifestyles. It’s a common observation that suicide and drug abuse tend to skyrocket when indigenous people undergo Westernization.

My suggestion is that we need to help people and animals who are capable of living happy lives, to continue living happy lives. American society is profoundly dysfunctional, but it was profoundly dysfunctional from the start, when Columbus arrived on Hispaniola and began chopping off the hands and noses of people who had welcomed him with gifts. Our way of life began by exploiting and exterminating people who lived happy lives within the constraints imposed by nature. Our way of life ends now, as we annihilate ourselves through our inability to live within the constraints of nature.

VI.

I want to make it clear that I’m not endorsing self-hatred, or self-destruction. I think everyone should strife after a happy life, to be happy yourself is one of the fundamental prerequisites to making other people happy, but we should simultaneously acknowledge the simple fact that it’s a huge challenge for many of us to live happy lives. Instead, I want to offer an explanation for the peculiar phenomenon that most people seem profoundly unhappy despite our material abundance. The proper way to respond to this unusual situation is to acknowledge that as human beings, we’re not innately properly prepared for the absurd situation we find ourselves in. It’s not just your body that has no idea how to cope with a world of happy meals and automobiles: It’s your brain.

Your brain is not prepared to cope with this absurdity we live in on its own. It’s human nature, to adjust our brains to its absurd circumstances. That’s why we drink coffee, that’s why we smoke cigarettes, that’s why we drink alcohol, it’s even why we poison our bodies with huge amounts of sugar. We’re continually self-medicating, to cope with a world that does not make sense to our brain.

My suggestion is to accept that you’re not well prepared for this world. Nature in its benevolence, has endowed us with the means to learn how to cope with a world we fundamentally do not fit in. With psychedelic mushrooms, you can readjust your perspective, you review the events that characterize your life from a more constructive angle. With mescaline cactuses, you develop a more positive, confident and constructive perspective on yourself. With cannabis, you can find yourself able to entertain a wider range of ideas and enjoy a wider range of experiences.

There are numerous ways to cope with the absurdity we exist in, what matters is finding constructive ways of dealing with the absurdity instead of self-destructive ones. There is no shame in this, what ultimately matters more than anything else is how you impact the world you live in. A flight to the other side of the world, or cruelty towards your peers, has a much more destructive impact on our world than a mushroom or a cactus.

Ultimately, as absurd as our situation is, it is our responsibility to make the best of it. I hope that you will join me in pursuing a happy life, in allegiance and devotion to the natural world that gave birth to us.

1 Comment

  1. You might want to check out “Civilized to Death” by Christopher Ryan. It’s a book-length exposition on some of the same points about modern lifestyles.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*