I’ve regularly encountered questions from young people, who wonder how they should respond to the prospect of a climatic catastrophe that’s going to increasingly affect their lives in the years ahead. There are many angles through which to look at this problem. Consider how old and frail people live. Some of them are constantly preoccupied with the prospect of their looming death. Others seem to give it no genuine thought whatsoever. In a similar manner, it’s worth asking yourself what sort of mental state someone must be in, when they ponder the looming demise of our civilization.
Consider how for most of human history, religious groups of all shapes and sizes have argued their messiah will return within their lifetime and inflict destructive changes upon the planet. None of those predictions ever came true. “But that’s different, their predictions were not backed by science!” That’s correct. If you predict the Earth is going to warm to a degree that billions of people’s lives will be in jeopardy, you have the balance of scientific evidence in your favor. The point to understand however is that numerous people in the past have also believed in imminent catastrophe for their own reasons. Others however, lived their lives in relative peace and happiness regardless of the predictions of doom that were issued. They happily sinned along as they went, casually disregarding the fact that Jahweh, the omnipotent deity and creator of every heavenly body from Aldebaran to Zubenelhakrabi, is deeply preoccupied with what bipedal apes on planet Earth do with their genitals.
I’m under the impression that people for whom life is working out well are generally not capable of recognizing imminent catastrophe. If the thought ever were to occur to them, they would find ways to dismiss it. Even those who are deeply concerned about the state of the Earth’s environment generally don’t expect an imminent catastrophe, if their own lives are so far working out the way they had hoped. You’ll generally find them convinced we’ll fill the desert with solar panels and start planting an awful lot of trees by the latter half of this century.
There are psychological observations that may go a long way towards explaining this mystery. One theory that has developed among psychologists is known as depressive realism. The argument is proposed that we don’t per definition benefit from seeing the world exactly as it is. We benefit from seeing the world in a manner that ultimately encourages us to reproduce. The brain thus developed mechanisms that prohibit us from drawing excessively bleak conclusions about the state of our lives and our environment. In some cases those mechanisms fail to function and people end up displaying the kind of behavior that resembles a form of depression. It would follow that if you think billions of people are going to die from a catastrophic collapse of civilization during this century, there’s a fair chance your brain is misbehaving. It is as if the veil over your eyes fell down and now you see things as they genuinely are.
It’s not just climate change where the theory of depressive realism can be applied. If we look at feminists who think men are rapists who lose interest in them once they turn thirty, men’s right activists who think women are money-grubbers who lose interest in them when they’re fired from their job, communists who think they’re destined to be poor forever and so forth, we notice the same phenomenon. The conclusions are rational, but most normal people just don’t let those conclusions interfere with their own day to day lives. Once the veil falls however, people seem frozen by the spectacle before them.
The easiest answer to this problem would thus be to tell people to pick the veil up again and go back to what they were doing before it fell off. We all know it generally doesn’t work that way however. It’s like an optical illusion you can’t unsee after you’ve spotted it. The guys who frequent pick-up artist forums, who spend everyday in the gym, are trapped in a glass prison of their own design. Human beings for them are transformed into algorithms that can be effectively manipulated through time-tested peer-reviewed methods found on their favorite forums. Knowledge took away a form of innocence from them that can’t be recovered. Life itself gradually ceases to be an intuitive process, every action has to be thought through and nothing is still sincere. As Peter Wessel Zapffe argued, this is an innate problem of the human condition, our ability to reason alienates us from the world we were born into:
Despite his new eyes, man was still rooted in matter, his soul spun into it and subordinated to its blind laws. And yet he could see matter as a stranger, compare himself to all phenomena, see through and locate his vital processes. He comes to nature as an unbidden guest, in vain extending his arms to beg conciliation with his maker: Nature answers no more, it performed a miracle with man, but later did not know him. He has lost his right of residence in the universe, has eaten from the Tree of Knowledge and been expelled from Paradise. He is mighty in the near world, but curses his might as purchased with his harmony of soul, his innocence, his inner peace in life’s embrace.
So, the argument can be made the veil fell off much longer ago. The existential anguish caused by climate change, can be understood as a subset of the broader human anguish that originates from our unique ability to contemplate the ultimate prospect of death. This is what Roy Scranton argued a few years ago. Climate change in his perspective is best understood as a philosophical challenge, in the sense that we have to come to terms with the prospect of collective death. Understood in this manner, the fears over climate change make more sense.
A man in his twenties today can be pretty sure he won’t be around eighty years from now. Climate change means he stands a good chance of not being around any longer in perhaps forty years. Why should this upset him so much? The reason it upsets him is because he is faced with the loss of something much greater than himself. Nobody can tell you when your particular part of the planet becomes uninhabitable, so there’s not much of a point to preparing for it. What’s not disputed however, is that the world we were born into will now be irrevocably lost. This matters to us, because it is to nature where we look for insight, for answers on what it means to be that predate us. And ultimately, as bipedal apes who climbed out of trees, it is only in nature where we feel at home. From Nigeria to Mongolia, the world tree is a shared religious motive, that lies deep within our psyche. Outside of the tree, we are always in a state of exile. And soon, we fear, home will no longer exist.
To some degree this is what genuinely underlies the anguish over climate change. Edvard Munch became famous in 1893 when he created The Scream. The Scream has become a Mona Lisa of our time. It has come to represent the universal anguish of man in response to industrialization. We have stood with one foot in nature and one foot in civilization, for as long as we can remember. But slowly and gradually, the door is now closing and we find ourselves forced out, left alone and forced to carve out a destiny on our own. This final separation is not one we feel ready for.
Far more frightening than the prospect of mass death, seems to be this prospect of being divorced from nature. We treat healthy and natural as synonymous terms. And yet, the man who lives in nature can expect to die long before us. Over the years we’ve studied the mammalian body and come to the conclusion that it doesn’t have to decay in the manner we’re familiar with. The achievements have become difficult to deny in recent years, through subtle genetic tweaks and chemical cocktails we can dramatically delay the prospect of aging. It’s not what man had hoped. The masses had expected that Himalayan Goji berries or undiscovered plants in the Amazon rainforest would deliver them from aging. Instead it was a cocktail of chemotherapy drugs. Man looks towards Nature and finds she won’t come up with the answers he seeks.
If anything, as we gain knowledge of ourselves we start to feel betrayed by Nature. We had believed that we were born with a blank slate, that we make decisions based on what has happened to us in life and our own moral compass. And yet today we find, as we begin to explore our genome, that we were not created with a blank slate. We can pinpoint the mutations that turn us into criminals, rapists or psychopaths. We look into our genome and discover why some people spend generations in poverty and misery, whereas others prepare to colonize the galaxy. And as Nature chose to be so cruel towards us, we set out to address the injustices committed.
This delivers us to the next phase, where we can no longer think of ourselves as overly intellectually complex animals, still stuck in the same cycle of birth, procreation and death as all the other animals. The patriarchs of yesteryear fought wars over the opportunity to spread their genes. Tomorrow’s man has no such desire to pass on his own genes. If anything, he wishes to raise a child who has the best prospect of happiness in life. Why pass on your own genes, if you can pass on synthetic genes that deliver enhanced intelligence or life expectancy? Who will face his son into his eyes and declare that he knowingly chose to deliver him onto this world to suffer gradual decay and innate cognitive inferiority?
And just as our own body can be subjected to manipulation, the environment we inhabit and the food we ingest are subject to our instruments. Water can be drawn from the ocean, plants can be redesigned to cope with severe heatwaves, fish and meat can be grown in petri dishes. A severe drought used to mean crop failure and subsequent death from starvation. In a society where 87% of harvested tomatoes are thrown away because they don’t have the proper appearance for customers, starvation might not be a credible prospect anymore. When Nature tries to rise up against us, we tighten her chains and accept we can’t trust her.
To me, there are few certainties in this century. When it comes to environmental catastrophe versus human ingenuity however, the latter is the far more frightening force. I don’t deny the accomplishments that can be made through technology. I do believe however, that every new technology represents a novel source of anguish. There is a collapse of civilization happening today, but it seems entirely psychological, in contrast to what almost everyone expected. It turns out that life goes on after the coral reefs die, the oceans are filled with plastic and the nuclear power plants melt down. The big killer of our time is not peak oil, it’s fentanyl sold through a darknet market. The big challenge that lies ahead of us now seems to be adapting human cognition to modernity, to the prospect of living lives entirely divorced in every sense of the word from nature.