The life that we live can be full of contradictions. Contradictions that can lead us to cognitive dissonance and confusion. A few that I am aware of in my own life relate to the climate and our future as a culture. I am not keen on buying paraffin tealights but wants to fly to Cyprus on holiday. I fully understand both of those positions but can’t help notice the inherent contradiction. I want to travel all over the world to see archaeological and ecological sites before they are gone forever, but at the same time know that by doing that I am contributing to their destruction. I pay 10% of my pre-tax salary into a pension. At the same time, I believe that the financial systems will collapse before I am ever able to make use of it. I am very subdued by the knowledge that we only have a tiny sliver of hope of being able to retain an environment that can sustain a human population of any complexity while at the same time conscious that if we really do only have decades left, we aught to make the most of it. I still hold a hope that someone will invent a way to extract 30 billion tonnes of CO2 from the environment per year within the next decades. Is it possible? Maybe. Extracting CO2 from the sea appears to have a bit more promise but we are still a long way off. It does smell of magical thinking, to assume that a technological solution will just happen in the future. We cannot put all our eggs in that particular basket. Instead, we should be looking at our own particular lifestyle and figure out a way to make it better. Eating less meat, flying less, not going on cruises, driving an electric car if you need to drive at all, travelling on public transport where possible. An awful lot of the public debate recently has been focussed on disposable plastic. This is in itself a significant issue but I would argue it is not the biggest. We absolutely do need to reduce our plastic usage but it cannot be all we do. The biggest component of CO2 impact is from big business. As individuals, we can make a difference but it is only small by comparison. We need to push our legislators in whichever country we live, to make laws that protect our future. Politicians are just not showing the bravery required to make the necessary changes. The public needs to let them know that the time is now. Keep pestering your local MP, or equivalent where you live, get your friends to do the same. It is really only by public action that any meaningful change can happen. Let’s not let this be the last generation able to make a difference that will last for thousands of years. Another decade will be far too late.
Homo Sapiens, as they have evolved, work best in small communities, somewhere lower than 150 people. At that size, the people all cooperate and work together for the common good. When you get more than that, you ALWAYS end up with the physically strongest, taking charge and making the weaker members submissive to them. This has been demonstrably true all throughout human history. In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari spends a lot of time speaking on this very issue. It is however in human nature, to help one another, for the strong to look after the weak. This is the fundamental basis for the British welfare state. We all pay taxes, which go towards the welfare of everybody. If everybody is looked after and comfortable, society as a whole is healthy. I always find it deeply counter-productive when some political parties, seem to be hell-bent on dismantling this structure. In the search for ever larger pots of gold for themselves, they take it from the poorer and weaker. That then causes social breakdown and unrest, which impacts the wealthy as well as the poor, although to an obvious lesser extent. If you can afford massive gates, you can keep the “others” out. Then we have migrants, people who are generally, escaping from dangerous and hostile environments and looking for a better life. The human reaction to that is naturally, to offer help and welcome them in to the community. We have, however, been told that these people are the enemy, that they are dangerous, that they want to take everything that is “yours” and make it “theirs” They have been “othered” The other is always framed as the enemy. They are framed as being different from us when in reality, we are all part of the same human species. Can we get back to egalitarian living as we did in the past? Yes, it is certainly possible. I think that Churches, for their many faults, do have something very positive about them. Community. A typical church has somewhere below that 150 magic number. The community therefore naturally works together and in accord with one another. It is actually a quite egalitarian structure. So it is possible. Small communities work better than large ones. It is just a fact of nature. Perhaps ceding more power to local communities and away from central government could be a way of fostering this kind of lifestyle? Today, people tend to be much more insular than we were in the past. This is in part a reaction to the breakdown of community. For some people it is generally not a pleasant place to be among the heaving throng of people. Each one, only focused on their own needs. Lets get back to a proper working community.
When Joni Mitchel sang the immortal lines “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot” in 1970, it was really only the start of the creeping destruction of our natural world. Since then the change has accelerated at an incredible rate. Whereas, we had lush fields full of life, trees containing myriad insects and birds, all living together and cooperating, we now have large barren platforms of concrete. The pursuit of progress in it’s insatiable appetite, has taken more and more and more. It happens slowly enough that the average human doesn’t notice. Occasionally you will hear the screams and shouts of someone who gets it. Who understands that once something is lost, it doesn’t come back. We truly do live in paradise. Imagine for a moment, standing on any other planet in our solar system, if you could. If it was rocky, you would see a barren, lifeless mass of rock and sand. If it were a watery or gassy planetoid, you might see a bit more activity but not the trees and plants, the birds and insects that we see here. The utter beauty of flowers of many different colours and scents. This is the only planet that we know of, that harbours such life. In the film Don’t Look Up, Leonardo DeCaprio’s character, right at the end, says the line “We really had it all didn’t we” and we do. If you believe in life on other planets, which to be fair, is pretty much a mathematical certainty. They would look at what we have here, and be in wonder. The breadth of life on this lump of rock, water and mud is extraordinary. Why are we so eager to pave it all over and turn it into a parking lot?
As human beings it is often a good idea to take a step back and ask the question, “what is this all for?” I have been doing that quite a bit recently much to the detriment of my mental health. Looking at the ever increasing climate crisis and the general feeling of dissatisfaction that many people experience, what is the root cause of all of this? Maybe the question is, where did it go wrong for humanity? It is generally difficult to point a finger at exactly the point where things went wrong. There are many contenders and they probably all have a strong argument in favour of them. For me, one of the key moments in time that changed the human experience for the worse was the start of the industrial revolution. Mechanisation of all sorts, held the promise of reducing the burden on humans. Of delivering us more leisure time, more time for the arts and humanities. Did it?
The industrial revolution, arguably started in Britain in the 1760’s with an automated means of spinning yarn using steam to power machines. It is without contention, that this increased production. Who benefited from it though? The transition was fairly fast, with highly skilled professions being “simplified” with mechanisation. Slowly the skilled artisan’s and craftspeople were put out of work as the cheaper mechanised methods took over. People who lived in the villages were forced to a large extent to move into cities to work in smoky and often dangerous conditions in factories. Who was the benefit for? I think it is fairly clear and not really contentious to say that the already wealthy, benefitted the most from mechanisation. They were able to produce larger quantities of goods for a much smaller cost per unit. The promised increase in leisure and reduction in burden on the workers, was not to appear. Instead, there were horrific working conditions for many people.
As time went on, the disparity between rich and poor increased. The lifestyle and culture of the people changed. Many elements of life which had existed for centuries, died out. People started to be seen as commodities and resources to exploit. Their sole purpose was to work the machines. There had always been rich and poor but generally, rich landowners were kinder to their tenants than the factory owners were. It was in their interests to be so. The disparity increased. Business will always head towards the cheapest method of achieving whatever it does. That is it’s purpose. To create wealth for the owner. Humans are used as a means of achieving that but are secondary to profit.
So where has this all lead us? We currently live in a consumption machine. Everything related to the economic system is about consumption. Humans are intrinsically creative and artistic. There has always been a deep need in humans to express themselves in different ways. In the current culture, humans are not seen as individuals, they are seen as “consumers”. your purpose as a human is to feed the consumption machine. The machine is the only thing that matters. I think it is quite telling how the term “Human resources” has become popular in business. What do you do with resources? You exploit them. Personally I do not see myself as a resource, I see myself as a human being. If you look at political policy over the last hundred years, you will see a strong trend towards benefitting industry over people. There have of course been times when the tide has gone in the other direction but those tend to be short lived. As a population, we have been distracted by shiny things. We have been given mortgages, pensions, insurance, credit cards. All to feed the machine and tie the population into keeping it satiated. It is difficult to get out now even if you wanted to. Imagine for a moment how difficult it would be if you wanted to live a peaceful life, off the land. It is near impossible today. The Matrix films were a metaphor for this state of being. We are not even aware that we are the batteries, feeding the machine. It is almost invisible to us. We are told that certain frivolous things are important, when in reality, they are not at all. We become desensitized to our situation by burying our minds in TV shows and entertainment.
Why have we not reversed the trend of climate change. These things are all related at a fundamental level. We have known about climate change for over one hundred years. the first record of the link between co2 and climate was published in 1896 by Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius. It started truly hitting the public consciousness around forty years ago. If we had made changes then, we could have achieved a slow migration away from fossil fuel use and put money into developing clean alternatives. Why did that not happen? One answer really, cost. It was cheaper to continue using fossil fuels. The consumption machine must be satiated and so the already rich, became richer as our ecosystem slowly became worse. We are now in a situation where the co2 content of the atmosphere is the same as it was in the Pleistocene period, over three million years ago. At that time the global average temperature was 4 degrees higher than now. If that same temperature was applied to today, it would cause massive water shortages, super storms, drought, agricultural failure and famine. These would cause an obvious consequence of mass migration away from the areas closest to the equator. There are an unsettlingly high number of climate models which predict a 4 degree increase would cause the uninhabitable area to extend as far north as the middle of France. Not even going into the myriad interconnected systems which are too complicated to model which are likely to collapse in this event. Ultimately, all of this is happening because the already rich, wanted to be a bit richer for a bit longer.
So what is the solution to this? I am not sure there even is one at this stage. We are going to experience an unstable planetary system for at least the next one thousand years, whatever we do. Planetary systems take time to adjust. The only feasible way of making the changes that are needed to prevent a mass extinction at this point is the dismantling of the consumption machine and it’s related products. It is going to be extremely painful for people who have known nothing else for their whole lives. But do we even have a choice? If we do nothing, civilisation will inevitably collapse and life on Earth will be put at extreme risk from both the weather and the more than four hundred and fifty nuclear power plants that would cease being maintained. Financial systems that are predicated on continual growth, cannot survive in a situation where they are being forced to shrink due to loss of land area and increased population density. Not even going into the collapse of the fragile worldwide supply chains as weather and food scarcity cause them to buckle.
Maybe the answer for the long term survival of human beings, is to go back to a simpler culture. Living in small communities that are living off the land in some sort of balance with nature. We would lose our access to shiny toys but maybe in a further hundred or so years, we could work out a way to restart civilisation in a clean and sustainable way. Maybe we could even develop systems that promote our artistic and creative sides rather than a never ending need for things. Maybe that is the future that humans want. Maybe that is the future than humans need.