We are out of sync with the world and especially with “place”. We lack the insights and capacities that come from knowing a place deeply over generations and from conscious vulnerability to the real world. Our speedy technological consumer culture not only created climate change but undermines our ability to respond to it. Understanding this dilemma and the dynamics that generate it could help us redirect our endangered destiny.
Naomi Klein’s Climate Change Is the Fight of Our Lives – Yet We Can Hardly Bear to Look At It offers a novel view of our climate dilemma. She notes how “warming causes animals to fall out of step with a critical food source, particularly at breeding times, when a failure to find enough food can lead to rapid population losses.” She then notes how climate change is happening at a time in our social evolution where we are ill prepared to respond effectively: “The climate crisis hatched in our laps at a moment in history when political and social conditions were uniquely hostile to a problem of this nature and magnitude.”
She adds, however, that it is not all bad news. “The good news is that, unlike reindeer and songbirds, we humans are blessed with the capacity for advanced reasoning and therefore the ability to adapt more deliberately – to change old patterns of behaviour with remarkable speed.”
I find the details of her analysis fascinating. Given its brilliance, however, I was surprised to find several essential ingredients missing. Perhaps the most glaring is that the climate crisis didn’t just “hatch” or “happen”. It was created by the very same political, economic and psychosocial forces and institutions that she identifies as being responsible for our inability to respond to it. It’s all one big ball of yarn, as the saying goes. Furthermore, our disconnection from the historic and now shifting eco-realities of “place” that she highlights as underlying our inability to respond has been developing for centuries if not millennia. Obsessive global consumerism is just a recent development in our ever-growing capacity to separate ourselves from “the elements”.
This separation is, of course, temporary and ultimately illusory. We may, with ever greater capacity, generate bigger and better ideas, industries, and technologies to protect ourselves from the consequences of our actions, from the needs of other living beings, from the demands of stewardship, and from the wild web of nature’s interdependencies and unruly complexity. We fancy ourselves masters of nature so that wherever reality would slap our hands with corrective feedback – with hunger, pain, death, suffering, even discomfort or inconvenience – we find a way to turn it back, to advance our own agenda no matter what. The wealthier and more educated we are, the more powerfully we seem able and inclined to resist nature’s messages.
But, as Philip K. Dick reminded us, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” Or we can refer to the infamous “Nature bats last.” The longer we resist reality’s feedback, the stronger the feedback gets. Until one day – today and increasingly – we find ourselves immersed in runaway climate chaos, rapidly vanishing “essential” resources, and runaway individual and collective addictions, leaving us facing the twin prospects of civilizational collapse and human extinction, in the context of unprecedented planetary degradation.
Finally, we need to realize that our “capacity for advanced reasoning” is equivocal at best. Yes, we each have such a capacity, to a greater or lesser extent. But so much of our social dynamics interfere with it or channel it into the very activities that destroy the world on our behalf while rendering us unconscious of the process and disinclined to deal with it effectively. Our well paid “best and brightest” are brilliant at advertising and marketing, technological innovation, financial speculation, political manipulation, entertainment, and the million ways we sell ourselves to make us feel ok.
In comparison, we find precious little application of “advanced reasoning” to develop sane collective responses to our self-imposed collective mega-crises. That would require thorough reimagining, redesign, and radical reconfiguration of our social systems, particularly economics, politics and governance. Not only is advanced reasoning needed to do that work, but the designs we create must embody the most advanced forms of COLLECTIVE reasoning including but going far beyond individual rationality into truly shared collective wisdom. This is the work of co-intelligence that so many of us are developing bits and pieces of.
I imagine those bits and pieces would look different if our shared goal was the collective innovation of social systems capable of responding with real wisdom to the multidimensional challenges of climate change. This seems like an increasingly do-or-die proposition, made more urgent every day by the self-reinforcing dynamics of global warming itself, notably the evaporation of methane from the Arctic. On the other hand – on the bright side – we seem to have an abundance of the needed resources for this undertaking already scattered among us, just needing tweaking and recombination.
All this makes it seem to me like a very well-timed evolutionary opportunity to vastly improve civilization. The only question is: Do we have the “advanced reasoning” to take advantage of it?