Species come and go. Why not us?
I am aware of my carbon footprint, and it isn’t pretty. My carbon footprint is a blinking meter in the dashboard of my consciousness, and my newly purchased reusable straw does not stop the blinking. Directly next to the carbon footprint meter is the hypocrisy meter, which measures the ratio of awareness versus action, and that meter’s reading isn’t pretty either. I cut down on my meat consumption (although I love a good steak), I recycle in places that process recyclables, I walk and bicycle where I can avoid taking a car, I close doors and windows to preserve hot or cold air and I take short showers to preserve water. The list is much longer but I will stop there because the entire list together does not compensate for the fact that I fly on airplanes every week, often in business class, and sometimes private. Thus, I advertise myself as someone who gives a damn about the environment through my public display of reusable items and my Facebook posts about environmental issues, but inside my head the alerts are flashing incessantly. Each time I am forced to dispose of a plastic cup (especially after a 20 second single use) I feel terrible. And yet I don’t feel proportionally more terrible when I step into an airplane to attend a conference, play music for smiling faces, or simply seek to change my pace of life. On the contrary, I usually feel pretty good when I step onto a plane. According to my hypocrisy meter that rightfully points out that the size of my carbon-offense should be proportional to my level of guilt, I should feel like the biggest asshole on earth each time I board a flight. But I don’t.
We won't fail at saving our species because we didn't manage the 'how', we will fail because we didn't comprehend the 'why'.
As much as I admit that my current lifestyle is certain to leave the planet in a messier place that I found it, and as much as I notice that my friends experience similar burdens about their own lifestyles, I have not yet come across a plan that offers realistic solutions. I was excited to learn about the Green New Deal, but disappointed that it was presented with economic win-win approaches, rather than with the announcement that a realistic solution inevitably requires major lifestyle sacrifices, especially from people in power. But perhaps I was simply too hopeful too quickly? Perhaps I need to be patient. Perhaps I need to just be optimistic about the fact that the Green New Deal has become a commonplace topic, even after it was voted down unanimously. Perhaps I need to ignore the warnings that we are running out of time.
Within the debates about our dire environment, many people have different ideas of what they intend to ‘save’, and each scenario comes with its own timetable. Some focus on saving the planet in general (a notion famously and brilliantly ridiculed by comedian George Carlin 30 years ago) while others are zoomed in on the climate in particular, and a slightly more pragmatic group prioritizes the preservation of the human race. Even though these varying priorities have much overlap, they can lead to confusion within debates that explore solutions. And then I have my fringe friends -both on the left and on the right- who appear to have in common that they have no interest in realistic solutions. My fringees on the right deny there is a problem, or argue that humanity will be just fine, while my fringees on the left insist we safeguard the livelihood of every species imaginable. I try to absorb the best arguments from everyone, and I regard climate change with the motivation of those who are seeking solutions, and the common sense of those who know there is no such thing as a simple answer to a complex problem. In 2020 I will vote for whoever strikes the best balance between courageous climate action and realism.
The notion that human impact on our environment threatens the very survival of our race has had a few decades to work its way up through the ranks of our priorities. Slowly but surely, this notion beat the vast majority of its challengers, to the point that it is now a mainstream concern in most countries amongst individuals and governments alike. The biggest frustration within the group of climate activists who prioritized this issue since the earliest warning signs, is the remaining gap between awareness and action. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez called it an absurdity that despite our overwhelming acceptance of the climate realities, there is still no action towards solutions that match the scale of the problem. I relate to their frustration, and I measure this gap with my imaginary hypocrisy-meter, but I am not sure if I would call this gap 'absurd'. On the contrary, I feel that calling this gap absurd is overestimating the features of human nature.
What will be our battle cry? Do we want to dominate the galaxy beyond this planet? Do we want to exist long enough until we cure death? What's the goal?
Despite our position on top of the food chain, we are just starting to figure out how much our existence relies on finely tuned ecosystems around us. Many years ago, before our consciousness came standard with a carbon footprint meter, our passion to ‘save the whales’ was largely because we felt sorry for the whales. Our outrage towards people wearing fur stemmed from images of cute animals being slaughtered for our vanity. Since the beginning of time, humans have been conditioned to fight for their individual survival and the survival of those for whom they feel compassion, love, and empathy. We fight for ourselves, our children and grandchildren, our tribe, our family. Today, our challenge to safeguard ecosystems requires more than pity or guilt, love, or compassion. We need to become motivated to save our entire species, even though we have never in our history made such an effort, and even though our species as a whole is very much an abstract concept. All we have been taught about species on this planet is that they evolve and go extinct; some of them go extinct because they’re Dodos, some of them go extinct because other species wipe them out, and some of them go extinct because of giant asteroids. Entire ecosystems are altered, destroyed and rebuilt over thousands of years. Why should humans be the exception to that law of nature? And if we are going to fight for the survival of our species preemptively, what will be our goal? What will be our battle cry? Do we want to dominate the galaxy beyond this planet? Do we want to exist long enough until we cure death? What's the goal, and how do we make this goal less abstract and philosophical, and more concrete and unifying? These questions are essential to ask before we can start planning a realistic recovery of our ecosystems. It is the absence of these questions from the topic of climate change that is absurd to me, and I feel that it causes the gap between knowledge and action.
Species come and go. Why does humanity need to continue in perpetuity?
Yes, I am seriously offering this question. I am convinced that the only reason we will fail at preventing our downfall as a species is because we don't have a collective narrative to answer this question. We won't fail because we didn't manage the 'how'. We will fail because we didn't comprehend the 'why'. Imagine the world of your grandchildren’s grandchildren; a world in which you are absolutely not invested in any way. Not financially, not emotionally. A world you can barely imagine. Why should this world contain humans?
Humanity has no history of rejecting convenience once it has been introduced to us
In order to better grasp this question, assume for a moment the hypothetical scenario that the demise of humanity had absolutely nothing to do with our own actions. Try to forget our own influence on our fate for a minute. For argument’s sake, assume that the end of humanity will come in the form of an asteroid that will wipe out all of us in one swift blow. And this asteroid is predicted to hit us more than a hundred years from now, in the year 2150. Would you panic? And if so, why? Your life and that of your imaginable offspring is not under threat. On the contrary; you, your children and grandchildren can all live your lives to the fullest, knowing that you should probably not make any babies after 2050. That way, most everyone will die a natural(ish) death until, on doomsday itself, the only humans left to destroy will be the unfortunate offspring of asteroid-deniers.
A few entrepreneurial spirits amongst us might start calculating the odds of averting the asteroid, just like a few of our grandchildren might take their chances to launch their own grandchildren into space right before the asteroid hits. But for the vast majority of our current generation, this scenario is simply too far down the line, too abstract, too far beyond our budgets and the realm of our imagination to get worried or to act.
This question of human motivation is essential to determine how we could ever go about making preemptive sacrifices in our daily conveniences. When a flood destroys a town, its inhabitants will instinctively climb on top of their roofs and signal for help. That is human nature; survival instinct. In contrast, severely cutting down on consumption of natural resources (or: ‘pre-emptive reasoning’) is the opposite of human nature, something that is not part of our instincts. To make matters even more challenging; humanity has no history of rejecting convenience once it has been introduced to us, and it is far-fetched at best that the idea of a flood, rather than the actual flood, will bring about a significant behavioral change in us. In biblical times, when God announced the big flood, how many people rallied preemptively to save the human race and a bunch of other species? It was just little old Noah, wasn't it? Fast forward two-thousand-and-something years, we are doing much better with our rally-headcount, but global unity is still a far cry, despite the documented heroism of our original savior Noah.
Every movement needs a leader. Noah was challenged with only having God at his disposal, while we are currently blessed with Democracies, mass media, interconnectivity, and more Gods than Noah could have ever wished for. With that, do we currently have a society that can produce a leader in our quest to save our species? And if so, could such a leader go beyond inspiring us, and also do the dirty work of enforcement? Who or what will enforce our behavioral change from instinct to reason. Governments? The free market? Our neighbors? Our parents? A benevolent A.I.?
If the American government can’t even get around the NRA to curb gun sales in the face of mass shootings, how could it ever get around all corporate lobbies to curb carbon emissions by 45 percent?
Let's start with the most obvious candidates: governments. Thus far, no government or coalition of governments has a mandate to significantly scale down the consumption of natural resources, and coerce all our global economies into abandoning the religion of economic growth. Governments currently only do so much, especially when it comes to preemptive measures. They will impose just enough laws to create an appealing illusion of climate activism and team spirit, but not nearly enough to meet the current environmental guidelines. In other words; we can feel really good about banning single-use plastic in certain areas, as long as we can still buy as many cars as we want, and bounce around on jet-skis like monkeys. If the American government can’t even get around the NRA to curb gun sales in the face of mass shootings, how could it ever get around all corporate lobbies to curb carbon emissions by 45 percent? There is currently no roadmap to achieving the goals set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the UN-based authority on climate change).
Take the United States for example: A political roadmap towards the IPCC goals would first require a green takeover of every branch of government with a majority large enough to justify drastic carbon legislation. If (and this is a really big ‘if’) such a majority would mobilize before the 2020 elections, the incoming government would first have to restore its powers to pre-Reagan levels by undoing many measures that have gradually minimized the government’s role and power. In order to successfully enforce any kind of Green New Deal, small government will have to become big government again. Regulation of Wall Street, regulation of media bias, regulation of money in politics, and various antitrust measures would all have to be in place. With that, the bureaucratic structure of government agencies would have to be reimagined to provide unprecedented credibility and efficiency. Myriads of new laws will need to pass (under supervision of a conservative Supreme Court, no less) before any substantial climate law can take effect. And naturally, this will all need to happen regardless of whether other countries match our sacrifices. We will just need to hope and assume that if we accomplish these audacious goals, the rest of the world will gasp in awe and follow our example.
...the actual individual, one at a time, inspiring everyone around them to lead by example, spreading the instruction manual for Humanity 2.0 like a virus.
To me, this political roadmap sounds more like fiction than immediate future, and for a while I felt reassured by my friends in Silicon Valley that companies rather than Government would be able to tackle the problem. We would put our faith in new technologies that will provide the market’s invisible hand with sufficient incentives to meet the IPCC targets. “Green Growth Theory” as champions of capitalism call it, asserts that continued economic growth will stop depleting our natural resources, as technological change allows us to decouple GDP growth from resource use and carbon emissions. Sadly however, recent studies make the case that this approach is equally flawed as taking the political route.
If the answer doesn’t come from our governments or our private sectors, then it could still come from the individual. I am not talking about organized citizens attempting to sway politicians (groups like Extinction Rebellion have managed to make headlines in that realm lately), because those movements are essentially political in that they rely on the government to be the enforcer of their vision. I am talking about the actual individual, one at a time, inspiring everyone around them to lead by example, spreading the instruction manual for Humanity 2.0 like a virus. Inspired awareness from all of us, to live strictly by the meters in the dashboard of our consciousness. But such a beautiful and enlightened world will only come to pass if we are led by more than guilt about throwing a plastic cup away. We will have to collectively start paying attention to our internal hypocrisy meters as well, and live our lives according to them. And just like the political route would require any country to implement its measures regardless of its neighboring countries, the individual approach would have to ignore the behavior of the Joneses.
From me personally, change would require to pick one market in which I make my living as a DJ and musician, scale back my travel to a minimum, and eat meat or fish only on special occasions. These are the sacrifices I know I need to make in order to do my part to save humanity, but this personal route is similarly challenging as the large scale political- and market-routes. I will be hesitant to embark on an uncoerced lifestyle conversion with diminished revenues, until I am inspired by something larger than a call to save the planet. It will take an eye-opening answer to the question ‘Why does humanity need to be saved?’ and I am curious whether the leaders of Extinction Rebellion manage to agree on an answer to that question.
And if I do not hear an inspiring answer from anyone soon, and if governments and markets fail to make us reach the climate targets, I can ask myself whether it is simply enough to celebrate humanity’s temporary experiment on this tiny rock, with all its triumphs and all its pitfalls. We made it to the top of the food chain! We essentially WON project Earth! And then we failed at scaling back when we needed to, and we dragged a lot of other species down with us. Curtain…applause. Shakespeare eat your heart out.
We made it to the top of the food chain! We essentially WON project Earth!
Regardless of our collective and individual decisions about our behavior going forward, and whether or not humanity manages to save itself; planet Earth will be just fine. It might take a few thousand years for it to re-establish certain ecosystems to pre 20th century standards, but even a hundred thousand years is a very tiny blip on the lifespan of this planet, and not something that will keep it awake at night. There might be a long period of battles between rodents and insects to establish global dominance, during which humans won't be around to judge whether such a thing is good or bad for the planet. Alternatively; the perpetuity of our species demands a global narrative of epic proportions. It requires a purpose that not only unites all humans, but also rewires our survival instinct to stretch beyond our own lifespan and that of our loved ones. If we manage to develop such a narrative we might become an eternal species, evolve beyond human form, roam the galaxies, and find out what it all meant in the first place. But even then…there is always that asteroid.