It’s easy to feel secure about the world and everything in it. The circle of life revolves around a multitude of routines, from one’s daily visit to the cafe across the street to the seasonal changes across the globe. And routines have a way of leading to complacency.
In talking of a subject such as global catastrophic risk — extinction-level events that could spell the end of life as we know it — one tends to straddle the boundary between reality and science fiction, and the discourse around the subject may be culpable of fueling mass hysteria.
I intend to do neither. Nor will I make projections about humanity’s impending doom through extreme climate change, nuclear winter, or a pandemic. It is too vast a sphere to tackle in the space of one article.
No, I wish to address - rather candidly - our own attitudes towards such scenarios and touch upon the biases inherent in our nature that keep us from taking them too seriously.
Simply put, there's something wrong with the way we think of macro-level catastrophes that could occur.
The debate on climate change and the realization that global warming is taking effect decades ahead of scientific projections (bye-bye, polar bears), has transformed the issue of a global catastrophe from an existential crisis to a very real one.
Voices grow stronger on the need for a supranational authority that could decide on and enforce mitigation measures against climate change, disarmament tribunals that further reduce or eliminate national nuclear arsenals, and governments that pull the plug on tax benefits to oil, gas, and coal corporations.
Yet these voices speaking against climate change remain spikes on the chart, surges of frenetic activity that are an exception to the rule. The impact of environmental activism, for instance, changes drastically as you go from West to East, where it is still largely considered a fringe movement. Hardly what you’d call collective action on a global scale.
Worrying about the planet is like watching toenails grow. It’s hard to stay focused on something so gradual and unhurried — until of course, it breaks during your morning run.
Moreover, global catastrophes do not function in the linear manner our brains are optimized to understand. According to an issue by the Global Challenges Foundation published in 2017, “[...] most of our challenges are non-linear: beyond a certain threshold, change is sudden, rapid, and sometimes exponential.”
Thus our cognitive biases come into play every time we think of such events. Our brains are tuned to completely ignore or overplay events based on probabilities. Hence the spikes on the chart.
That nuclear weapons exist with the ability to destroy human life several times over is a fact. That greenhouse gas emissions have a direct correlation with temperature rise and consequent global warming to uninhabitable levels is a fact. That pandemics have and can eliminate millions, especially in a contemporary society with unprecedented cross-migration levels is also a fact.
According to a survey conducted by The Independent, of over 8,000 people from eight countries, a vast majority approves a world government to protect humankind from global catastrophes and is willing to make radical changes to their way of life in order to prevent risks like climate change.
But unless we’re able to recognize our own cognitive bias, separate fact from hyperbole, and act locally whilst holding our lawmakers’ feet to the fire to take preventive action, we will stay trapped in routines until none remain.
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Evidence of the devastating impacts of anthropogenic climate change are stacking up, and it is becoming horrifyingly real. There can be no doubt that the climate crisis has arrived. Yet another “shocking new study” led The Guardian and various other news media this week. One-third of Himalayan ice cap, they report, is doomed.
Meanwhile in Australia, record summer temperatures have wrought unprecedented devastation of biblical proportions – mass deaths of horses, bats and fish are reported across the country, while the island state of Tasmania burns. In some places this version of summer is a terrifying new normal.
The climate disaster future is increasingly becoming the present – and, as the evidence piles up, it is tempting to ask questions about its likely public reception. Numerous psychological perspectives suggest that if we have already invested energy in denying the reality of a situation we experience as profoundly troubling, the closer it gets, the more effort we put into denying it.
While originally considered as a psychological response, denial and other defence mechanisms we engage in to keep this reality at bay and maintain some sense of “normality” can also be thought of as interpersonal, social and cultural. Because our relationships, groups and wider cultures are where we find support in not thinking, talking and feeling about that crisis. There are countless strategies for maintaining this state of knowing and not-knowing – we are very inventive.
The key point is that it prevents us from responding meaningfully. We “succeed” in holding the problem of what to do about the climate crisis at a “safe” distance. As the crisis becomes harder to ignore – just consider the current batch of shocking reports – individually and culturally we will dig deeper to find ways to strategically direct our inattention.
The standard narrative for a piece like the one I’m writing here, as a social scientist, is to now say something about how the crisis could be better communicated. The billion-dollar question, of course, is whether this most recent disaster can be used to motivate real change. No doubt it is important to keep this kind of commentary up. It is key that we consider how to give the climate crisis traction in a culture so accomplished at distancing us from uncomfortable realities.
But let’s be honest. No one really knows what works. We have never been here before. And I’m starting to think that more of this kind of analysis is, perversely, another example of distancing us from that crisis. Intellectualising terrifying climate crisis stories as an issue for “communicators” and “the public” is another way of detaching ourselves from their reality, from the relevance to me and you.
So let’s cut through all that and stop invoking an imaginary audience. Many terrible things are happening as a result of climate change – their happening is being reported. How are you receiving it? How does it feel? Are you shocked, horrified, scared, bored, tired? What do you do with the terror? Do you compartmentalise it somewhere “safe”? Perhaps like me, you know you care. You attach importance to climate change, you want to act correctly, avoid risking other lives, damaging homes and habitats. Perhaps you know you are scared too – scared of contemplating what we have already lost or of what will happen as the crisis gets closer still. Scared of what you are being asked to give up.
Add in some residual guilt and you might then engage in a defence of some kind, consciously or otherwise – telling yourself that others are more responsible, there is nothing we can do, everybody else seems to be carrying on as normal. As the crisis deepens, the walls close in, you might double down on those defences.
So where do we go from here? How might this knowledge help us – you and me? We must make a commitment, but not of the kind you might imagine. The shocking reality of the climate crisis is making its way into the webs of everyday life, emotions, thought processes, relationships, hopes, dreams and fears. Perhaps we should commit to letting it, as an alternative to doubling down on our denial.
We can do this individually, but more important is collectively acknowledging our fears about actual and anticipated losses. Fears about the loss of species and habitats, but also our established ways of life. This leads to more constructive questions, about what we want to hang on to, what are our obligations? I don’t have ready answers to these questions, but I am still confident we can find ways to keep doing the things we really care about – for ourselves, each other, the places we live in. But we need to talk about these choices.
Such a process is still miles apart from many “sustainability” agendas. Halting the climate crisis is still predominately framed as a matter for individual choice and change – use less plastic, cycle to work, fly less. But the behavioural response required is way more complicated than that.
When it comes to the climate crisis, the personal is political. I am talking about a politics that grows from opposition and critique of our current systems. This is evident in young people organising school strikes and protesters willing to get arrested for their direct action. But we also need to pay more attention to what is lost, to who and what we care for, to other possible ways of being.
Some conservation scientists, at least, see recent cultural change as a hopeful sign of a growing sense of care and responsibility. So stop feeling guilty, it’s not your fault. Be attentive to what’s going on, so that you might notice what you care about and why. What are you capable of, and what might we be capable of together, when we aren’t caught between knowing and not knowing, denial and distress?
See what obligations emerge. There are no guarantees. But what else do we do?
The newest addition to a generous list of 520 (!) candidates for the upcoming 2020 US presidential election, was senator Cory Booker. On February 1st, Booker announced he is running for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States.
Booker, a Rhodes scholar and Yale Law School graduate started his career in politics in 1998 as a Member of the Municipal Council of Newark with an upset victory. Between 2006 and 2012 he served as the 36th Mayor of Newark and assumed office as a US Senator in 2013, making him the first Black senator from New Jersey.
As Senator Booker joins the most diverse Democratic presidential candidate pool in history with five women, one LGBTQ+, one Latino and two Black candidates (as of February 4th 2019) he’s also making history as the party’s first vegan candidate.
A vegetarian since 1998 and vegan since 2014, Senator Booker often speaks about how switching to a plant-based diet has improved his life both mentally and physically. Alongside advocating for a plant-based diet for personal health reasons he is also very outspoken about the negative effects of the animal farming industry on the planet and on the lives of fellow humans.
In an interview with plant-based magazine VegNews Booker said:
“You see the planet earth moving towards what is the Standard American Diet. We’ve seen this massive increase in consumption of meat produced by the industrial animal agriculture industry. The tragic reality is this planet simply can’t sustain billions of people consuming industrially produced animal agriculture because of environmental impact… We will destroy our planet unless we start figuring out a better way forward when it comes to our climate change and our environment. ”
Booker’s dietary preferences stand as a stark contrast with the current president ’s notorious diet of steak with ketchup and twelve diet cokes a day, as does his central message of unity and grassroots action.
Cory Booker is not the only vegan US politician who’s running for future elections. Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams, a vegan advocate who has several initiatives such as promoting vegan lunches in local school districts, will be running for mayor of New York City during the 2021 elections. A fellow New Yorker and vegan, Council Member Helen Rosenthal will also be running in the 2021 elections but for New York City comptroller.
Many people have declared 2019 the year of the vegan and the plant-based diet the future of nutrition. A new way of eating with the premise of a flourishing planet and better lives for its inhabitants is making its way through our society from music to technology, and now outspoken vegan politicians with a real shot at the office in the country that is the world’s largest meat consumer.
All signs point to a plant-based future.
Speaking of a plant-based future, our first Kinder Conversation on the Future of Meat is fast approaching. We'll talk about the 'new meat' and how as a society we can (and should) reduce our dependency on animal farming. Get your tickets before we sell out: http://bit.ly/KinderMeat
Header image is by Sean Davis via Flickr.
The latest Living Planet report from the WWF makes for grim reading: a 60% decline in wild animal populations since 1970, collapsing ecosystems, and a distinct possibility that the human species will not be far behind. The report repeatedly stresses that humanity’s consumption is to blame for this mass extinction, and journalists have been quick to amplify the message. The Guardian headline reads “Humanity has wiped out 60% of animal populations”, while the BBC runs with “Mass wildlife loss caused by human consumption”. No wonder: in the 148-page report, the word “humanity” appears 14 times, and “consumption” an impressive 54 times.
There is one word, however, that fails to make a single appearance: capitalism. It might seem, when 83% of the world’s freshwater ecosystems are collapsing (another horrifying statistic from the report), that this is no time to quibble over semantics. And yet, as the ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer has written, “finding the words is another step in learning to see”.
Although the WWF report comes close to finding the words by identifying culture, economics, and unsustainable production models as the key problems, it fails to name capitalism as the crucial (and often causal) link between these things. It therefore prevents us from seeing the true nature of the problem. If we don’t name it, we can’t tackle it: it’s like aiming at an invisible target.
The WWF report is right to highlight “exploding human consumption”, not population growth, as the main cause of mass extinction, and it goes to great lengths to illustrate the link between levels of consumption and biodiversity loss. But it stops short of pointing out that capitalism is what compels such reckless consumption. Capitalism – particularly in its neoliberal form – is an ideology founded on a principle of endless economic growth driven by consumption, a proposition that is simply impossible.
Industrial agriculture, an activity that the report identifies as the biggest single contributor to species loss, is profoundly shaped by capitalism, not least because only a handful of “commodity” species are deemed to have any value, and because, in the sole pursuit of profit and growth, “externalities” such as pollution and biodiversity loss are ignored. And yet instead of calling the irrationality of capitalism out for the ways in which it renders most of life worthless, the WWF report actually extends a capitalist logic by using terms such as “natural assets” and “ecosystem services” to refer to the living world.
By obscuring capitalism with a term that is merely one of its symptoms – “consumption” – there is also a risk that blame and responsibility for species loss is disproportionately shifted onto individual lifestyle choices, while the larger and more powerful systems and institutions that are compelling individuals to consume are, worryingly, let off the hook.
The WWF report chooses “humanity” as its unit of analysis, and this totalising language is eagerly picked up by the press. The Guardian, for example, reports that “the global population is destroying the web of life”. This is grossly misleading. The WWF report itself illustrates that it is far from all of humanity doing the consuming, but it does not go as far as revealing that only a small minority of the human population are causing the vast majority of the damage.
From carbon emissions to ecological footprints, the richest 10% of people are having the greatest impact. Furthermore, there is no recognition that the effects of climate and biodiversity collapse are overwhelming felt by the poorest people first – the very people who are contributing least to the problem. Identifying these inequalities matters because it is this – not “humanity” per se – that is the problem, and because inequality is endemic to, you guessed it, capitalist systems (and particularly their racist and colonial legacies).
The catch-all word “humanity” papers over all of these cracks, preventing us from seeing the situation as it is. It also perpetuates a sense that humans are inherently “bad”, and that it is somehow “in our nature” to consume until there is nothing left. One tweet, posted in response to the WWF publication, retorted that “we are a virus with shoes”, an attitude that hints at growing public apathy.
But what would it mean to redirect such self-loathing towards capitalism? Not only would this be a more accurate target, but it might also empower us to see our humanity as a force for good.
Words do so much more than simply assign blame to different causes. Words are makers and breakers of the deep stories that we construct about the world, and these stories are especially important for helping us to navigate environmental crises. Using generalised references to “humanity” and “consumption” as drivers of ecological loss is not only inaccurate, it also perpetuates a distorted view of who we are and what we are capable of becoming.
By naming capitalism as a root cause, on the other hand, we identify a particular set of practices and ideas that are by no means permanent nor inherent to the condition of being human. In doing so, we learn to see that things could be otherwise. There is a power to naming something in order to expose it. As the writer and environmentalist Rebecca Solnit puts it:
"Calling things by their true names cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, obliviousness. It’s not all there is to changing the world, but it’s a key step."
The WWF report urges that a “collective voice is crucial if we are to reverse the trend of biodiversity loss”, but a collective voice is useless if it cannot find the right words. As long as we – and influential organisations such as the WWF, in particular – fail to name capitalism as a key cause of mass extinction, we will remain powerless to break its tragic story.