Sir Francis Bacon: “The human understanding is no dry light, but receives infusion from the will and affections; whence proceed sciences which may be called “sciences as one would.” For what a man had rather were true he more readily believes. Therefore he rejects difficult things from impatience of research; sober things, because they narrow hope; the deeper things of nature, from superstition; the light of experience, from arrogance and pride; things not commonly believed, out of deference to the opinion of the vulgar. Numberless in short are the ways, and sometimes imperceptible, in which the affections color and infect the understanding.” — [Author’s note: If Bacon had been a Buddhist he might have cautioned us to take the next step: “we must formally but whole-heartedly practise the discipline of looking into our own minds to see how true this is”.]
Game On: The odds of getting governments to act aggressively enough to effectively address the Climate Crisis don’t look good. It’s team Climate Action against team Business-As-Usual, and these are the battles we currently seem to be hopelessly losing:
Strike 1 — feeding a preferred vision works: We need national and international legislation to bring a quick end to our fossil fuel dependency. But leaders in the most industrialized countries are chosen by citizens who don’t really want their lives disrupted by the radical policy changes needed. Like most human beings they see only what they want to see (we must look within ourselves to see how true this is), and so the more comfortable citizens will choose business-as-usual, and the less comfortable will choose a ‘return to conditions they remember as good’: An agricultural utopia? A ‘living off the land’ ideal augmented perhaps with up-to-date labour-saving conveniences? Or perhaps a post war economic boom and prosperity for the middle class?
All that is required is that normal human beings be presented with any argument (and these are initially framed by those who have vested interests in the status quo) which casts even the slightest doubt on the need for real change; which casts doubt on the direction needed for real change; or which casts doubt on the degree of change needed or the speed at which change must happen; and there will be no real change.
Strike 2 — the Climate Action vision must be better: In order to offer voting citizens a reason to choose radical change, we must present a vision of the future that seems intuitively better than the “vested interests” are offering. What might that be? The power of a “better vision” has been compellingly expressed in Alex Steffen’s Optimism is a Political Act: “Great movements for social change always begin with statements of great optimism” [published on Worldchanging.com on March 25th, 2008]. The way I see it, the Climate Action problem is that the Green Dream we are offering seems to be utterly dependent upon a foundation which is the oldest of all ideal pasts, a ‘primitive’ past that has, in the minds of a majority of voting citizens, been ‘superseded’ by the more recent idealized pasts they are familiar with.
This more remote idealized past we are drawing upon for inspiration (with alterations having mostly to do with the role of technology) involves our earliest ancestors living in ‘harmony’ with Nature. Why is this not satisfying our “great optimism” criterion for radical change? Is it really only because all ‘simple life’ ideals, associated as they are with zero economic growth and therefore smaller profits, are being relentlessly denigrated by powerful vested interests in the fossil carbon economy? And are we then to conclude that if this were not the case, a majority of voting citizens would embrace these ideals? Or is the environmentalist dream really not ‘better’, for some deeper, yet to be acknowledged, non-ideological reason?
Do we so-called ‘environmentalists’ somehow know, if only at a gut level, that humans and authentic ecosystems just don’t mix? And so, rather than accept the immediate (and I would argue, erroneous) defeatist implications, we fall into the same trap as the deniers: we let this very human Golden Age bias have its way despite our unexamined disquiet? (Hey! I saw that! So please, look within yourself, and quickly, to catch these fleeting impulses, for denial and superiority, as they reject such ‘foolishness’ even before your rational objections kick in!)
I have become familiar, whether by looking within myself during silent meditation (I have been practising in the Soto Zen tradition for twenty years), or through talking with my fellow activists during a protest, with a kind of futility associated with this back-to-Nature vision. Many cynics, and even some of us in the climate activism community when push comes to shove, will opine that Humans are in fact a disease infecting Nature. In any case, we can all agree on one thing: “We need Nature but Nature doesn’t need us”. This last bit, the “Nature doesn’t need us” bit, is true! But it is a scientific reality with implications that have not yet upset our innate biases: our inborn animal entitlement, lately belied by human technology.
Strike 3 — Ground truth: Even though we climate activists call ourselves ‘progressive’, we too see only what we want to see. (We must look within ourselves to see how true this is.) Yes, the present human population can be supported with known technologies, and with ecologically efficient energy, dietary and economic policy choices made for the long term. But can human choices ever be ‘long term’ enough for the Natural World of Species? The vast majority of citizens and our policy makers are simply not trained to think on the timescale of species, and I for one don’t have any confidence that ecosystems can ever be truly authentic, in other words inherently stable, if we continue to treat them as though they can adapt at the speed of technology change and human political caprice. We must look not just to history, and to prehistory, but to evolutionary science, in order to see how true this is. https://www.extremophilechoice.com/2020/07/27/one-species-one-niche-why-humans-destroy-nature/
The vision of a future that is better than an idealized past, or a business-as-usual present, has not yet been offered; if it had, we would not be at the mercy of a voting populace that is poised, once again, to choose between going backwards or holding to a suicidal course. Let’s not be deceived; we are facing this suicidal trajectory, because confirmation bias is a primitive human set point (we must look within ourselves to see how true this is), and it works within progressives and conservatives alike. We must want a future before we build it. It must be a globally believable future. And it must be expressible as a “statement of great optimism” for real change to happen.
The voting public is being offered three choices: business-as-usual, return to an idealized non-industrial agro-economy, or return to a (technologically up-graded) harmony with Nature. The mechanism of confirmation bias is simple: among familiar options, we will accept any argument that favours the one we like. And it can therefor be very alarming (if we have indeed looked within and seen the truth of Bacon’s “sciences as one would”) to simply see, without wishful thinking, that most people are still not choosing the third option — the future currently being depicted by environmentalists.
So is it, ‘strike 3, and we’re out’?
Mulligan — We look at our own biases: We need to fully understand the implications of what Richard Leaky said in an interview with American Scientist (January-February 2020 issue): “Throughout history, we have wanted to know more about ourselves. That’s, if you like, the very juice of religion—faith, origins. The certainty of what we are and how we came to be is something that we need, that we’ve always needed.”
What if we just decide that human beings are not so much a disease as we are a misunderstood novelty? What if we unite behind the science in all its uniquely unbiased power? Here is something we might see: https://www.extremophilechoice.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Download-Quick-Tour.pdf