Our dilemma: extinction or life
The key questions of our era revolve around the survival of our species: Why would humans consciously choose to annihilate themselves, ending an evolutionary adventure that began over 5 million years ago? Why are our normal defenses against mass extinction—death—– failing to rally our survival instincts commensurate with the challenges?
Why are we avoiding the seriousness of facts that reveal 40% of our food sources in our oceans are destroyed, that massive areas of rain forests, which serve as the lungs of the Earth, have disappeared and the greatest animal and insect die-off in human history is underway, labeled the sixth extinction?
Perhaps contemplating our demise as a species is so overwhelming that we tend to deny it or just give up. Steven Pinker, the author of Enlightenment Now, has utilized empirical data to make sunny claims about human progress, trying to convince us that we are really better off than we think. Pinker is a strong writer and is popular. But his positive thinking only serves to feed our sense of omnipotence and self-congratulation. The same Enlightenment that he champions, emphasizing empirical science and a specific concept of ‘reason’ tied to efficiency, has enabled levels of death and destruction unimaginable without science and automation.
From a psychological perspective, it’s tempting to invoke the idea that our species is plagued by a death wish, a biological drive to destroy itself. This death wish according to many psychologists, including Freud, surfaces as aggression, and ultimately destruction. It is fundamental to our nature, so the argument goes. It is a legacy of our animal instincts to compete with and destroy others. Chimpanzees, after all, have been shown to gang up on and beat other chimpanzees to death when they enter their territory.
Our dilemma is more complicated, however. Neither positive missives on human progress, nor invoking a biological death wish will help us solve our problems. It may be that the weakness of our survival responses involves a confluence of events and the domination of our minds by an economy that threatens survival. We must highlight real causes and events to enrich discussion and promote change in the face of a perfect storm.
Urbanization is the primary social and economic trend of the last 75 years. The urban population of the world grew from approximately 750 million in 1950 to over 4 billion in 2018. Projections indicate that two-thirds of the world population will inhabit urban areas, approximately 7 billion people by 2050.
Steel, glass and concrete environments characterize urban areas. Green space in cities varies, accounting for a low of 4.4% in Bogota, 6.7% in Los Angeles 7.5% in Tokyo and 9.5 % in Paris to highs of 54% Moscow, 47% Singapore, and 46% Sydney, Australia. For the most part, however, cities are environmentally bankrupt. According to UN-Habitat, cities consume 78% of the world’s energy and produce over 60 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, they account for less than 2% of the Earth’s surface. These effects are also significantly related to social class, with the top 10% of urban wealthy people consuming 20 times the amount of energy as the bottom 10% of the population.
Cities require a particular kind of human adaptive skills. These skills are seemingly decoupled from nature. Gone are the days of hunters and gatherers foraging for food and limited by natural supply, and sedentary agriculture communities planting crops at the mercy of nature; and hello to the days of advanced industrial cities based on the mastery of information and human constructs. Agriculture in most advanced industrial countries accounts for 1-2% of the economy.
Urban societies can be characterized as Mindscapes: they are heavily dependent on cognitive processes, manipulation of symbols and financially driven economies. Cities provide us with an enhanced sense of infinite adaptability. Our food is grown at a distance, and we are not dependent on seasons for livelihood or consumption. If it rains, storms, freezes or heats up, most of us can compensate for it by going inside, turning on or off the heat, and air conditioning. Our issues are ambient or lightening the load for office tasks. This creates the impression, however misleading, that we are removed from environmental effects.
More than 100 climate and weather-related disasters have affected more than 50 million people since the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. Unfortunately, there is no vaccine for climate change. Storms, flash floods, landslides and drought are increasing at a rate above 35% over 10 years, causing the world’s oldest insurance company, Lloyd’s of London to hold special meetings on climate change and insurance.
What these most visible impacts don’t reveal, however, is that climate change—global warming– is killing coral reefs worldwide and rendering our oceans unproductive and unsustainable. Furthermore, climate research indicates that rising CO2 levels may render crops like rice and corn less nutritious, depleting key minerals that our bodies need for sustenance. Two-thirds of the world’s population are dependent on these foods for a major part of their diet.
We are in a profound sense, captives of a new habitat in human history. Survival on Earth will depend on converting environmental data—which can appear abstract to urban dwellers— into information that can be felt and acted upon to rectify human destruction. It will require a revolution in the way information is packaged and presented, beyond what Google and Facebook offer today. The environmental threats that we face and cause through our behavior must be made digestible and actionable to engage our survival instincts.
We must also transform the definition of normal and reasonable behavior. Behaviors that contribute to the destruction of our environment must be labeled as what they are, pathological. A new set of values and laws governing individual and corporate destructive behaviors must be enacted, based on identifiable responsibility. Under the law, after all, corporations are classified as individuals.
New laws must be enacted requiring corporations who yield great power of destruction to act in more sustainable ways and pay up for their destruction, which can be calculated economically. Demands for payments for negative externalities, damages to the environment that are currently not included in financial accounting, could easily top several trillion dollars. The money could be used to boost skilled employment, restoration and healing of environments.
Environmental criminal, Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan, who has overseen the investment of $190 billion into the fossil fuel industry must be arrested and charged with crimes against nature and humanity. Nature plays an underlying role in our humanity: from air to seed to water and soil to food to health to lifestyle to the very basis of our biological survival.
Faulty consumption patterns cause approximately 60% of environmental damage. We are consuming several Earth’s worth of natural environment each year. The digital shopping revolution whereby the buy button is all you need to consume has exacerbated this problem. Amazon, for example, makes it easy for us to destroy parts of the environment with one click. Billions of clicks and purchases add up to a sizeable impact, yet we can’t feel our impact. Similarly, when we purchase meat in the grocery store we may be unaware of the fact that we are participating in the deaths of 10 billion animals, cows, and the release of 25% of the noxious gases into the Earth’s atmosphere annually.
These patterns are reinforced by coupling purchases with images of happiness and ‘with it’ individuals who are enjoying their lives. Our economy depends on high rates of consumption to grow at the expense of our natural world, a supreme irony of history. Capitalism as constructed is digging its own grave, and the human species as well.
The $400 billion dollar annual advertising industry tries to ensure client companies that it can own your mind by cluttering it with appeals to look great and belong to a social group, impress your friends with status markers, and add richness to your life. Add to these factors easy credit and seamless transactions and the ‘never enough’ syndrome heavily dominates your cognition and desires; more is better, and more for cheaper is better yet.
Most humans can’t seem to quell their desire for consumption. High levels of consumption, year in and year out, have become associated with pleasure and gratification. It doesn’t seem to matter how damaging the impact of our consumption is, the internal and external message is just to keep buying. Pleasure and habit have become wedded to destruction and many individuals resent its being questioned. Perhaps the death instinct has become socially constructed, and anchored as part of our personality, the same way that our evolution was accelerated by culture. The culture of consumption, however, is killing us.
While global surveys offer palliative evidence that individuals are willing to pay more for organically certified goods, those that are better for the environment, in practice this accounts for approximately 5-7 percent of actual purchases. That shiny Tesla is but a drop in the bucket of car markets and purchases. When it comes to lower prices, and convenience of purchase, for example, the internal combustion engine is still king, as is cheap industrial grown foods.
What You Can Do:
What you can do to help prolong life:
- Reduce personal consumption by 10% to start, with a target to reach 40% less than you normally consume. Get beyond pleasure and habit of destruction. Buy products that are certified organic or protected like certified wood products or made from 100% recycled materials. Buying less will increase your budget to pay more for environmentally sound products. Forget buying meat, reduce purchases of fish; farmed fish is a disaster and fish stocks everywhere are in trouble. Shift to a diet that is rich in vegetables.
- Reclaim your mind, your cognitive capabilities and desires by overthrowing high levels of damaging consumption. It won’t be easy. Install ad blockers on all your devices and inform companies about your actions. Call out faulty ads on social media. We don’t need more auto sales of internal combustion engines, for example, even if gas millage is slightly improved. Read and support Ad Busters magazine for more truth in advertising.
- Join protests against environmental destruction. Get radical in action. Conduct a sit-in at a JPMorgan or Wells Fargo branch. Also, you can send money to environmental organizations like Greenpeace, or Sea Shepherds or any number of activist organizations. Whatever you love about the natural world support its survival. The pandemic doesn’t mean you can’t do something.
- Write emails to your representatives. Tell them to address climate change because you prefer survival to extinction. Call for the arrest of Jamie Dimon and others who are overwhelmingly supporting the fossil fuel industry. Take your money out of JPMorgan and Wells Fargo, the other big funder of fossil fuel companies. Tell Bill Gates to wake up his billionaire buddies and fund $100 billion worth of environmental projects with lasting impact.