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The common sense of climate change

Counteracting cynicism about our future with a little understanding - and a glass half full

The common sense of climate change

Over the last few years climate change has become front and centre as one of the great challenges of our times. There is huge concern about our future and much of the discussion has become quite frantic as it appears will not reduce emissions in time to halt signifigant warming of the earth’s atmosphere and all the consequent side affects of this.

It is my opinion that an indirect—and sometimes direct—consequence of the important reporting and commentary of environmental issues is a cynicism and pessimism about the entire phenomenon of the human race. A view that we are somehow not right, and shouldn’t be here because of the damage we have done and are doing to the Earth’s ecosystems.

I don’t think a pessimism about the phenomenon of Homo sapiens is warranted. This article aims to try and help countermand what appears to me to be a pervasive and subliminal cynicism about the entire phenomenon of our species.

The aim here being to short circuit any fundamental pessimism about our future, and replace it with an objective and pragmatic optimism—which we can do by placing these issues into the huge context from which we have arisen. As a point of focus I will be centering my discussion around climate change. On this topic I genuinely believe things are going as well as they could and I think the future—at least in the long term—is bright.

Just to be clear before I get underway: I am in no way a climate change denier—I’m a passionate and active environmentalist, and have spent my entire life trying to get to the heart of why human beings cause environmental problems and how to deal with it. I’m concerned about climate change and think that it will have very real and serious repercussions later this century—and in case it’s not clear—I am in no way aspiring to diminish the urgency with which we need to respond to the critical and challenging issue of climate.

When was the last time a self reflective mammalian species...had global wide industrial revolution and accidentally geoengineered an entire biosphere? That would of course be, never... .

Critical contexts

The survival drive

Homo sapiens have emerged out of an ancient context. There are actually a few large scale contexts we can consider here:

Biological: We are the direct descendants of the first living things that survived 4 billion years ago during possibly the most hazardous period in our planet’s history.

Animalian: We are the direct descendants of the first Animals that lived 542 million years ago (Cambrian explosion).

Mammalian: We are the direct descendants of the first Mammals that lived 200-167 million years ago.

Homo Sapiens: We are the descendants of the first Humans that lived 300,000 years ago (anatomically modern Homo Sapiens).

In all of these era there has been one critical value to every organism: to survive and thrive as much as possible. Those organisms with the greatest drive and capacity to survive are the organisms and species that nature will select as viable. The survival drives are essentially: don’t be dead, control one’s environment to meet one’s needs, and reproduce as best as possible.

The survival drives are strongest in the ones that survive, and the ones that survive have been surviving for 4 billion years. The drive from all those survivors are hard wired into our very cells. We are the direct ancestors of the very first living things on this planet that survived in the harshest and wildest conditions this planet may ever experienced, plus several major extinction events. We are hard wired to not be dead as much as possible. So, like all other organisms with survival drives, we act out of them.

The fundaments of our humanity have been moulded by the same evolutionary forces that all species are moulded by. As the inheritors of these truly ancient well honed survival drives, human history has understandably evolved upon them, emerged out of them. Critically these drives have been amplified the extraordinary capacities Homo Sapiens are endowed with—excellent eyesight, intelligence, free hands, speech and language and evolving culture and technology—which have enabled us to customarily self organise environments to our needs, often at the expense of other species and ecosystems.

I think it’s important to remember we come from this history and also contemplate what would happen if any other species emerged in the same way. For example, imagine if rabbits (instead of shrews) developed excellent eyesight, intelligence, free hands, speech and language and evolving culture and technology. They too, would act of of ancient survival drives and—when they discovered they could—would also modify environments, just as we have.

The history of environmentalism

It’s important to understand the environmental movement that arose in the 1960’s was the first time in the history of humanity we’ve ever had an authentically environmentally conscientious cultural movement. There are of course individual outliers to this development (I’m thinking: Henry Thoreau in “Walden”). But much the same way that you couldn’t call Mary Wolstoncraft a feminist movement—whilst in human history there are exceptions to my point—those exceptions were never a cultural phenomonon, just an individual one.

In my opinion there is an embedded misconception amongst many environmentalists that actually environmentalism is ancient—that we come from a deep past of ecological harmony—a golden age of tribalism. This is not correct.

As I understand it, it’s a fairly standard view amongst ethnographers, anthropologists and archeologists is that populations in our prehistory didn’t steward ecosytems. If you really think that we do originate from some kind of golden age of tribal perfection, I suggest you do your research (I recommend the reference provided here). There is no evidence of any such thing and I think you’ll be suprised as to what you find.

To give a quick example of this position: here is the absract from a paper by Bobbi Low [Reference 1]:

"A common exhortation by conservationists suggests that we can solve ecological problems by returning to the attitudes of traditional societies: reverence for resources, and willingness to assume short-term individual costs for long-term, group-beneficial sustainable management. This paper uses the 186-society Standard Cross-Cultural Sample to examine resource attitudes and practices. Two main findings emerge: (1) resource practices are ecologically driven and do not appear to correlate with attitude (including sacred prohibition) and (2) the low ecological impact of many traditional societies results not from conscious conservation efforts, but from various combinations of low population density, inefficient extraction technology, and lack of profitable markets for extracted resources."

It seems the error has been in thinking that because tribal people’s know their environments like the back of their hand—that therefore they are stewarding them. They do know their environments. That’s how they survive them. However, survival isn’t the same as stewardship. We could liken it to a metaphor of being a young adult in a big city. Just because one knows everything one needs to know—where to get cheap food, hang out, how to get around, where the cool places are—doesn’t mean for a second that you are working on a multigenerational plan for it’s future.

This is important because much of environmentalist rhetotric contains an indignant dismissal of the modern world—of modern industry, business and economics. Part of that position comes from a embedded belief that somehow we have regressed, stepped down, lost perspective and we need to get back to it. The implicit demand by the deep greeners to remove capitalism and it’s materialism and go back to the “natural” ways of human being that proceeded them—is just an erroneous. We never had these "natural" ways in the first place. All the environmentalism we now have, we just invented in the 1960’s. Whilst materialism and capitalistic economics aren’t great—going back won’t solve anything.

It seems to me the main option is move on, to outgrow these modes. The fact of the newness of a true environmental cultural value wave is testament to this important point. The most extraordinary parts of our history lie in our present and our future—not our past—and we need to keep developing, emerging and innovating: not referencing back to an ideal and an age that never was.

The common sense of climate change

Counteracting cynicism about our future with a little understanding - and a glass half full

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Industrial revolutions are the new normal

Just a quick recap—its important to look at these events in the correct order— 1) we had no environmentalism, 2) we had an industrial revolution, 3) we invented environmentalism. Seen from this correct sequence, the industrial revolution is a much more forgivable for it’s mistakes. We really didn’t know better.

Based upon our own history, we have a pretty good idea what happens when you give a middling mammalian omnivore bipedalism, excellent eyesight, the power of speech and language, a large brain and hands [Note 1] . I believe if we gave, for example, rabbits or possums the same capacities—judging by the number of times we have almost invented an industrial revolution [Note 2] they would also eventually – still acting out of basic survival drives eventually discover their own industrial revolution. In hindsight (ok, hypothetical imaginary hindsight), for technically capable species with no preceeding environmental ethic—industrial revolutions are no brainers.

At a certain point these amazing possum-like creatures would realise the CO2 they were emitting was geoengineering global warming completely by accident, and there they are, just where we are now—discovering it is happening and wondering what to do. Our survival drives combined with an industrial revolution have naturally resulted in the problems we have now. It wasn’t intentional.

When was the last time a self reflective mammalian species (or any for that matter) had a global wide industrial revolution and accidentally geoengineered an entire biosphere? That would of course be, never, until now. It really is a very understandable mistake. From that point of view everything is actually fundamentally OK. We’re not some kind of planet killing eco-death species that’s trying to end all life and leave the planet in a smoking ruin. We’re just idiots—ecologically speaking—understandably. We’re inexperienced when it comes to managing the gaseous composition of an entire planetary biosphere. Again, why? because no one’s done it before, that’s why. I mean, who knew?

The curious case of Benjamin Gaia

Another pertinent point to add to all this is the relatively small quantities CO2 in our atmosphere. It just so happens with our particular biosphere, that whilst CO2 apparently plays a huge role in regulating temperatures—there’s relatively small amounts of it there. CO2 comprises only 0.038% of gases in our atmosphere. That is, ~4% of 1% or 4 one hundredths of 1% of the Earth’s atmosphere. Because it’s levels are naturally on the small side, it’s been possible for us to affect, and to affect quickly.

Reducing our pessimism emissions

Environmentalists seem to, often enough, present complaints about lack of action with climate change with indignation and outrage that it’s even happening. But really, I think it’s happening was inevitable. I understand that doesn’t make it OK, or resolve it—but in realising we’ve only just invented the environmentalism we need, and in comprehending we’ve made an understanable mistake, and in witnessing the rapidity with which we have responded to this massive problem (see Fig. 1)—does provide real grounds for an authentic and excited optimism about us. All things considered—we’re actually doing pretty alright. I don’t think there’s any fundamental justification for dejected, futile cynicism and hopelessness about us as a species. In fact our quick and earnest response has only proven our worthiness, already. It’s important we find this optimism as we have a lot to get on with!

I think we can be kinder to ourselves about the problems we’re having and the difficulties in solving them. I feel it’s important to say all of this explicitly because no one ever does. I’m arguing these positions so we can stop hating ourselves for something we never intended to do. I’m arguing these positions so we can get on with solving this without constantly blaming each other for it.

When it’s addressed, we can continue with the great adventures on the other side of it.

Actually, a totally amazing response

We didn’t know what carbon dioxide was until 1754. We didn’t have any modern word for ‘ecology’ until 1866. It seems the first real concerns about human made climate change were raised by Swedish scientist, Svante Arrhenius in 1896, and again more seriously in the 1930’s. By the late 1980’s we had extremely strong evidence for human made global warming. Since the mid 90’s the terms ‘CO2 emissions’, ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ have become household terms.

A concerted attempt to deal with global warming has only been underway for something on 20-30 years. Considering these short timescales from discovery to internationally coordinated action and in the context of our extensive history of never having to deal with it before—our response to global warming has been sensational, amazing, magnificent, incredible, spectacular.

We can be deeply proud of how much we’ve achieved in such a short period. Whilst not forgetting we are under a huge time pressure to respond, I don’t think we should be so down on ourselves. The scope of action that’s taken place in such a short timeframe provides every reason to believe we can and will inevitably solve these issues.

There is clearly a desperate need for us to create an ecologically intelligent civilisation. It’s a huge opportunity for us to do something truly new.

Climate change: the best kind of problem?

There is clearly a desperate need for us to create an ecologically intelligent civilisation. It’s a demand, a desperate need and a huge opportunity for us to do something truly new. We have the opportunity to realise the potential of self reflective civilisation and innovate a sustainable ecomergence with our biosphere.

Stress can facilitate evolution [Note 3] and in every crisis is an opportunity to innovate a new response. A global crisis is an opportunity to innovate in a big way. In this way, global warming may actually be the best kind of problem we could possibly have, because our success in dealing with it could be the making of us. In comprehensively solving these issues we become not only a viable sustainable species, but a truly great one. Again, we really are not defined by this problem—it’s an accidental and understandable problem. We are defined by our success in dealing with it.

Assuming we just need to make a few tweaks to our CO2 emissions doesn’t even begin to assess the nature of the task. The onus is on us to create a new post-survivalistic ecologically intelligent species of civilisation. We need to radically develop our culture and values. That means consciously out-selecting our heavily and naturally selected survival instincts with better, consciously selected cultural modes and attitudes. We need to innovate our core values, our reasons for being, our work, our organisational structures, our humanity itself, in fundamental ways. This is no small thing. It has no precedent. It may take a long time. This is what One Future is for, so please stay tuned.

In the end it would seem we have two fundamental options in the face of our little problem: give up in glib cynical futility with half baked responses, or strive to innovate a self reflective and ecologically intelligent, beautiful and sustainable civilisation. What a prize! That would truly be a great leap forward. We have everything to play for and it can be the greatest of adventures knowing we can be innovators of Human at this extraordinary moment in history.

Note 1.

I purposely didn’t suggest giving cats or dogs bipedalism and big brains, etc. Apparently, after extensive Googling, it appears top predators e.g. Hyenas, Wolves, Lions, are the only types of species that purposely limit their numbers. They do this to not overwhelm their food supply and simultaneously avoid a larger weakend population. Things may have gone differently if we were descended from top carnivores rather than middling omnivores. Go to reference in main text

Note 2.

Before the industrial revolution started in Europe during the 1700’s, it seems there were a couple of moments in history when it may have happened. A design for a working steam engine called an Aeolipile was found described in the great library of Alexandria by Hero around 40AD - a bronze ball that one could fill with water, when heated from underneath let, it let out jets of steam on it’s side that allowed it to spin on the axel it hung from. Attaching it to something to do work would have made it a steam engine.
China during the Song Dynasty had advanced metallurgy and steel smelting, canals, complex water wheel machines and a whole renaissance thing going on. Apparently they didn’t have a middle class to drive things forward, yet. Then they were wiped out by barbarians.
The monks of Rievaulx Abbey in England were experimenting with blast furnaces when they were evicted by Henry VIII in 1538. Go to reference in main text

Note 3.

A point of view regularly espoused by Elisabet Sahtouris. In all systems, material, chemical, biological or cultural, stress demands a response and provides direct impetus for change and development. For example, consider the immense innovation that took place under the duress of the second world war. Go to reference in main text

Reference 1.

Behavioral ecology of conservation in traditional societies, Bobbi S. Low, Human Nature, volume 7, pages 353–379(1996), https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF02732899 Go to reference in main text

The common sense of climate change

Counteracting cynicism about our future with a little understanding - and a glass half full

Download a free PDF of this article

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