How dare you? asks Greta Thunberg- How dare you steal my childhood? How dare you come to us young people looking for hope? If you know the science and deliberately choose to ignore it, then you are evil. I don’t believe that- at least not yet. But how dare you?
Well, it seems it was all too easy really. Almost accidental. History contains many a deliberate genocide. But nobody set out to deliberately create an environmental crisis. It was just business as usual. And it’s part of a pattern of behaviour that has been going on for a long time, not a short time.
In his book ‘A Short History of Progress’ Ronald Wright identifies how human societies commonly encounter what he refers to as “progress traps”- economic developments that start off with positive consequences for humanity but eventually trap us with negative ones.
Hunter gatherers seemingly made progress when they learned that by driving woolly mammoths off the edge of cliffs they could kill 200 beasts as easily as they could kill one. The hunters feasted for a good while. But the new method may ultimately have contributed to the mammoth being hunted to extinction, thereby depriving the hunters of access to this source of food. The hunters had fallen into a “progress trap”.
Wright says history is littered with examples of progress traps where environmental degradation occurs at societal level. He traces progress traps involving environmental degradation through many pre-industrial societies- Catal Huyek, Sumer, Easter Island, the Western Roman Empire and the Mayan civilisation.
Anthropogenic climate change is merely the latest and deepest of the progress traps that have occurred throughout human history. Other, or related, contemporary progress traps include:
- forest reduction;
- soil erosion requiring the use of chemical fertilizers (which depend on burning oil) to replace depleted nitrogen and phosphorus;
- depletion of clean water sources, including lowering of the water table in many parts of the world;
- ocean pollution by plastics and ocean acidification.
Wright says that in modern developed countries, progress traps have been exacerbated by excessive faith in technology. Technology is addictive because material progress creates problems that seem to be solvable only by further technological progress. Relatively recent industrial and technological changes mean that our capacity to affect the way future generations will live, now stretches beyond anything that our predecessors could have imagined. Wright might be correct that modern developed countries have excessive faith in new technology. But surely only technology can save us from environmental catastrophe now.
Wright says the fundamental change required to put the world on a sustainable footing is a transition from short term to long term thinking. He does not see this transition as easy. Indeed at times he appears highly sceptical that such a transition is possible. He postulates that human inability to plan for long range consequences may be inherent to our kind, shaped by hundreds of thousands of years when we lived from hand to mouth hunter gathering.
It may also be a mix of inertia, greed and foolishness encouraged by a concentration of power which gives the elite a vested interest in the status quo from which they prosper, long after the environment and general populace begin to suffer. It is to this elite that the question ‘How dare you?’ might best be addressed. But of course they won’t answer.
The average period for mammalian survival is 1 to 10 million years. We have existed for 200-300,000 years or 1.7 million if we include homo erectus who was closer to us in nature than to our common ancestor, the ape.
We have no evidence that our level of ingenuity makes it more or less likely that we will achieve, or surpass, the average periods of mammalian survival. Our ingenuity includes the capacity to adapt to new challenges and even to bio-engineer the way a species evolves. But it also creates the technological capacity for mass destruction, creating the possiblity that it could reduce the longevity of our ingenious species.
Further, while longevity for the human species is a legitimate aim, it cannot be the only value. Quality as well as longevity is relevant. The horseshoe crab has existed, more or less unchanged, for 445 million years, dwarfing the period of human existence. But so what? The crab is not ingenious. It understands nothing of the universe. We humans use it for bait and fertilizer.
If we had have remained as hunter gatherers it seems likely that we would not now be facing the type of widespread environmental crisis that we have created for ourselves. Indeed however long we last, it is possible that this period of time may have been surpassed if we had remained as hunter gathers.
But it hardly follows that progressing to modernity was some kind of terrible mistake. And how much should current generations sacrifice to possibly secure the future for coming ones?
We seem compelled to conclude that while it is reasonable for existing generations to plan for the welfare of future ones- this must be subject to reasonable limits. Yet even once we arrive at this general principle it does not tell us anything of what those reasonable limits might be.
There may be another problem in the transition to long term thinking. People are not only conditioned to have faith in technology. They are also conditioned to believe humanity’s existence is destined to be full of happy endings. Religion lies at the heart of this. For the Abrahamic religions it is life in heaven. For eastern religions it is release from the inevitable suffering of the life cycle into Karma. But even for the non-religious, our lives derive meaning from hope.
Yet hope is very much linked to our belief in humanity’s continued existence. Samuel Scheffer says that, in practice, the hope in our species’ continued existence is more important to us than belief in God. The religious might disagree. But a simple thought experiment suggests he is correct.
Whether or not we believe in God we still go about our lives- we work, we love, we pursue hobbies or interests. But imagine that you knew a giant asteroid was going to destroy all life on the planet in 30 days time, how would you live then? If you were a cancer researcher would you still search for a cure to cancer? If you wanted to break the world high jump record at the next Olympics in two years time would you train just as hard? If you were a social reformer seeking a solution to climate change would you still spend endless hours at campaign meetings? What possible difference would such endeavours make if the destruction of humanity was imminent? Human endeavour, so it seems, depends upon an imagined future audience or legacy.
But whatever our hopes, the truth is that our extinction is inevitable. Even if we avert environmental catastrophe our species will, one day, go extinct. It is our arrogance as a species that leads us to think otherwise. The same arrogance which allows many of us to believe that an omnipotent God put human beings at the centre of what we now know to be a massive and expanding universe.
Our best scientific knowledge is that in some few tens of millions of years, stars will be dying and the lights of the universe will go out with only subatomic particles left in endless night. We, together with our sun, will be long gone by then. Anyway such a way-off cosmic event need not destroy hope. The important questions are the extent to which we can delay our extinction and the extent to which we might ultimately be to the blame for it, not to mention the extinction of other animals. These are the important questions for now, even though, after the event, nobody will be left to either ask or answer them.
But there is a much nastier question. And it has a much shorter time frame. How will humanity be affected once the environmental catastrophe deepens to the extent that it is obvious that catastrophic consequences cannot be reversed? Greta and her generation are justifiably angry now. Anger can at least be channelled in constructive ways. The next likely stage, massive nihilism, can not. That thought is as terrifying as extinction itself.