Yes, we are all completely out of our minds

Derbyshire loonys in pub (c) Nick Delves, Monster Raving Loony PartyDoes anyone else feel like asking the powers that be: “Excuse me, what exactly is going on? Where do you think you are taking us? Are you all completely out of your minds?

“Why else would you pretend not to notice that our civilization is systematically killing life on Earth?”

It’s astonishing that things can get this bad and still be largely sidestepped by mainstream media and governments. And, for some reason, it’s still not ‘the done thing’ to bring it up seriously in conversation. Why? We’d hardly hold back out of deference if a surgeon mentioned she would be whipping out one of our healthy kidneys just to improve the hospital’s transplant figures. It’s mind-boggling that we button our collective lips while the capitalist juggernaut mows down the planet’s life support system – just to prop up GDP.

What a very strange state of suspended animation this is.

It’s not as if the ecological reality is being kept from us. Just a few dips into recent UK news items gives us these pointers: humans are driving the ‘biggest mass extinction since dinosaurs’ says The Times; the BBC reveals that Earth is ‘on course for eco-crunch’ and also provides an estimate of the annual cost of forest loss, which at $2-5 trillion ‘dwarfs bank crisis’, and we learn from The Independent that climate change ‘may soon make the tropics too hot for many native species’. Meanwhile efforts to avert these problems are going nowhere: we know now the world is ‘to fail’ on its biodiversity protection target; and the Telegraph reports that business as usual means that, as one example of many, British seas ‘face ecological disaster due to over fishing and pollution’. The climate is changing even faster than it was last time we looked and we’re now certain it’s humans doing it. As I said, civilization is killing life on Earth.

I doubt I’m telling you something you don’t already know. Who hasn’t switched off the television in sheer frustration at the dumbing down; at the sight of company directors and state leaders force-feeding the same financial system that results in the destruction of natural resources and natural livelihoods; at the constant distractions from the mother of all issues? As long as the economy matters more than the biosphere, a charismatic new US leader, clean technology and green business are mere palliatives compared with the shift we need. What will it take? What’s stopping us? And why don’t these questions shape the lead story on every news programme?

Perhaps we are holding back out of fear that the change we need might involve sackcloth, communism or stone-age lifestyles. But this is nonsense. We have at our fingertips solutions of sophistication and brilliance, which come from some of the cleverest thinkers of our time and are being covered by some of our most mainstream publications. They require a big change in thinking. But hey, if the Economist can manage it, who can’t? Look at New Scientist: it recently published a far-reaching and thoughtful special report entitled ‘How our economy is killing the Earth’, which challenges the biggest mantra of all: economic growth. The report explores many well-considered, mind-shifting alternatives. ‘A growing band of experts are … arguing that personal carbon virtue and collective environmentalism are futile as long as our economic system is built on the assumption of growth. The science tells us that if we are serious about saving Earth, we must reshape our economy,’ says the introduction.

Sensible solutions
Some of the experts’ work overlaps with proposals in the Green New Deal solution put together by the New Economics Foundation and the far-reaching Redefining Prosperity by the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission, which considers, among other things, the move to a steady state economy. Then there’s the Transition Town movement, a worldwide, grass-roots initiative to wean communities off resource-hungry lifestyles and become self-sufficient, and (with a focus on the UK), the ZeroCarbonBritain plan to switch from fossil fuels in 20 years. George Monbiot has written a very compelling book on how the whole world could embark on a similar plan. Impractical? Think again. Cuba’s had an impressive bash at it already.

There’s more. Dozens of scientists and economists from 22 countries recently shacked up for a four-day intensive in Sweden to assess the state of the planet and the options we have. These academics, from international networks called the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) and the Earth System Science Partnership (ESSP), emerged from their crisis talks to make an urgent call on governments to integrate ecological issues into any plans for fixing the global economy. “We’re running the planet like a subprime loan,” said one of the participants in the meeting, Dr. Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

The summit concluded that human society is ‘moving dangerously beyond the planet’s natural limits in a striking parallel to the financial debt crisis’ and that ‘it is still possible to put together a plan for a sustainable planet’ – but only just. World leaders should heed these statements. Not only will the short-term fall-out of recession and financial collapse feel like a walk in the park when the planet’s ecosystems move into irreversible collapse, but the teetering economic system also presents an opportunity for fundamental change. The meeting produced plans to work towards desirable visions of the planet in the year 2050. A report summarizing the conclusions will be released by the end of 2008.

It’s clear that the world isn’t short of solutions; but it does appear to be short of the will to implement them. Do we not care about life? Have we lost the ability to value our grandchildren’s wellbeing? Or are we powerless in the face of world leaders who are … what? Malevolent? Greedy? Blind to reality? Held hostage?

Insanity is the answer
Sometimes clues to the answers to intractable questions come from outside the box – or outside the culture. Our inability to feel part of nature, or to care about it or to invest in our descendants is viewed by many cultures outside our own as a form of insanity. Jeannette Armstrong, an Okanagan Indian author, artist and activist and director of the En’owkin Centre describes (in ‘Ecopsychology: restoring the Earth, healing the mind’), a conversation with her father and his mother many years ago as they sat on a hillside in their reservation looking down on the town below.

“The people down there are dangerous, they are all insane,” commented her grandmother. Her father agreed, adding, “It’s because they are wild and scatter everywhere.” Armstrong qualified the comments, based on a deeper consideration of her language, which has words unknown in English that are therefore lost in straight translation. She suggested more nuanced interpretations as, “The people below, who are not of us, may be a chaotic threat in action; they are all self-absorbed, arguing inside each of their heads,” and, “They have a displacement panic, they have been pulled apart from themselves [in terms of] family (generationally) and place.”

If the wounds run this deep it’s no surprise we do strange things to compensate. Most of us get our social and personal validation from the modern structures and contrivances of society, like our jobs, our levels of material accumulation, and our systems of assessment and reward. Ironically, those who have been favoured by these structures are likely to be the most dependent on their continuation; to consider an alternative would be to undermine their own personal validity.

Yet these are the very people with the resources and influence to remake the world. As long as their inertia and insanity prevail, chances for recovery slip daily through our fingers.

We are probably all out of our minds. The need to re-educate ourselves, however high up our particular ladder we may be, about alternative means of self-validation has never been more urgent.

Let’s start by being bold enough to ask the questions, the big ones. Ask your manager, the CEO of your organisation, your parents, your MP, your radio station, the editors of the papers and news stations, your neighbours, your Prime Minister, your president. Ask them if they’ve noticed we’re extinguishing the planet’s life force. Ask them whose permission they’re waiting for to openly acknowledge this and help turn things around. We owe it to our descendants and the rest of life on Earth to escape the cultural stranglehold that prevents us from challenging the way things work.

Let me know how you get on.

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13 comments

  1. I work for Home Retail Group (Argos). Nine hours I spent running around in the stockroom today, picking Christmas gifts for customers. Ninety-five percent of the store is piled high with rubbish; plastic and rubber toys that do nothing, have little or no value, and will go to landfill within a few years, covered in chocolate and saliva. Everything that has appeared in Dr. Who made of plastic. Star Wars. WWF. Green Shrek babies that make no sound. Hundreds and hundreds of them. The store manager is obsessed with meeting his targets. He writes a daily brief; so much expected of us. Each day is busy. Almost everyone has blisters on their feet. So much is unspoken. We often clock-off but continue to work. A team leader will ask us to pause and smile before taking a picture with a camera. We smile and our photographs are uploaded onto a digital picture frame that sits on open display. Everyone looks happy. Tomorrow will be the same.

  2. Pingback: New Civilization
  3. Such an excellent article that I’ve highlighted it at the top of my own blog.

    It’s as if we’re re-playing the last few hours of the sinking of the Titanic while getting drunk and forgetful, dancing the time away we have left …

  4. This already looks like a great site – keep it up!

    The opening questions put me in mind of a passage from a talk by author Daniel Quinn back in ’93 entitled ‘On Investments‘:

    During the second World War the people of Germany invested heavily in a secret plan. This plan was so secret that many Germans managed to keep it a secret even from themselves. Except in the highest military and political circles, the plan was never discussed AT ALL. And even when it was discussed in high circles, it was discussed in a veiled way, in a sort of code.

    Everyone knew the plan to some extent, though some, as I say, managed to close their eyes to it, managed to see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil.

    The plan I’m talking about was, of course, the plan to rid the world of the Jewish race. Although exterminating the Jews was one of Hitler’s manias, it wasn’t his mania exclusively. Not at all. Though many of them liked to remain silent about it, the people of Germany were on the whole behind Hitler in his ambition to rid the world of Jews. They invested a LOT in this secret plan. They invested their consciences. They invested their place among the family of nations. They invested their self-respect.

    They invested these things not only for themselves but for their children as well.

    Well, as we all know, the secret plan failed– and the German people lost their investment. They lost an incredible amount–they and their children, and indeed their children’s children. They’re still paying off their losses for this dreadfully bad investment.

    The people of our culture in general are also investing heavily in a secret plan today. When I say “our culture,” I mean the people of the developed world, the people of the technologically advanced “First World” nations. I mean US. And of course I mean the people in this room.
    We have a secret plan that is never discussed openly AT ALL. Someday perhaps we’ll know whether it’s discussed at the highest political levels and whether it’s discussed in code or in plain. We don’t teach our children this plan, but they know all about it by the time they reach midschool. Courting couples don’t discuss the plan to see if they’re in agreement on it. It’s THE PLAN. It’s there in place, and we’re investing everything we have in it. We’re investing our future in it, our children’s future in it–for generations to come. We may actually be investing the future of the human race itself in this plan.

    The Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews was a shameful plan, and this is why it was kept secret. This is also why our plan is kept secret. It too is shameful and we all know it.

    Our secret plan is this: We’re going to go on consuming the world until there’s no more to consume. [continues…]

    In other words the silence on these issues is no accident. The way I see it, any discussion that touches on these taboos immediately begins to impair the participants’ continued ability to function as part of the society in question – a powerful incentive to shut the conversation down from the start. By breaking the silence you immediately start to dismantle and break out of the wider culture. Don’t expect popularity! 🙂 All the best.

  5. I’m not sure I subscribe to the conspiracy theory or the idea that there is a secret plan. We may be on a number of wrong paths but that does not mean we have ill intent. Lack of education [on the issues and impact], comfort, complacency, lazyness, seduction maybe but evil conspiracy no.

    People are basically good. We can spend time helping them make good choices or waste it telling them they are wrong. I vote for good choices (as a side note I voted for Obama so I’m on a good path :-)).

    Recommended reading: “The Art of Possibility”, Rosamund Stone Zander and Ben Zander, Penguin

  6. Hi Andrew

    Not sure where you got ‘ill intent’ and ‘evil conspiracy’ from. Was it this bit:

    Someday perhaps we’ll know whether it’s discussed at the highest political levels and whether it’s discussed in code or in plain.’

    ? Note the passivity of ‘discussed’ – he makes allowance for the possibility that those in power might not even talk about these things, much less plan them malevolently. Quinn’s not talking about a few evil leaders who we can just vote out to solve our problems. He doesn’t denounce ‘planners‘, just ‘THE PLAN’. Not ‘conspiracy’, just a ruinous ‘investment’ in unexamined assumptions. The point is that, as with Nazi Germany, our leaders are acting out on impulses already prevalent in the majority of the populace.

    If you read about the Herman/Chomsky ‘Propaganda Model‘ you’ll understand how systems can appear meticulously planned and executed by conscious parties, but in reality only need a few initial ‘framing conditions’ to set them off. In his novel Ishmael Quinn identifies a founding premise of our civilisation thusly:

    The world was made for man, and man was made to conquer and rule it. (link)

    Pull on that thread and see if you can get to worldwide calamities of climate change, peak oil, soil exhaustion, deforestation and mass extinction within 10,000 years. Can you find me anybody in our culture who doesn’t think this, or, more importantly, who doesn’t act in day-to-day life as though they took it entirely for granted? That’s why Vanessa has done us a favour IMO in bringing this a little further out into the open.

    cheers,
    Ian

  7. Fair enough.

    I look forward to seeing how the blog and the tone of the comments evolve. If it all turns out positive and points to alternatives I think it will be great. Also be good to see a little time spent pointing and laughing at our own stupidity.

    have a good Christmas.
    P.S the foot of snow I have on the drive is the convergence zone and not global warming.

  8. Zak: your description of work at Argos is a perfect microcosm of the insane heart of our consumer culture. It captures the personal and planetary psychosis in a snapshot. And everyone knows it, yet no-one knows how to stop. Thanks for your comment.

  9. Greengorilla: thanks for your kind words and link.

    As for whether the situation is the result of a knowing conspiracy or not, I’m with Andrew and ruggedindoorsman that it probably isn’t, more a conspiracy of consciousness based on some sense of disconnection from the natural world that was seeded thousands of years ago.

    It’s certainly perpetuated by the tendency to conform socially, which is why it does become an open secret, and I like ruggedindoorsman’s observations on the similarities with the way this worked to passively support the extermination of Jews in Nazi Germany. It shows how powerful saying nothing is (plan or no plan), and this is precisely what inspired the above article.

    Andrew’s right to call for positive thinking, but I think it’s important to distinguish between positive thinking that results in changed attitudes and behaviour and simple, blind optimism! The depth of positive thinking that is needed is in direct proportion to the depth of the hole we’re in. Which means we need to appreciate the depth to manifest the requisite amount of positive energy. I believe this will require a profound shift. In other words, talking about techno fixes, lightbulbs, etc, is to my mind nothing more than guilt-offsetting, a way to remain in denial. Vivid won’t be about that.

    Thanks all for the comments, and apologies for the delay coming back – seasonal interruptions and all!

  10. I agree with Eckhardt Tolle … and the article above … that we, as a race, are insane. It’s up to each one of us to wake up, shake ourselves out of the zombie-like state of unconsciousness we are trapped in … and, hopefully, if enough individuals around the world wake up into awareness, there will be a true evolutionary mind-shift.

  11. I’m fascinated by all this. But how do we “wake up”? How can we really KNOW what to do? A good example of our perplexity is the reversals in the debate about nuclear power. For a long time this has been mistrusted by the Greens, who have doubtless been effective in slowing down its development. Now, thanks to Lovelock and others, it is being rehabilitated as one of the few energy solutions that doesn’t increase carbon emissions, despite the other attendant risks such as terrorism and leaks. Probably there are no ideal solutions — merely the lessers of multiple (never only two!) evils. But we do need to watch out for fashionable band-wagons — things that look good at first, only for us to realize, a few years or decades down the line, that our perspective of risks and benefits must shift as new knowledge of our predicament emerges.

  12. Thanks Simon – and you raise good points. How indeed can we know what to do? The problem is that Pandora’s Box is now open and its contents have been used to grow the human population beyond the carrying capacity of the planet. Whatever happens, there will be a painful and very major correction at some point. The choices we face (in my opinion) are about what approaches might best minimise that pain and, if we’re lucky, maximise the chances for life on Earth. I do believe there are some approaches that very clearly take us in those directions. They are usually the ones that are the lowest tech, that make use of the precautionary principle when deciding whether to proceed with a particular technology, that focus on local regeneration, that reduce dependency on complex and polluting globalised systems of energy, food production and distribution and that disabuse us of the myth of eternal growth – economic or otherwise. There are plenty such solutions around, but sadly little political or corporate will to adopt them. I suspect it will take the combined crises of resource collapse, financial chaos and climate change to catalyse wholesale take-up of these strategies – but there’s no harm in promoting them ahead of time! For the record, I personally don’t think nuclear power passes any of these tests. Yes, it helps ameliorate one particular emissions problem in the relatively short term, but at great long-term cost. Scientists for Global Responsibility has a number of well-referenced and clear documents on nuclear power, one of them here.

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